Rafferty promotion is a start, but there's still a long way to go

Ketchum's promotion of a woman to the top executive role at the Omnicom firm is long overdue and must be the start of a wider movement for agency leadership to better reflect the rest of the PR workforce.

Barri Rafferty is the first woman to lead a top five gobal PR firm.
Barri Rafferty is the first woman to lead a top five gobal PR firm.

Barri Rafferty’s elevation to global CEO at Ketchum makes her the first woman to run a top five global PR firm – and hopefully represents a tipping point in the drive toward true gender balance in agency leadership.

Given that the John Wren-helmed holding company also has Karen van Bergen running its Omnicom Public Relations Group umbrella organization and Marina Maher helming her eponymous agency, it’s fair to say the group is blazing a trail for female leadership.

Marcia Silverman was global CEO of Ogilvy PR for seven years until 2010, and Helen Ostrowski led Porter Novelli for five years until 2007, but a woman running a top five agency is not before time, many would say. And they would not be wrong. These are the "hunters" Wren has identified to rejuvenate part of his sputtering PR empire.

In an industry populated 70% by women it is long overdue for the leadership of the big firms to better reflect the gender balance of the overall workforce.

The sexual discrimination scandals sweeping across business, media, and entertainment have largely escaped the PR sector so far, but the cultural shift this is bringing about in workplaces of all types is another sign of a fundamental – and welcome – push toward equal opportunity and the ending of sexist and abusive behavior that has no place in the modern world.

If I look back seven years to the first PRWeek Agency Business Report I worked on when I joined the brand, the lack of women leaders at the top firms is shocking. Margery Kraus at APCO, Donna Imperato at Cohn & Wolfe, Aedhmar Hynes at Text100, Kathy Bloomgarden at Ruder Finn, and Melissa Waggener Zorkin at WE Communications were the trailblazers then, and continue to be now.

But, beyond that, there were very few female faces in the book. And, frankly, the 2017 edition isn’t much better from a gender diversity point of view – and don’t get me started on ethnicity.

PRWeek’s Hall of Fame dinner last week gave us the chance to celebrate a truly pioneering female leader in PR, Muriel Fox of Carl Byoir & Associates and the National Organization For Women. Once dubbed by Business Week as the "number one woman in PR," Fox gave an inspirational and moving acceptance speech that was appreciated by everyone in the room – female and male.

Other female leaders in the highest echelons of top 10 PR firms who count as inspiration and mentor to young women coming up in the profession include Gail Heimann of Weber Shandwick, Lynne Anne Davis at FleishmanHillard Asia-Pacific, Karen Hughes at Burson-Marsteller, Margaret Key at Burson-Marsteller Asia-Pacific, and Carol Potter at Edelman APACMEA. Then there is Barby Siegel at Zeno, Marian Salzman at Havas, Dale Bornstein at M Booth, and Julie Batliner at Carmichael Lynch.

Barri Rafferty’s elevation at Ketchum is a start, but there is still a long way to go. I look forward to a time when the majority of global CEOs of top 10 PR firms are women.

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