I’d call it a Pink Metropolis

Ann Friedman’s recent piece in New York Magazine is causing quite the stir in our navel-gazing world of public relations.

Tiffany_Troiano_Olga_Horvat_Robin_Kassner_Karen_Biehl_Bridget_OBrien_Olga_Zabelinskaya1Entitled, ‘Why do we treat PR like a Pink Ghetto,’ the piece  tells us what we already know:

– The lower ranks of PR are completely dominated by young, white women.
– The media tends to portray these women as bubble-gum chewing, party planning air heads.

Friedman was kind enough to write a balanced piece on the subject and even admitted that PR people provide her with story ideas. Gasp. A reporter willing to go on record saying that PR IS providing a worthwhile service to journalism? What is the world coming to?

On the other hand, she repeats all the stereotypes, says 73 to 85 percent of ALL PR professionals are women and that, yes, she’s had more than her fair shares of phone calls from ditzy blond, gum-chewing types straight out of central casting.

I have my own views about the pinkification of PR, but first wanted to ask two members of Peppercomm’s distaff side to weigh-in. Here’s what they had to say:

–  I’d like to think that the “Pink Ghetto” doesn’t really exist, but it certainly does in entertainment/pop culture. Kelly Cutrone is talented and, seems to be well-respected (I think she is a good friend of Harold Burson?). I had only seen a few episodes, but I think Cutrone’s show on Bravo didn’t last because it seems as though only men can get away with having that Type-A demanding personality and succeed (i.e. Chef Gordon Ramsay). This goes back to basic gender stereotyping—girls are supposed to be sweet and nurturing, men are the breadwinners and are tough by nature.

–  Make Chef Ramsay a woman and I guarantee his show wouldn’t last, unless the personality was softened a bit. You need a certain personality to make it in this industry and it may not be one that is best reflected on television for good entertainment (so you either have ditzy women or tough men). When there are talented and smart PR folks portrayed fictionally, they are usually portrayed by men. I’m thinking of the characters on Netflix’s House of Cards, the movie Wag the Dog, etc. Overall, PR needs its own publicist, but we need those smart, great female publicists to stand out in the spotlight a bit more to debunk the gender stereotypes of the industry.

–  Robin Kassner, CEO of Haute PR is one of the reasons why the perception of the Pink Ghetto exists in reality. Here’s just a little sampling of when she went on Bravo’s ‘The Millionaire Matchmaker’.

–  Women come cheaper.  I’ll never forget my former male boss’ explosive reaction when I complained about a paltry raise in the face of superior performance: “Christ, XXXXX, you make big bucks for a woman!”  

–  Women are “nice.”  They are bred to be courteous, kind and caring.  “Dialing and smiling” is part of most women’s psychological DNA.

I’m glad Friedman wrote her piece because, frankly, our trade publications won’t touch the incendiary subject with a 10-foot-pole. Why do I say incendiary? Because while it’s politically correct to say PR’s upper ranks are dominated by far too many middle-aged white guys like me, it is oh-so politically incorrect to write anything disparaging about women, or the progress of women in attaining substantive jobs in PR.

I’m all for equal rights and equal pay. But, in the same way too many middle-aged white guys project a retro, out-of-touch image to the larger business world, so, too, do too many young white females.

And, frankly, our industry has done an abysmal job of recruiting young men of any color, people of color and foreign-born nationals.

As a result, in the not-too-distant future PR will be far more than merely a pink ghetto. It’ll be a white, pink metropolis that will be superseded by competitive fields such as advertising that ARE taking steps towards building a work force that reflects our changing population.

Until then, like, um, I have some reporters to like, send blast e-mails to and, oh yeah, a party that’s happening downtown that we, um, like, were hired to coordinate and what not. Gotta go. Text me, OK?

20 thoughts on “I’d call it a Pink Metropolis

  1. I’m seeing a lot of conversation about a perceived mischaracterization of young women in PR and about the need to encourage a more diverse group of professionals in the communication industry. These are valid concerns and very worth exploring, but I think we’re misinterpreting the point of the original NY Mag story.

    “Pink Ghetto” was a term that started popping up in the 80’s as a way to describe certain career paths that will bring women to the manager level but rarely, if ever, give them a voice as a business executive. I’ve absolutely seen this throughout my career, and it was exceedingly apparent while I contracted in-house for a former client. At that company, women held the highest positions in the “pink collar” departments like HR, Marketing and Communications. They were smart, and they were contributing to retaining a stellar workforce, increasing customers and improving the reputation of the company. But the perception was that they held the fluffy roles — roles that couldn’t show ROI in the same matter of fact way that others could. So, beyond being asked to give an ad-hoc presentations to the C-Suite here and there, they were forever shut out of the room where business decisions were being made. They were forever stuck at the highest rung of their ladders, unable to move into executive positions.

    Yes, the bubblegum stereotype sexist, obnoxious, and troubling. But the bigger issue for the industry — question we need to address both at agencies and in-house — is: how do we show the value of PR and communications in a way that brings us to the table when company leaders are making important decisions about business strategy? How do we break the communications glass ceiling?

  2. Ahead of tomorow’s podcast, just wanted to add my belated 2 cents (ok, $2)…

    As Friedman points out in her piece, many of the criticisms against PR are just criticisms of (highly stereotyped) women. But let’s put aside these more superficial offenses of this manicured assembly of salad-eating, heel-wearing pseudo professionals for just a moment.

    As far as I can tell, the only concrete criticisms against the PR executive are aimed at the cold calling, mindless fakery and fluff being sold with “enthusiasm for a product because of pay rather than passion.” Hmm… sounds like the skills required for another profession, this one (like many, many others) still dominated by men – sales. An industry where those same attributes are dressed up as skills like “assertive” and “confident”. And yes, probably annoying, but not because the associate is bubble-gum chewing, ditzy, blond or fluffy (aka female). It’s because he/she is just annoying!

    When I look at professions with a distinct gender divide, I see a pattern. If it’s male-dominated, it’s because women aren’t naturally strong enough (manual labor), skilled enough (finances/maths/sciences), confident enough (sales, politics). If it’s a female dominated occupation, well – it’s because men don’t want to do it! Even if it’s not inherently true, it becomes true thanks to societal perceptions and pressures. Look at librarians, nurses, teachers, administrative assistants. Yes, thankfully we’re starting to see a shift here, but what is the biggest complaint against these professions? That they’re for women.

    My argument is that this is the same self-fueling fire affecting the PR industry. The question isn’t – “how can we get more men to join PR?” The question is – “How can we portray women – and the work of women – with more respect?” Because as long as PR is dominated by women, it’s going to battle with a negative perception for just that – being dominated by women. Or, rather, high-heeled, manicured, salad-eating clichés of women.

    So if we want to improve the image of PR as a “Pink Ghetto” (ugh, it pains me to even type that), I figure we have two options. We can put our PR savvy to work, roll up our sleeves and start changing the conversation around women in the workplace. Or, we can just get rid of them. (But please don’t, because I kind of like my job, like, really a lot)

  3. Spot on, Julie. Alas, our industry trade groups and publications treat the pinkification of PR as a toxic isotope. They simply won’t address the subject or suggest alternatives (aside from calling for more diversity without putting the need for diversity in its proper, pink context).

  4. I agree that the lopsided view of PR is due mainly to the portrayal on TV shows of just one area — entertainment. You won’t see a TV show with publicists covering healthcare or financial services. And, if you did, I can guarantee they wouldn’t be gum-snapping bottle blondes.

    • Unless you count ABC’s “Scandal” — which is about politics with a female African-American protagonist. Shonda Rhimes is the only one who goes outside the “Pink Ghetto” stereotype to any degree and it’s still just soap opera stuff.

      I do wonder if the “pink” generation in strategic communications will feel stifled, bored or ignored by upper management in the coming years. I’ve certainly seen it happen among my peers. That could create a new kind of recruiting challenge, which might be the best thing in the long-term.

      • It’s true that “Scandal” has an over-top-story line, but at least Shonda portrays another dimension of PR — crisis communications — that many viewers may not be aware of. You won’t see Olivia Pope or her associates holding a clipboard to check off guest names at the opening of a Hollywood.restaurant.

  5. Thanks, Chris. I think PR firms will finally stand up and take notice when prospects (whose goal is to reach young men) select different types of marketing partners because the PR agency’s young, female account team neither represents the target demographic nor understands their zeitgeist.

  6. Right on the money once again, RepMan. This problem is prevalent even at the college level. In most of my communication classes I was the “token guy.” Granted, I also went to a university with one of the highest female to male ratios (3:1) but still, there should have been many more gentleman pursuing a degree in the communication arena. For a field that strives to aide organizations in communicating with their publics, our profession should be much more diverse than it is.

  7. I wasn’t suggesting there was overt discrimination, Matt. Rather, I think our industry leaders are content to turn a blind eye to the long-term inplications of an all-white, all-female industry. It’s a hot potato politically speaking so we pretend it’s not a problem.

  8. Steve, you say you disagree with me, but you really don’t. I absolutely agree that many young, white women are self-selecting for PR, and many other demographic/ethnographic groups are not. As Paul Merchan so eloquently points out, some of them are selecting for smaller, niche players that market to people like them.

    I was on the other side (journalist) for nearly 20 years, and have been in PR for 7. I honestly have NEVER seen overt discrimination in the PR industry. But I would agree that “mainstream” PR has done a horrible job of recruiting under-represented groups, either as new hires or candidates for promotion. They do not realize they have opportunities in the “mainstream,” so they self-select elsewhere.

  9. Spot on, Paul. But until a lack of ethnic and gender diversity hurts PR firms in the pocketbook, they’ll continue to pay lip service to this most important issue. Shame on the trades for ignoring it completely.

  10. As my previous point suggested, there ARE young professionals among ethnic minorities who are interested or already involved in this industry, but they are gravitating towards smaller companies that market to minorities. Part of the reason may be self-selection as Matt suggested, but an even bigger reason is very likely the lack of recruiting for these individuals. Why does baseball have fewer blacks now than ever before? Because of a long history of tepid recruiting into that market, yet the Latin American players dominate because MLB teams establish massive recruitment centers in these countries. We have to do a better job at attracting these individuals and LISTENING to their needs, their personal goals and career paths.

  11. Agreed, Tom. But, that’s not the point of the article or my blog. PR’s lower ranks have become completely dominated by young, white women. To succeed, and be seen as relevant by clients, our industry needs to better reflect the massive demographic changes in society at large.

  12. I’ll suggest that women are better at many things in PR than many guys: skills, attitude, patience, client service. As far as smart women at the uppermost levels, I see many women leaders in my world of financial PR.

  13. Have to disagree with you on this one, Matt. PR most definitely had a glass ceiling in place for decades. Many, highly-qualified women were passed by for the top spots at the large holding companies in particular. And, ironically, it was self-selecting. But not in the way you suggest. The old boy power network did everything in its power to assure the reins of power were handed down to another man. Today, we’re witnessing a different kind of self-selecting in which many young white women and very few young men or people of color are selecting PR as a career.

  14. Matt, your theory applies to the woman who decided to become, say, a pharmacist, or a construction worker, but I think you should consider the women who are IN PR but for some “unknown” reason don’t rise to the top.

  15. Whenever we talk about under-represented groups — e.g. the upper ranks of PR are dominated by middle-age white guys — it’s important to also talk about a basic concept in statistics: self-selection. In short, self-selection means people voluntarily select themselves into a group. In other words, are there relatively few women in the upper ranks of PR because they have self-selected to do SOMETHING ELSE with their lives or their careers? Maybe or maybe not. But we should find out.

    We all self-select. I have no interest in painting, for example, so I have self-selected into a non-painting-related career. Maybe I could have been a great painter. Who knows? But let’s not go blaming people or an entire industry for keeping people OUT when we really don’t know if they actually want to be IN.

  16. Nice piece, Rep. What I would give to see this field blossom with more diversity. We always talk about diversity, but it appears as more of a mirage. The problem is that many of us in PR/marketing communications still have not adopted a broader, more inclusive, even global/international mindset. And many minorities are going to work for niche shops that cater to a specific demographic. I’m a member of a LinkedIn group for Hispanic PR professionals, which has about 1,000 members. But there isn’t always a chance to see them in person. There has to be more out there from various backgrounds, races and ethnicities. This is the next frontier in communications, and if we face it head on, it will make us stronger.