I'm pretty sure I've never met Marian Salzman, the CEO of Havas North America. But, I dig her.
That's because, as far as I know, Marian's the first holding company CEO with the guts to go on record to state what's wrong with the public relations industry.
In a recent Holmes Report, Salzman said what I've been saying for years: “America's PR industry is too feminized and too politically correct.”
Of course, Salzman's remarks were specifically aimed at the non-event that is the Cannes Lions Awards competition. But, even so, she's won my heart.
Salzman believes PR did so poorly in this “creativity for the sake of creativity” awards program because the best campaigns (and she cites her own holding company's Australian appendage as an example), “exude a great masculine energy, something we're sadly missing over here.” (meaning the good, old U.S. of A.).
And, get this, Salzman said she believes, "…The American PR industry has become so feminized and so politically correct that I worry where the edge has gone. We've institutionalized all the hot shops, softened their edges and finishing- schooled the brashness right out of them."
To which I say, “You go girl!”
I've long been worried about the near-complete domination of PR by women. The last time I checked, 78 percent of PR practitioners are female (and predominantly white).
That spells trouble for any field trying to produce relevant campaigns for an increasingly diverse population.
I'm especially pleased to see Salzman take on the PR PC police.
I blame the industry trade publications for sanitizing PR. One need only read the cover stories of our leading trade journal to see what Salzman means. One would think the featured executives were latter-day versions of Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi rolled into one.
And, unlike advertising journals, our trades lead readers to believe everything is sunshine and roses in PR. There's no controversy, no scandal and, to be blunt, no investigative reportage whatsoever.
As a result, we celebrate the bland and banal, and ignore the very real problem that homogenization will cause PR.
Were I a chief marketing officer looking for an edgy, irreverent campaign to reach an increasingly influential demographic, I wouldn't choose a PR firm. That's because the odds are good the most likely all-white, all-female team will produce a feel-good, all's well program that Salzman would agree won't move the sales needle or impress the Cannes Lion judges.
I'm hoping Salzman's holding company power position will finally wake up the PR powers that be and that they (we) finally begin having adult conversations about the dangers feminization and political correctness pose to our industry.
On the one hand…yes…I agree completely about the importance of taking bold chances and not playing it safe. But I also feel that too many advertising and digital shops do “edgy” and “irreverent” to impress their peers in the advertising industry with how clever they are rather than actually serving the needs of the audience they are seeking to reach. So I think we should be careful not to glorify edginess for the sake of edginess–nor to think that we should favor developing creative geniuses over those who value listening and collaborating.
I think the key here is whether that listening and collaboration is internally or externally focused. If we are trying to be good neighbors to our co-workers in the form of believing that no idea is a bad idea, and establishing “consensus” as the means to decide whether a program is good or not…we will probably be releasing watered down content that, in the end, has as its main attribute appealing to the lowest common denominator: “it was the most agreeable to the most people on our internal team.” That doesn’t serve the external audience at all; it just seeks not to rock the boat of agencies or their clients.
But I disagree regarding Mr. Rogers. I wish PR were the Mr. Rogers of the marketing world. I don’t think Mr. Rogers was too caught up with being politically correct. He certainly took hard political stances on issues like funding of public television, and he didn’t shy away from, for instance, talking with kids frankly about tragedy. But he also wasn’t obsessed with being cool. The longer the rest of the marketing world is, the longer they’ll distract themselves from serving the needs of the audiences they’re supposed to reach and the businesses of which they are supposed to tell stories.
(BTW, for the record, here are other lessons I think the marketing world should take away from Mr. Rogers: http://www.fastcompany.com/1691558/5-marketing-lessons-mr-rogers).
Thanks, Marian. You raised a critically important subject. I liken PR people as the Millennial children depicted in Ron Alsop’s seminal work, ‘The trophy kids grow up.’ Our US PR employees show up, play nice and make warm, safe programs. Meanwhile, their edgy, irreverent peers in digital and advertising shops around the world knock down walls, take bold chances and explore new borders (and don’t give a damn if they offend someone along the way).
PR has become the Mr. Rodgers of integrated marketing. And, the cooler kids are seizing the future because we’re too caught up with being politically correct. My kingdom for a PR trade journalist who will finally wake up and write an investigative piece about this Stepford Wives saga gone bad. Now.
Thanks for the column, and the debate. I really didn’t mean to stir it up, but I am so tired of doing nice work with nice people and never reaching for greatness because we’re so darn collaborative and agreeable… in today’s PR industry, no way can we make the waves that might possibly lead to truly great work. Not most of the time. Too much emphasis on all the traits and characteristics that make for good neighbors but not creative geniuses.
Great observations, Sam. I purposely avoided Salzman’s ‘ballsy’ observation because I’ve met plenty of women who are a whole lot tougher and more creative than men. And, I agree that edgy ideas are gender neutral. What resonated with me, though, were her observations that our industry has become too feminized (and the numbers sure don’t lie about that) and too politically correct. That’s why I pointed the finger at trade journalists. A quick read of any PR trade publication would make one believe we work within a true Utopia (whereas the reality is quite the opposite).
I think we need to separate out three separate discussions here (all of which I think are distinct): the feeling that communications is too PC, the feeling that communications is too “feminized,” and the question about the percentage of women vs. men who work in the industry. I don’t agree with Marian’s conflation of having or not having the balls to do something with this question of corporate communications being too feminized. As I’ve understood it, feminine communication styles focus on listening, empathy, relationships and community-based concerns, emotion, etc. I don’t see this as somehow running counter to being bold or being risk-taking.
In fact, I’d claim that quite the opposite is true of business culture in general: that it has far too little traditional “feminine communications” style built into its logic, its core, and its understanding of success. I think back to Sheryl Sandberg’s argument with Lean In that the problem on the playground is that boys who boss people around are considered “assertive” and the women who do so are considered “bossy.” Her takeaway is that we need to reward women for that dominant behavior in the same way we do men. My takeaway is that we need to discourage kids being bossy. True leaders don’t need to waste all their time trying to prove their dominance in true “jungle” style. And companies need to get a whole lot better at listening to their audiences, their employees, etc.
All that said…there can be a lot of problems when PC police are driven not by seeking not to accidentally offend people by saying something inconsiderate but instead by trying to make sure we never say or do anything that makes waves or take a stance on anything at all. That stymies companies from ever doing anything bold, to your point…