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Ten ways to tackle ageism in PR

There has been plenty of coverage about the shameful amount of ageism in PR recently, underlined by the findings of the research study by Global Women in PR highlighting the extent of the problem. Here we discuss what PRs can do to tackle this.

1. Challenge stereotypes

Sarah Firth, creative director of agency Speed Comms and co-founder of anti-ageism agency Anything But Grey: “Do a Google image search for ‘people in marketing’ and you invariably see people in their 20s. I am 53, creative director of Speed Communications with 30 years’ experience in PR and I’m immensely proud of it. I also work with marvellous and supportive colleagues who don’t judge me for my age, but for my value and experience. Sadly, it would seem that makes me one of the lucky ones.

“Aware of these outdated notions of age, I co-founded Anything But Grey - an agency offer to tackle the misrepresentation of older audiences, creating work by the audience for the audience. In an industry that cherishes youth - marketing has a bigger percentage of younger people working in it than the overall employment average - older people present a massive opportunity that is simply not being represented with any authenticity.

“Representation is important in all walks of life, but age discrimination still feels like the last taboo, it’s time to rock the status quo and challenge the stereotypes.”

2. Listen to all ages

Richard Knowles, head of PR at full-service agency Low&Behold: “Everyone has something to give back to society and the world of PR is no exception. Experience, inexperience and industry knowledge all play a part in our continually evolving lives.

“Above everything, everyone should have the willingness to listen and learn; from those who are young and old. It doesn’t matter whether you think someone is ‘a dinosaur’ or ‘too young to have lived life’, you’ll always gain something useful and new.

“And, be willing to teach people. Passing on knowledge to someone else is one of the biggest thrills I get. But I’m also old and brave enough to recognise that if I can learn new skills and gain knowledge from my 12- and 8-year-old daughters on using TikTok or Snapchat, then I can do that from anyone.

“We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.”

3. Celebrate experience

Natalie Trice PR author, coach and trainer at Devon Trice Public Relations: “I have worked in PR for over 26 years and I think that right from the start it was considered a ‘young person’s career’ and this really needs to change. Whilst it’s great to have fresh, enthusiastic people coming into the industry, if we disregard the wealth of experience and knowledge that those of us who have been around for longer, what a waste.

“So often I coach women in the industry who are trying to re-enter agency life after maternity leave or those dealing with the impact of menopause and empty-nest syndrome, but find their loss of confidence, combined with an attitude that you ‘just get on with it or someone younger will take your job’. This can lead to them either hurtling towards burnout as their confidence nosedives even further or leaving the industry altogether and this is a huge waste and shameful.

“Let’s face it, ageism is an issue that is felt around the world, but as a collective, let’s not fan the flames that burn so many and instead celebrate those who bring so much value to the table both from clients and brands, as well as those coming into PR who can learn from them as they step into the next generation of practitioners with long, vibrant careers.”

4. Change mindsets

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director at agency Clearly PR: “At a time when the average age has increased from 34 to 40 years in the decade to 2021, it is baffling to me that ageism is still a thing. Yet it is extremely prevalent in the PR industry.

“Women make up two-thirds of the PR industry, yet the same number say they do not believe they will remain in their PR career beyond the age of 50. The sector cannot claim to be truly diverse and inclusive as long as this remains the case. What can be done?

“The answer requires a radical shift in mindset amongst PR leaders and business in general. The first step is to recognise the obvious benefits that a seasoned professional can have on the team, both in terms of expertise and diversity of thought. I should know, I’m 50 and two of my team are older than me.

“Then there is the way in which employers support new parents. Ditch the two-week paternity leave for new fathers and provide three or more months’ of full-pay parental support. At least then we can encourage a greater level playing field when it comes to childcare responsibilities later on.”

5. Get rid of outdated beliefs

Corinna Field, joint-managing director of agency Red Lion PR: “It’s long been the norm in PR to be surrounded by fresh-faced under 40s, which makes it even more essential to break out of the echo chamber. Agencies need to work hard to retain an age-diverse staff, one that embraces the lived experiences that come with age. Flexible working, return-to-work policies, empathy for employees when their lives change (as well as training), all go towards this.

“Notably, ageism is not just peculiar to agency life. It’s all too rare to get a brief targeting the over 50s, and yet there are over 16 million over sixties in the UK. Media love to remind us of the value of the silver pound, but this isn’t quite translating to brands - which often prioritise the spending power of Gen Z over the typically loyal Baby Boomers. Perhaps they think they all fall off a cliff, rendered unable to open their wallets by their increasingly frail dispositions?! As practitioners, we can help tackle this by rigorously challenging briefs - and doing our own work when it comes to audience insights. There’s a world of potential consumers, and as delightful as they are, it’s not just 20-something urbanites in creative offices.”

6. Hire people who actually know stuff!

Nigel Sarbutts, founder of agency The PR Cavalry: “I’m white, middle class, straight. What do I know about prejudices that pervade society? Not enough; but trust me, ageism cuts deep.

“I want to focus on its commercial stupidity. We fetishise youth in PR whilst endlessly complaining about a war for talent. We ask people in their 20s to devise campaigns that will resonate with people in their 30s and beyond. In my 20s I had no idea how it felt to be a parent or have parents depending on me. By guessing how that feels rather than being authentic, the industry fails its customers. But I know exactly how it feels to be 20 or 25. I’m a native of all the ages, not an immigrant.

“If you want to address the war for talent and do better work, stop insulting thousands of talented people. Hire them for their insights instead.”

7. Value diversity

Lucy Scaramanga, senior communications consultant at PR agency Hard Numbers: “That's fire, slay, lit. Yes, I'm trying to be a Gen Z. But why? As we've seen in recent research from GWPR, ageism is rife both in the PR industry and, let's be honest, further afield. Whilst the CIPR reported a median age of 38 in its State of the Profession research many agencies average younger. Agencies are by nature full-on; you're juggling multiple clients all of which are your number one priority. It's exciting. And crucially it's not just for the young. Let's be real, those who've got the greatest experience in juggling life - children, elderly parents, house moves et cetera - are well set up for this job. So how can we fix this - it's about a mindset change. We need to value diversity and we need to value experience. People with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages bring different viewpoints which ultimately brings great opportunity to learn from each other.”

8. Eradicate sexist attitudes

Guy Clapperton, founder and lead trainer at media training agency Clapperton: “I’m 57 and ageism really hasn’t hit me as a trainer. It’s possible that a number of people think a trainer needs experience, which is reasonable; I’m concerned there’s a deeper cause, though, and it’s an undercurrent of sexism. Men are allowed to get middle-aged, we even get called “distinguished” when all that’s happening is the natural ageing process. Women, meanwhile, feel pressurised into dyeing their hair to look younger (some people think it never quite works on men; that’s mostly because we’re not as accustomed to it - although I think I look a lot better thanks to whoever invented moisturiser).

“This is actually a much deeper problem than the PR can handle by itself - in my experience there are a lot of middle-aged women in it, and it benefits from their experience. We could probably do a better job of getting the word out there.”

9. Look at HR policies

Sandy Downs, account director and head of DE&I at PR agency Teamspirit:“Age is an often overlooked protected characteristic. The PR industry has come on leaps and bounds when it comes to female empowerment; though women still face plenty of barriers, the landscape is significantly better than it was 20 years ago. But the intersectionality of age and gender brings with it a whole host of additional issues; health considerations like menopause, the so called ‘sandwich generation’ of people who care for both children and parents, the compounded impact of the pay gap, and even explicit discrimination when it comes to recruitment, retention, and progression.

“Agencies looking to create an inclusive work environment need to consider age as a standalone strategic pillar. That includes HR policies like flexible and remote working, and metric tracking progression and retention. But it also needs to include a wider conversation about age-specific microaggressions, the work we produce (no more grey and sad retirement adverts!), and bespoke training to ensure older workers are able to up-skill just as much as those at early career.”

10. Pay more and cut hours

Ian Hood, CEO of agency Babel PR: “I’m not actually sure that its ageism in itself that’s the problem, but the economic model of some of the large multi-sector agencies. In smaller, specialist agencies like ours, where we rely more heavily on team experience and knowledge, we have a large proportion of mature staff from ancient fossils like me, to a number of women who have returned to us after maternity leave and others who have worked with us continually for ten years or more.

“Unfortunately, PR is littered with agencies that operate on a model requiring staff working long, anti-social hours, on relatively low salaries (we all know who they are). That effectively excludes those whose expertise, experience justify much higher salaries and whose responsibilities and commitments demand it.

Until that model is consigned to the scrap heap, the age profile across the industry isn’t going to change substantially. Of course that has implications for client budgets but the old adage is true, you pays your money and you takes your choice.”

Being of a certain age (and proud of it), this is a subject that is close to my heart. Next week, the subject of ageism comes up again as we look at influencer marketing campaigns targeted at the over 50s.

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