7 commandments for being heard as a woman in PR

by | Jun 26, 2017 | Analysis, Public Relations

Much has been made about the all-male CEO panel from the recent Hall of Femme conference to honor inspiring female leaders from our industry. The panel, which was hosted at the request of industry-leading women to involve men in the movement toward equality in the PR industry, included Richard Edelman, John Brockelman, Tony Wells, and Jim Weiss.

Edelman, who is a visionary and industry leader that has led his eponymous company to significant growth, has taken the brunt of the negative backlash to what has been described as a tone-deaf panel—particularly given the audience and subject matter.

The comment that seems to have garnered the most controversy was Edelman’s assertion that, in order for women to be heard in a macho, male-dominated business culture, they should simply “speak louder.” The response from women was swift and decisive—both in the sessions that followed and on social media afterward. To summarize, I will simply quote Pam Wickham, vice president of corporate communications and affairs at Raytheon, who really hit the nail on the head when she said:

“We don’t need to speak up, we need to be heard.”

Now, I know Richard personally, and believe that his words do not reflect the kind of leadership he intends to convey to the successful women of our industry. However, whether they were simply a poor choice of words, Richard is a major figure in our industry who many look to for guidance. This was also on display at the event as fellow panelist Jim Weiss gushed, “you know that you’re my idol, right?” while addressing Edelman. In fact, Richard is undoubtedly idolized by many leaders in our industry, which makes this misperception so important to address and he has been a champion for women for years and has some of the most talented on his staff to prove this point.

Rather than dedicating more editorial space to male bashing (Twitter seems to have covered that) or to reiterating the issues and opportunities that Sheryl Sandberg has already laid bare, I wanted to take this opportunity to present 7 Commandments for Hearing Women in the PR Industry. These Commandments are born out of my experience as a female founder who still owns and operates a PR agency, in addition to an editorial career that has been dedicated to understanding and motivating women.  

“We don’t need men to advise us, we need women who did it to tell us how they did it.”

The 7 Commandments (because who has time in today’s world for 10 whole Commandments) are meant to be a blueprint for male and female leaders in our industry to actually hear the amazing women in their organizations.

1. Hearing the women in your organization is a business imperative

This may sound obvious, but creating a listening culture is not a top priority for very many agency leaders. In fact, as the pace of business has accelerated, it has become vogue to “empower” employees to take control of their own careers. Many human resource consultants are even touting this approach as what the next generation is looking for in their employer-employee relationship.  Unfortunately, an equal number of managers have taken this trend to mean they can de-prioritize their role in actively listening to their employees, leading to a culture in which ambitious and even aggressive employees are rewarded while the rest become increasingly disengaged.

Employee engagement in the PR industry is at an all-time low and is disproportionately low among female employees. At Lippe Taylor, we are very fortunate to have an employee turnover rate that’s less than half the industry average. Across the industry, however, the business impact of these disengaged employees is very real, with high employee turnover rates leading to shorter client relationships, higher recruiting costs, crumbling agency cultures, and wasted investment in employee training programs.

Just last month, we were sourcing for a position in our New York office and found 86 candidates who fit the profile on LinkedIn—the vast majority of whom were women. After filtering the list to those who had been at their same company since 2015, there were just 17 left. 17! That means 80 percent of them had changed employers in the last 18 months.

These numbers are easy to pass off as a byproduct of a disloyal Millennial workforce. However, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report, women tend to be loyal (20 percent less likely to leave than men) to employers when they feel engaged and valued.

How do you do that? Listen to them. And watch as your turnover rate decreases, your client retention goes up, and your culture stabilizes.

2. Create space for their ideas

Much has been written about the shortcomings of team brainstorm sessions. Are there too many people in the room or not enough? Is there such a thing as a bad idea? What does a good brief really look like? For many women, these scenarios are the perfect storm of exclusion. They often took the time to prepare and do their research ahead of the meeting. They have smart, well thought out ideas to present.

However, the group dynamics make it intimidating for women to speak up and, once they do, somebody else jumps in and distracts the room before they’re able to finish making their point. So why bother? It’s easier sometimes to just let the brainstorm happen and then work with the project leader behind the scenes to course correct afterward.

The problem with this is that many women’s important contributions go unnoticed while the loudest people in the brainstorm are overly credited for the project’s eventual success. The solution is actually very simple and is something we do successfully at Lippe Taylor—start out every meeting with a “silent brainstorm.” This gives every person in the room an opportunity to write their ideas down, and also has a calming presence on the calamity of the brainstorm free-for-all. You can then go around the room and make sure everyone has an opportunity to share the ideas they’ve written down, leaving time throughout and at the end for open dialogue. This makes sure that even the quietest voices are heard and no one is rewarded for “speaking louder.”

3. Pass the microphone

This one is more of an art than a science.  It comes down to how you encourage women to speak in group settings.  The tendency of many leaders (male or female) is to frame the discussion themselves, then ask other people for their opinion.  The problem is that some women may feel like a decision has already been made and therefore not bother offering contradictory ideas.  Others will still assert their ideas, but the real reward of feeling heard will be gone.  Here is an example:

Company CEO addresses the room saying, “as you all know, we’ve had some successes and some failures with our new influencer offering. In fact, sometimes I wonder if it’s worth investing in the capability any further.  Diana—what do you think about this?”

This CEO most likely believes s/he has engaged Diana and actively sought her opinion, but by framing the situation she has significantly limited Diana’s opportunity to contribute. Either Diana simply agrees with the implied premise (that the influencer capability is a double-edged sword) or she appears to be combative or misaligned. Further, the CEO has gone so far as to imply a bias toward stopping investment in this new area. So what’s Diana to do?

The right way for the CEO to have done this would be to instead “pass the microphone” as we refer to it within our walls. In this way, the CEO would hand the figurative microphone to Diana by simply saying, “Diana what are your thoughts on the current state of our influencer work?”

In this scenario, Diana will hold the microphone and feel truly heard once she has expressed her opinions.

4. Stop overvaluing overconfidence

An industry leader recently noted that when considering a man and a woman for the same role, he chose the male candidate because that candidate appeared more confident in his presentation. The research suggests there is a clear confidence gap between men and women (The Atlantic had a great article on this here). It’s easy to say that confidence is important for client service, and therefore we only want to hire or promote confident people. However, the problem with this is the very convoluted relationship between confidence and competence.

In what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which demonstrated empirically that both men and women have “a cognitive bias, wherein persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority when they mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.”

In other words, the less somebody knows about a subject, the more confident that person is about his or her ideas on the same topic.

7 commandments for being heard as a woman in PR

This dynamic is actually more prevalent with men, who are rewarded for confidence over competence through many social and professional avenues. However, if you want the best ideas, the best work, and the best people to succeed in your organization, you need to see through overconfidence and instead reward women (and men!) for being thoughtful and strategic, regardless of how confident you feel they might be.

5. Make time for unstructured conversation

This one goes against many of the current norms in agency and Silicon Valley culture, where dogma insists that every meeting be pre-empted with an agenda. The premise is that agenda-driven business climates lead to increased productivity. This may be true today, but over the long run, those same consultants who sold that shtick will be back selling you “dialogue models” and ways of fixing all the harm that’s been done by over-operationalizing what is really a relationship-based, people-driven business. So, take a look at how you are using the time you spend with your direct reports, and if it looks like this:

  • 10 minutes: revenue forecast
  • 5 minutes: client happenings
  • 5 minutes: new business update
  • 5 minutes: talent flight risks
  • 5 minutes: “How are you? What’s going on in your world?”

Then you’re missing something. Actually, you’re missing a lot. For many of the women in your organization, the final bullet point is the most important. If you start there, you will cover all of the other topics. However, if you start with the rest, you’ll never get more than a hurried and veiled response to the most important agenda item of all.  The solution is to meet and discuss the business, or what’s going on with your female employees’ teams, clients, and personal career paths on a regular basis. Do so with purpose, but without over structuring the agenda, and do it frequently enough that you can skip past the tactical updates and activity reports and get into the real meaning of the conversation. Only then can you actually hear them.

6. Balance the gender representation in the room

According to survey respondents in a well-substantiated Harvard Business School study among Fortune 500 organizations, women do lack confidence in meeting rooms. The reason is not what some may think, though—it’s because being effective in meetings is often related to being able to “read the room” effectively, something that is extra difficult to do if you’re the only woman at the table.

While we all want to remain committed to “hiring the best person for the job” regardless of their gender, it is important to pay attention to how you’re balancing the viewpoints and opportunities in your teams. Do this by balancing the representation around the table for important meetings.

7. Give credit where credit is due—especially with women

One of the most disheartening findings from 2016 came again from Harvard Business School, which substantiated the claim that women receive less credit than men when collaborating with others. The findings imply that women could be more successful by going it alone, but we all know that collaboration and integration are key to success in the modern PR environment. Just like with men, it’s important to women that they feel valued, and it’s also important that you encourage them to continue collaborating with others. Therefore, it’s important that you create a culture of recognition and giving individual credit to women, even when they work in teams.

In summary, it’s worth noting that when I sat down to share these 7 principles or commandments, I was initially thinking that male leaders in our industry needed to hear them. However, it’s clear that all of us—male and female leaders, need to continually remind ourselves how important it is to hear the men and women who comprise our organizations.

As leaders we have enormous demands on our time and attention—which means that while we tend to have the best intentions, and we try to create opportunities for our teams to speak, we don’t always hear them. We may be listening.  But we frequently are not hearing them.

And that distinction between who is speaking (loudly or not), who is listening, and who is really hearing people, is what makes the difference between whether women (and men) feel valued or not.

Maureen Lippe
Throughout her career, Maureen has been a trailblazer in studying women, inside and out. In the early nineties, motivated by the lack of PR/marketing innovation she witnessed as an editor, Maureen founded Lippe Taylor. By developing creative strategies for connecting with consumers, Maureen has successfully launched more than 100 brands.