TV portrayals of women in PR are bad for our industry

PoweR Girls. PR chick. When people think of women in public relations, they often conjure up images of Lizzie Grubman or Samantha Jones.

PoweR Girls. PR chick. When people think of women in public relations, they often conjure up images of Lizzie Grubman or Samantha Jones.

These are not corporate PR professionals; they are publicists. And yes, there is a difference. Do they ever think of the real image of a female PR professional in 2005? Do you? Probably not.

Ask anyone to define PR and you'll likely receive a different answer each time - even from those in the industry. Many of us who practice it every day have difficulty explaining it to our own families, and there are countless inside jokes among PR professionals about how family members explain what we do: "Jane tells people on TV what to report," or "Anytime you see an ad in the paper, that's what Ann does," or worst of all, "Haven't you seen PoweR Girls on MTV? That's what Stacy does."

Oh, sure, every industry has an inaccurately portrayed TV or movie personality. Women are typically portrayed as ditsy, or as a witch with a "B." Law has Ally McBeal; advertising has Amanda Woodward. But the PR industry's TV personality is the star of a "reality" TV show. No offense to Lizzie Grubman, but I don't think she could do my job. Really. She might be able to pick it up with some training; but she certainly couldn't do what I do starting tomorrow. To have her as the face of PR is frustrating to those of us in the industry ... especially to the real "Power Girls."

Even journalists, whom PR professionals work with day in and day out, get the wrong idea. One journalist from USA Today was recently asked by an online chatter if the show PoweR Girls was really a good portrayal of PR. He said yes, that it was dead-on. And I wonder why journalists are sometimes reluctant to believe I have a good story idea for them. I'd be annoyed too if I thought Lizzie Grubman was calling me everyday.

So, what's it like to be a real PR Girl? Let me start by telling you what it's not. It's not simply calling the media when P. Diddy appears at a party. It's not attending swanky parties and rubbing elbows with A-list celebrities. Sure, there are firms that specialize in that - they're called publicity firms. I'll let Lizzie Grubman tell you what they do.

As defined by the Public Relations Society of America, "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other." By my definition, public relations is unglamorous, hard, strategic work. Our actions can ultimately affect stock prices and sales efforts. We help shape, enhance, and, in some cases, repair a company's reputation. In all honesty, PR is not given enough credit - even by some CEOs.

I believe that incorrect perceptions of what PR is - and inaccurate assumptions about the intelligence levels of young women in PR - can affect how I'm initially perceived. The thing is, once people realize I make it my business to know my clients' businesses, that perception usually changes. I work with smart, capable female PR professionals every day (OK, and some capable men, but we're talking about the women here).

It seems that clients, potential clients, and even the media are somewhat taken aback by some of my colleagues' great ideas. Many expect that we'll act as tacticians. Or, in the media's case, they expect we'll try to pitch them a story that's not applicable to their beat, or that we'll not be able to answer questions they may have beyond our pitch. Some of the more skeptical reporters are often unsure that I'm really just trying to offer them a good story. I partially blame Lizzie Grubman for that, but I also blame those of us in the industry.

This PR professional (notice I didn't use "PR Girl" or "PR Chick") went to Syracuse University's SI Newhouse School of Public Relations to complete a master's in PR. Yes, there is such a degree. Some of my clients are major Fortune 500 companies. My day includes working with my colleagues to craft the right messaging for a company based on internal and external public perception audits, conversations with the media about my clients' businesses and why they're different, and what story I can offer them (a story that's worth writing about). It also includes phone calls with top communications and marketing executives to discuss pending media interviews and the tough questions a reporter may ask (and yes, this is based on actually reading what a reporter has written).

Sometimes, my job includes crisis communications, or counseling a client on how best to communicate with its audiences during an unexpected event. Other times, my job is to work with my client contacts - the marketing and communications executives - to help them communicate to their bosses why their jobs are critical and why they should be involved in key company decisions.

I have no problem with Lizzie Grubman. I have a problem with her representing the stereotype of a PR pro. I think my male counterparts should be just as worried about Lizzie being the face of PR.

The industry needs a "real" face. We as PR professionals should know how important an accurate portrayal can be. And quite frankly, we're not doing enough to communicate accurate messages for ourselves.

I hope this article will serve as a starting point toward creating a real image of PR - even if it gets one person to explain to another that Lizzie Grubman does not, in fact, work in PR. As those of us in the profession should know, we can change the public's perception one step at a time.

  • Stacy Nobles is a management supervisor at Peppercom in New York.

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