#MeToo, two years on: What's changed at PR agencies

Harassment policies are largely the same, but employee training and advice has evolved.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Two years after the beginning of the #MeToo movement, many PR agency leaders say they have not significantly changed their sexual harassment policies, but that doesn’t mean they’re ducking the issue. 

Agency executives say they have not updated the language of HR policies because PR firms mostly addressed harassment in their human resources standards long before the fall of men such as Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Steve Wynn.

"You can take a bunch of old white guys who came up in the industry and who have behaved a certain way their entire careers and you can try to teach them a new language and teach them a new behavior and make them aware there are severe consequences if they don’t do that," says Robert Dowling, CEO of Hudson Cutler. "But at the end of the day, you have a lot that’s still lost in translation. There are no policies that will truly get these guys culturally and socially attuned to this massive amount of change."

So while #MeToo may not have prompted an industry-wide review of policies, agencies are adding training and reporting resources, changing their approaches to some business situations, initiating agency-wide discussions and updating their mission and values.

Cat Colella-Graham, a former HR executive at Cohn & Wolfe, Ruder Finn and other agencies, founded Cheer Partners in 2017. In addition to being a PR shop, Cheer also consults with agencies on HR policies and issues. She’s noticed an increase in people reporting harassment problems and also the recognition by agency leaders that there is a problem. As a result, agencies are changing. 

"[Agencies] are starting to look critically at their purpose, mission and vision and trying to see how they can really change the narrative about gender to a gender-neutral narrative and including respect and transparency as key items," says Colella-Graham. 

Changing the basic operating values of an agency, as opposed to a specific HR policy, is valuable, she says, because "it’s a great opportunity to say, ‘This is who we are and what we say and how we treat each other and [our] core value is respect.’"

Agencies without procedures for handling harassment are adding them, Colella-Graham says, and others are creating ways to report harassment. Private email addresses and Slack channels are becoming more popular, as are 1-800 numbers so "someone can feel comfortable dialing in as opposed to talking to a manager," she explains. 

Colella-Graham also says agencies are adding training for entry-level employees who may be "socially aware but in practice don’t have tools in their toolkit to deal with this." That’s also the case for supervisors "who may be in a position to witness [harassment] or actual deal with a complaint and have to actually respond to complaints teaching them where to go from there," she explains. 

Smaller agencies tend to be more informal about the harassment issue than larger shops, she added, and not just because of their respective budgets. "Because [large agencies] are so highly visible," says Colella-Graham, who counts MWWPR and SourceCode Communications as HR clients, "they are almost forced to have more structured policies and procedures." 

The boutique agency informality is reflected at tech PR firm Bospar. Principal Curtis Sparrer says that because his agency is smaller, it’s able to tailor work arrangements with clients on a case-by-base basis. However, harassment is definitely a concern, especially in tech PR, he adds. 

"Tech gets complicated," Sparrer explains. "Because people don’t treat it as a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five job. They treat it as if their entire livelihood depends on these interactions, so people are friendly and social with people who are prone to tendencies that might make others feel uncomfortable."

As a result, Bospar has added a specific policy to address situations that are fertile ground for compromising scenarios. 

"We are staffed so that we always have two people attending [events]," he says. "So our employees always have a buddy. Generally, when you’re going to an award show or a convention where you have prolonged contact with a client, you have to have a buddy. The system made sense in elementary school and it makes sense here."

Before #MeToo, one of the most notable sexual harassment cases took place at a firm with a few dozen employees. In late 2015, Washington-based progressive political PR firm FitzGibbon Media shut down after allegations of sexual harassment and assault were leveled against its president, Trevor FitzGibbon. He was later reportedly cleared of the charges and opened a new firm. 

As a mid-sized agency, Allison+Partners is mid-way in the formality of its approach to harassment and changes it has made since the start of #MeToo. Global chief talent officer Ashleigh Butson says the agency always had a structured HR approach to harassment. In response to #MeToo, it updated some definitions in policy documents. 

However, changes made to its harassment training protocol have been more significant, she says. 

"What we’ve added are some case studies that give employees the opportunity to talk," Butson says. "There's an opening to talk about the client, or #MeToo, or anything else they want to talk about." 

Training has always been mandatory at the firm, Butson says, but the case studies address situations PR employees often deal with. "We have to stay by the book," she adds. "But we’ve extended it so people are more aware of the issues."

The response of larger agencies has been decidedly more formal and structured, notes Colella-Graham. 

Yashica Olden, worldwide executive director of diversity and inclusion at Ogilvy, says that "since #MeToo, we put together guidelines for our HR business partners around the globe to give more specific guidance on how to handle any complaints or concerns."

"[It’s] to provide a corporate viewpoint and to give them more support," she explains. "Most of the time when you’re in New York or Chicago, there are a whole lot of great resources available, but what if you’re sitting in a small office, let’s say the Philippines or Bangladesh? This way, you know what does the company say and how does the company say it and how you should handle the situation, and that’s great because it empowers the HR business partner to respond and react and not to potentially hide a situation."

Ogilvy also gave worldwide chief diversity and inclusion officer Donna Pedro the additional title of chief ethics officer in December 2017, Olden points out.  

"Donna reports, and always has reported, directly into the CEOs office, and that helps us ensure there is senior commitment and accountability and alignment on this issue," she adds.

James Wright, global chairman of Havas PR Collective and CEO of Havas PR North America, said #MeToo inspired changes at his company. The firm increased regular online harassment and respect training for the entire Havas group, as well as onsite training for individual agencies. It also formalized a mentor program that gives employees someone to talk to outside of their line managers.

"We had policies in place before," he says. "But #MeToo led to reevaluation of where we were. If nothing else, it certainly led to a more regular evaluation of how we are treating each other and responding to each other and hopefully creating an agency environment that welcomes better behavior."

At Golin, #MeToo inspired a nine-month effort that started with executives taking a listening tour of offices and ended with a summit focused on employee empowerment. Afterward, Golin rolled out mandatory training for all U.S. employees to help employees manage "real-life, uncomfortable workplace scenarios." 

It also developed a framework to guide employees on how to recognize and handle harassing behavior. "We categorized behavior into three different areas," says Golin vice chair Ellen Ryan Mardiks. "Clueless, creepy and criminal."

Clueless behavior includes actions that make people feel a little uncomfortable but might not rise to an egregious level, she notes. Golin employees can decide for themselves if they should contact HR or simply ignore it.

Behavior is considered creepy, Ryan Mardiks says, when "it’s clear there is more going on." In that case the framework encourages employees to "raise it up the flagpole if they feel that needs to [happen]." 

When the behavior fits in the criminal category, Ryan Mardiks explains, it has to be reported. "In this last category, it’s very clear. The employee is not to handle it by him or herself. It needs to be raised with HR, and then it will be dealt with at that level and resolved."

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