Why Are There So Many Women in Public Relations?

“That's a pretty decent wage for a woman,” said IWPR’s president, Heidi Hartmann, “given how little they make on average.” The average for full-time female workers is $37,232.

No need to pity the PR gal, journo-ladies. She’s doing just fine.

***

Eighteen years ago, Deirdre Latour donned a Tony the Tiger outfit to hold a series desk-side media briefings on behalf of Kellogg’s. To be clear: That entails sitting in a newsroom. Talking face-to-face with a reporter. Dressed as a large cartoon jungle cat.

“Of course it makes me cringe now,” Latour told me.

Like in every field, there are times when communications workers question their choices. Especially at the entry level, “there are moments when you say, ‘I got a college degree, and I'm doing this?’" Latour said. “But every step of the way you learn different skills.”

Latour is now the senior director of external communications at GE—a big, high-stakes job. When GE was negotiating to buy the French energy company Alstom, Latour flew to Paris with GE’s executives to help convince the French government that GE was the right company for the deal.

But money and power aren’t everything, and there are certainly higher-paying fields that women don’t seem all that interested in entering. And the typical explanations—that women are better listeners, or more social—don't hold up, since those skills are also necessary in journalism, where women don't dominate.

So why do so many go into PR? I interviewed 10 women in public relations to find out.

Two of them I knew personally. A few more were referred to me by other journalists. The others I found by simply responding to, say, a pitch for an automated ear-cleaning device with an “I’m not interested, but would you like to talk to me for a story about yourself?”

It turns out, they did.

One reason journalists disparage PR people is that we don’t really understand what they do, having mainly interacted with them by rejecting their pitches, pumping them for information, or by grabbing a name tag from them at conferences. We don’t see the effort that goes into winning “new business,” or in mollifying a client with marathon conference calls, or in arranging the seating for an event such that dignitaries from two at-war countries don’t accidentally bump elbows over panna cotta.

“I think a lot of younger women go into PR because they think they’re going to be the glamorous Samantha Jones from Sex and the City where you’re opening up restaurants and promoting hot new clubs,” said Shannon Stubo, vice president of corporate communications at LinkedIn.

(I’ll pause here just to note that nearly every woman I spoke with mentioned Samantha Jones. It’s as though that show subtly influenced public opinion in a way we didn’t even notice.)

“Running a communications team at a global public company is extremely different and decidedly unglamorous,” she continued. “You’re playing a very critical role in the company, and you have a lot of influence and responsibility. These are people who are actually helping drive the business, not writing press releases and ‘smiling-and-dialing.”

The smile-and-dial might be the number one reason journalists grouse about PR people so much. “Do you have a minute? I’m just following up on an email I sent you a minute ago.”  We only have so many minutes!

“When I first started in PR, there were a couple editors and it was part of your initiation that you had to call and pitch them because they were so mean,” Sol said. “Let's just say they were influential in the tech world. That got a little bit to their head.”

U.S. Public Health Service/Flickr

Being an egocentric journalist, my theory was always that many women found themselves in PR because it’s so hard to break into journalism. I figured that after considering becoming reporters, they thought to themselves, “Why go into a field everyone says is ‘dying’ when you can make money and have a nice life in PR?”

And indeed, some did find themselves in the field seemingly without much effort. Sacchetti, from Secret, admits that she picked PR over a consulting job because she thought it would be easy. Latour, from GE, says she really hated her first, entry-level job at a law firm, so she visited a headhunter, who suggested PR.

“I said, ‘what’s PR?’” she recalled.

Others thought about journalism but were daunted by how unstable and low-paying it seemed.

“My mom always wanted me to go into journalism,” said Ellie Rutledge, who worked in PR at a big agency before recently taking a social-media role at an advocacy association. “She thought I had what it takes because I am always excited to learn and I question everything. But that’s not the aspect of journalism I see anymore. There’s not a lot of room to pick your stories based on what’s important to learn about; it’s about what gets the most readership, and most often that isn’t newsy.”

Cait Douglas, director of communications for the U.S. Travel Association, worked for the college paper at American University before concluding that the early stages of journalism were far more grueling than those of PR.

“You might have to go to a small town to create your career,” she said. “With PR, there's a lot of opportunities no matter where you are.”

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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