At an industry award dinner recently, I ran into a former client. While chatting with him, he repeatedly expressed his surprise at the large number of women present that night. “Women and PR — there are too many of you!” he joked as a parting shot. I laughed then, but it got me thinking afterward.
Ever since joining the industry, I’ve been aware that there are far more women than men working as PR practitioners. I had attributed it to cultural bias, as it is quite a common belief in Asia (especially among parents who still have a big say in their children’s career choices), that a job in PR is better suited to women. Perhaps this is because many public relations functions require soft skills – communicating, listening, negotiating – commonly associated with women. And I have to admit that after 20 years, it remains a challenge for me to recruit men to join our team.
In truth, women who have successfully established their place at the table will tell you that public relations is no longer based on “soft” communication skills alone, and that in order to succeed, one needs to be strategically business- minded, too. Indeed, judging by the large number of PR-related positions in corporate senior management today, public relations is increasingly recognised as an important management function by Malaysian companies.
This shift is a welcome change in perception and says a lot about how Malaysian corporations value engagement with their stakeholders.
As communications becomes an ever-more critical component to a successful corporate strategy, it is not surprising then, that a greater number of women are taking on roles within senior management. This is particularly true within agencies, where more women are leading not only in communication teams but in business as a whole. It relates back to what my former client said, and it is certainly true in Malaysia — nearly all prominent PR agencies are led by women. This contrasts sharply with my own early working experience, when female PR bosses were rare. Today, as clients place increasingly high expectations on the financial returns from PR investments, the success and achievement of female industry leaders is certainly noteworthy.
But focusing blindly on this bottom line is not what will generate the best results. On the contrary, it is often through these “soft” communication skills that campaigns yield the strongest returns for our clients. To create long-term relationships with consumers, we must look at Facebook fans and Twitter followers not as the audience but as individuals, each of whom has the power to become our greatest advocate or adversary. And we can only truly connect with these communities through personal connections and emotional empathy — areas traditionally viewed as inherently feminine.
Social media, fast becoming the most prominent platform for establishing these personal connections, as well as being the vehicle of choice for many of our most successful client campaigns, has the power to shape public opinion across the globe, yet can pose serious risks and concurrently present phenomenal opportunities to brands and organisations. What’s interesting to me here is that, as the speed and volume of online communication increases, so too does the number of women in Asia who are actively advocating their views through social media and blogs. As they take to these platforms to express themselves to the world and their communities more openly than ever before, a great many will become highly influential (as some already have), especially on those issues that most deeply affect women and their families.
Women outnumber men on social networking sites, and research suggests that social media plays to women’s preferred styles of communication and engagement. Recent Nielsen studies show that the continued growth of blogging activity is largely driven by well-educated women. According to the data, the majority of bloggers are young, female, typically aged between 18 and 34, and one in three are mothers. Coupled with other surveys that find women to be the key buying decision-makers in many households, this poses interesting questions from a PR standpoint:
Are there too many women in PR? Should that even matter?
With the growing number of female influencers online, and considering their importance in family decision-making processes, it is only natural for communications professionals to want to understand how to reach them better. The challenge is not how to speak to women, but rather how to engage them in conversation. And who can do this better than women themselves?
To quote Hillary Clinton, being a woman in the world means “never giving up: on yourself, your potential, your future. It means getting up, working hard, and putting a country or a community on your back.” And I’m proud to work in an industry that recognises the important role women take on as leaders, colleagues, clients, advocates and consumers.
So the next time I run into my former client, I will tell him emphatically that, no, there are never enough women in PR.
Rozani Jainudeen is managing director, Malaysia, at Weber Shandwick