Is bullying PR's last taboo?

In a culture of resilience, admitting to being bullied is the ultimate crime in PR. It’s time we tackled this taboo head on.

Quaden Bayles. Caroline Flack. Dominic Cummings. Trump. Bullies and bullying have shot to the top of the media agenda over the past few weeks.

As someone who was bullied a bit at school and who has two young boys who constantly tread the tightrope between ‘bully’ and ‘bullied’, it’s something I think about a fair bit. But two headlines have given me particular pause for thought in the past week.

Firstly, news that Mark Zuckerberg’s PR team used to have to blow dry his armpits prior to speeches. Gross. 

But who in our industry hasn’t been asked to do something beyond the call of duty by a client? It happens all the time. I posted the Zuckerberg piece on social and, wow, the things people have been told to do in the name of PR…

In all seriousness, though, what’s acceptable and what isn’t? Is it OK to say ‘well, I did worse and I turned out OK’ to yourself as you ask an account exec to put on a skimpy t-shirt and lie on a bed next to the Hammersmith Flyover (yes, this actually happened)?

Secondly, allegations of bullying against Priti Patel. A Weber Shandwick and Diageo corporate comms alumnus, Patel grew up in our industry and has clearly taken some of its culture to the Home Office. 

It’s fair to say you need to be resilient, have a thick skin and be extremely hard-working to survive in PR, especially in agencies. It regularly exceeds the 9-6. It can be relentless. Applying that work ethic to the civil service – whose culture is clearly less so – is always going to cause friction.

But what if all the Home Secretary is doing is enforcing higher standards on those who are used to mediocrity? Is that really bullying? I’d suggest not. 

So where’s the line? Where does pushing people above and beyond the call of duty become bullying? Is it when people don’t ask nicely? When they fail to sugar-coat requests? When they are rude and unkind? So far, so snowflake, right?

The government definition of bullying is ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’. 

I’ve rarely seen too much of this behaviour in my 20-plus years in PR – but I have regularly seen a more subtle, insidious type of bullying.

Talk to any number of PRs and they’ll all have stories. They might have been coerced into an ‘unsavoury’ task. Or gaslighted into working late. Or treated so unkindly they go and cry in the toilet. But they wouldn’t call this bullying because they’re likely ashamed of admitting they’d been bullied. In a culture of resilience, admitting to being bullied is the ultimate crime.

Bullying in our industry is a taboo and, like all taboos, it must be tackled head on. As with mental health and #metoo, we must talk about it, call it out when it happens, and lay down clear standards of behaviour that stop it from happening. Only then will people like Priti Patel know where the line is and keep the right side of it. And maybe, just maybe, Mark Zuckerberg will have to dry his own pits.

Adam Mack is a strategic communications consultant at Plannability and former senior executive at W Communications and Weber Shandwick.

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