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Talking about harassment in PR

Every day there are new allegations of sexual harassment, mainly focusing on misconduct in Westminster or Hollywood. But it is not just in politics and in the media that inappropriate behaviour occurs, many women, and some men, who work in PR have their own stories to tell. This is not acceptable and needs to change. As Francis Ingham, director general of PRCA, says: “The recent wave of sexual harassment allegations in the media and the #MeToo movement have rightly shocked society and highlighted the extent to which cases of sexual harassment go unnoticed. We need to pay attention to the fact that sexual harassment occurs in all kinds of workplaces, not just those involving politicians and Hollywood actors.”

Below the PRCA and the CIPR detail how they fight harassment in PR. We also hear from senior PROs about their own experiences and what the industry needs to do.

Industry bodies speak out

PRCA says “no!”
Francis Ingham says that there is no excuse for sexual harassment and that it must not be tolerated: “The PRCA’s position on this is very clear: sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Not only is it illegal, but it is also immoral. Unfortunately, cases may go unreported and organisations have a duty to ensure that employees feel safe and have the right to speak up against such abuse. It is also important that employees, especially managers, are aware that sexual harassment will not be tolerated by the organisation.

“Facilitating a conversation about such issues is key, and ensuring that employees are educated about the consequences of inappropriate behaviour is also important. The industry should not tolerate this type of behaviour and should have strong policies based on educating employees to counteract any instances of sexual harassment.”

CIPR says employers must act
Emma Leech, 2018 CIPR president-elect, describes how PR employers must ensure that their staff are not harassed, and what they should do if they feel uncomfortable: “The nature of good PR work necessitates great networking and strong relationship building. This is sometimes (or often, depending on the sector) out of hours or in a more social setting than the average boardroom and it’s important therefore that all staff understand expected standards of behaviour and, equally, that staff are clear what to do should a colleague, client or journalist over-step acceptable boundaries.

“It’s important that staff, especially more junior staff, aren’t put in difficult situations that could cause distress and it’s important that they are confident in how to deal with any and all forms of unacceptable behaviour, including potential sexual harassment.

“Campaigns like #MeToo have put this issue under the spotlight, and rightly so. PR, like other professions, needs to ensure that it provides a safe and ethical working environment for all staff and should seek to ensure staff are confident that if issues or concerns are raised, they will be taken seriously by employers.”

Why we need to talk about harassment

Claire Thompson, freelance consultant at Waves PR, says it is time to stop being quiet about sexual harassment in PR: “By its very nature, the PR business means dealing with influential people – be that politicians, journalists, bloggers, vloggers, gamers, pressure groups, investors…. The desire to influence their actions, to harness their authority to our own ends, automatically confers them a certain power. Within agencies, managers decide others' careers. Clients possess an almost god-like status.

“Men suffer too. Whilst there’s always the odd contributory ‘how far will you go to get a result?’ (in itself an issue), let's make no bones about it: harassment is more about power than about sexual chemistry or attraction. This is not a one-dimensional, victim-fuelled discussion. It’s a complex, layered debate. I trust that, as a profession, we’re ready for it.

“PR’s sexual harassment victims have very little recourse. Influencers are way more valuable to a client account than a replaceable account executive with 15 others lined up behind them to take their job, however talented. (And try reporting your manager to your manager).

“This may go some way to explain why so little is done to assess or address the issue. When the #MeToo campaign encouraged women to simply post the words #MeToo in a social space if they had fallen victim to sexual harassment or abuse, what followed was a shocking deluge. #MeToo works because it is non-specific. It requires nothing more than the quiet addition of a voice. No details. No need to relive horrors. No need to get involved in discussions except by choice. No attempts to excuse perpetrators. It works because it was initially Hollywood’s most beautiful and successful who propelled it. Their success renders them immune from the ‘she should be so lucky’ jeering and hurtful ‘just bitter because she didn’t get the job’ comments. For the first time, women bravely stood side by side to expose the issue. The result was belief, acceptance and shock.

“Yet despite being happy to join the exposure, few PR people are prepared to act further. Despite emerging bolder, we hold a conspiracy of silence. Disgraced Max Clifford (remember him?) was the tip of an iceberg – whilst we may distance ourselves from him as a publicist not a PR person, in our alcohol- and adrenaline-filled profession, sexual harassment is rarely, if ever, addressed. It’s endemic but we are, by nature, naturally disposed to sweeping ‘things’ under the carpet.

“Change is already afoot. ‘Short skirts, big smiles’ is dated as a recruitment concept, gradually displaced by the intelligent dynamos breaking through that glass ceiling into the boardroom. As budgets tighten, the (primarily) men who’d rather have ‘eye candy’ on their PR teams and appoint less good but more attractive agency teams will be called to account. #MeToo has heightened that sensitivity.

“There is no longer any ambient level of acceptable sexual harassment. There are lots of things we can do. But little will change until someone influential steps up to lead the charge. We need to talk.”

Sarah Hall, founder of #FuturePRoofagency owner and president-elect of the CIPR, describes some of her own harassment experiences and says this type of humiliation must stop: “Sexual impropriety in the workplace is commonplace. It’s a business issue rather than a gender issue, that’s not just confined to public relations, but every walk of life.

“My own experiences of harassment have included an office bet on who could sleep with me first and having my bottom grabbed by a client in front of more than 200 people. Both situations were humiliating and underlined a clear imbalance of power and lack of respect for me as a professional.

“Fellow peers – men and women – have shared similar stories as part of the growing conversation around sexual harassment. The answer is the same across all industries and sectors. Employers, including those in public relations, need to achieve behavioural and cultural change, starting with strong leadership.

“Management teams need to understand the Equality Act 2010 and give due attention to policies and procedures so the workplace is safe for everyone. They need to encourage people to speak up; and work with HR professionals and trade unions to ensure employees are aware of their rights.

“Whoever you are and whatever your gender, sexual harassment is unacceptable. We now have an opportunity to change the status quo.”

PRmoment is happy to join in the discussion on what is for many, a painful topic. But the more open we are, the easier it is to tackle. No one should be in a situation at work, or at events, where they feel uncomfortable. If you have stories to tell, or advice for others, please join the debate.

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