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Bullying is not acceptable in PR – this is how to stamp it out

I have worked in two organisations where I witnessed bullying. The first was in an insurance office when I was just 21 and I did not know what to do, so I did nothing. The second was at a marketing magazine many years later, where the person bullied resigned. I offered to confirm that I had seen them being bullied, but this was never acted upon, and the bully continued in their role. I do not consider myself to be scared of tackling injustice, but as a witness of bullying I failed to help anyone.

Tackling bullies is not easy. Many people I spoke to when researching this feature said they had been bullied, but did not want to be quoted on the record. But this is a subject that should never be brushed under the carpet.

Here PRs discuss how to tackle bullying, and describe their own experiences.

Organisations must have procedures to deal with bullying

Alastair McCapra, CEO of CIPR: "The demands and pressures of working in PR should never be an excuse for poor and bullying behaviour. 

“Ideally, organisations will have a culture that prevents bullying and correct procedures and processes for addressing it early. The risk of not having this in place has been well documented with some high-profile examples of poor practice damaging the reputation of businesses, potentially irreparably.

“Traditionally organisations have focused on tangible outputs such as programme delivery, financial success and customer satisfaction. ‘Culture’ was whatever got you those outputs. Now more organisations are looking at this the other way round - if you want to be resilient, sustainable and successful over the long term, you’ve got to attend closely to what it feels like to work in your organisation. If you want to ensure bullying had no place in your organisation you must proactively tackle culture as a whole and that can be unfamiliar and difficult territory."

Bullying must be called out

Natalie Trice, PR author, coach and mentor: "More than once in my 26-year PR career I’ve experienced bullying and it’s something we need to address as an industry. There is no doubt that PR is a competitive industry and that ambitions are high, but this doesn’t mean bullying is acceptable and processes need to be put in place. From passive-aggressive comments in meetings and being expected to be on call 24/7, to being left out of team drinks and passed over for promotions because your face doesn’t fit, bullying needs to be called out. It can have a massive impact on confidence and self-esteem and lead to anxiety and burnout, and I have had clients have to take time off work because the bullying has got so bad, and I’ve left two jobs when it happened to me. There is banter and competitiveness, but when it comes to bullying, we need to stamp it out and have a zero-tolerance policy across the board.”

Never turn a blind eye

Nicky Regazzoni, co-founder, The PR Network: “I wrote about bullying in PR on LinkedIn last year as I'm fed up with seeing bullies rise up through the ranks in our industry, moving from senior role to senior role and leaving swathes of devastation in their wake. People often choose not to complain out of fear, while others will just ignore, as these strong personalities will steamroller over everyone to maintain their position and reputation. For those of us with more experience, perspective and influence, it's our collective responsibility! We need to fire bullying clients, report peers and listen/take seriously any reports of toxic behaviour. The mental health of our industry will improve as a result.”

If a client is a bully, resign them

Kirsty Leighton, founder of agency Milk and Honey PR:  “Sadly we have experienced some inappropriate behaviour from clients. Being unkind to the team and causing upset.

“As a B Corp, we actually have a code of conduct attached to our client contracts. Committing to a fair and respectful way of working. Over the last six years we have actually resigned six clients for disrespectful conduct towards our team.

“We are able to do this as our people and their welfare always come first. Always. No client is worth more than 10% of revenues and our attrition in forecast is 15% so we are never reliant on any one client. This means we can be consultants at all time. It works for our clients and our team.

“Everyone deserves to be appreciated in the workplace. We believe in ‘being where you are celebrated not where you are tolerated’.”

First person

I worked with a bully, and he got away with it

Sara Thornhurst, trainer and consultant at inclusive agency INPR: “I left a job because of bullying in my 20s. I had a PR director who was very much his way or the highway and didn't like how I worked. When we moved office, he tried to set the room out like an old school room with single desks all facing his desk at the front of the room, when I pushed back and said this doesn't feel like a positive team set up he had a go at me. The final straw was when he screamed at me, literally leaning over me as I sat at my desk, over the type of paperwork filing system I used - vertical magazine files versus his choice of horizontal stacked trays saying I wasn't a team player and why was I being so difficult. When I went to the owner of the agency he flat out told me he wouldn't fire him. I left almost immediately after that, and he continued to work there for years after, with absolutely no repercussions for his behaviour.”

Never be afraid to call out a bully, this does not mean confronting them yourself, but find a way to make sure their unacceptable behaviour is recognised by your organisation, and that the organisation has a process in place for dealing with it. This is easier said than done, but bullies should never be left to continue to ruin lives.

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