12 questions for Eleanor McManus on eliminating sexual harassment in media

Eleanor McManus of Trident DMG helped to organize The Press Forward, a group of former and current journalists dedicated to ending sexual harassment in the media. She chats with PRWeek about working with newsrooms to change their cultures.

Can you tell those unfamiliar with The Press Forward how it came about?
We’re starting an initiative, The Press Forward, to change the culture of newsrooms that has enabled sexual harassment for far too long. We think it’s time to move the needle forward and create a safe work environment for all men and women.

This came about [as a result of] a lot of women coming together. We all had shared experiences, and we wanted to come together because we wanted something to come out of this that would be for the greater good in helping other women.

Can you talk about your decision to disclose your own experience with sexual harassment?
When I heard the news break about Mark Halperin, I decided to come out and tell my story because it was a story I kept for so many years. I spoke to others about it during my time at CNN. As I wrote in the piece, my only recourse was to never book him on Larry King Live [where McManus was senior producer]. The reason I had no hesitancy when I came out with this story was because I saw this happened to others. I wasn’t the only one, and I wanted others to know my story so they’d come out as well and not be afraid to speak out.

What was it like finally sharing that story after so many years?
It’s a mixed bag, right? As I said, I did not hesitate to come out. If this were an isolated incident, I wouldn’t have come out. But knowing he did this to other women made me angry. I wanted to go public so that when my daughter grows up and enters the workplace, she will never have to deal with this and be subject to inappropriate behavior.

After I went public with my story, I had second thoughts about whether I did the right thing. But what got me through a lot of that was I was able to connect with incredible women with shared experiences. In turn, we reached out to others with shared experiences, such as the victims of Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer.

Can you talk about that hesitancy? Why did you feel it? How did you get through it?
I felt [I hesitated] for the same reason others like myself didn’t say anything. This behavior was normalized in newsrooms, and people just had to deal with it. Now, we’ve come together in solidarity, knowing that women don’t have to deal with this anymore. For years, women felt they had no choice. Now we’re starting to picture a different reality. It’s a sign of progress that women are really finding their voices.

What does success look like for your organization?
To be honest, we’re just starting out. We’re coming together to support action, and we’re looking at plans to make women safe in the news industry. We’ll provide education and resources so women know what options they have. We want companies to have zero tolerance for this type of behavior and to take action in the face of allegations of misconduct. We hope to work with companies so they can create a culture where women feel safe, a culture where women can speak out and know the companies will protect them.

Do you think sexual harassment at the workplace is a result of companies being poorly structured in terms of human resources and legal? Or is this a result of culture?
I think it’s both. It’s a complicated issue. Victims of sexual harassment should feel comfortable to go to HR knowing it will take action. That means holding men accountable for their actions and conducting the investigations. We want companies to have guidelines in place so women feel safe to report incidents. The fact women don’t go to HR and report this is a problem within the culture of newsrooms because they feel they’re not going to be heard.

Do you think the comms industry will face a similar day of reckoning?
This problem is not industry specific; the media may pay more attention to celebrities or familiar faces within the media but sexual assault is ubiquitous. In other words, it’s everywhere, from network newsrooms to social media, from construction sites to diners, from factory floors to the C-suite. In addition, the problem involves both men and women, who are both victims and complicit in predatory behaviors. The goal here is to cease this behavior regardless of where it is and give people the tools they need to prevent it, and if it happens, deal with the issue and make sure it does not replicate itself in the future.

How will you build on the group’s initial success?
Our [focus] right now is awareness. We’re very lucky in the sense that we’re caught in the midst of a cultural movement that everyone is talking about, and we’ve been able to seize on that momentum to build awareness of the organization. Our goal is to make people aware and have them go to our website and sign up. That’s phase one.

We will officially launch in early 2018. Our goal right now is to make sure people know we exist and invite them to help, whether that’s just being part of the organization or helping us in any capacity.

In some ways, though, you are pitching to the same companies that victimized some of your members. Does that complicate that?
No, because we’re engaging them to work with them. We want to make their newsrooms better and so do they. Some local stations have reached out to us, asking, "What can we do to make things better? We want to make a change."

Can you name what organizations you’re partnering with?
Not yet, but I can say we’ve been in talks with several of the networks, and they’ve responded positively to working with us. We’ve been in touch with the executives directly.

How can people help?
We’d like to have people go to website to sign up to be part of organization. They can donate there. Also, we have a Twitter page @ThePressForward and a Facebook page. We’re looking for people to be part of this group and that includes men and women.

How did your own experience with sexual harassment affect [Trident DMG founder] Lanny Davis’ work for Harvey Weinstein?
All of my partners support my work and what the organization is doing. I can’t talk about a matter that [Davis] worked on as an attorney through the law firm, but anyone who knows Lanny knows his general approach to things: tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself, as he wrote about in his book. His representation of [Weinstein] ended with the [October 5] publication of the first New York Times story

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