The invisible women of agency PR

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An unseen army of mostly female publicists keeps adland's racist jokes and bad behavior under wraps. What does the JWT suit say about their plight?

Mary Churchill was the head of PR for a top creative agency in the 1980s — she’d rather not say which — when she heard an executive make some remarks that were "a little bit racist," she said.

"What am I going to do about that?" she asked herself. "What if he ever said that to a reporter?" Back in her office, she thought of a diplomatic solution.

"I went to my typewriter and wrote a press release that parodied what he said, and led with his quote," she recalled. "We all laughed about it."

Laughter aside, she felt she’d done her job. "My point was to raise his awareness, which I did," she said. "He got it."

The advertising industry’s approach to PR has come a long way since the 1960s, when a former Foote, Cone & Belding secretary named Charlotte Kelly began handling press relations for Benton & Bowles and McCann-Erickson. Even until the 1980s, when agencies such as Grey, Ogilvy & Mather and Saatchi & Saatchi started creating public-facing PR jobs, women like Kelly and Doris Willens (a former journalist who wrote the book on Bill Bernbach after handling PR for DDB for 18 years) were the only thing standing between agencies and the press. 

But in the past 30 years — as agencies have been forced to take their image more seriously, and mainstream media has taken an interest in the business — an army of publicists has risen within the agency world, ever-present but largely anonymous. And they are still mostly female.

They are there for every interview but are never mentioned in the story. They write the press releases but never sign their names. They succeed by talking to reporters and editors all day, but fail if they actually find their names in print.

And as the Erin Johnson case reveals, they may have the one remaining job in advertising for which personal empowerment sometimes conflicts with the job description.

"Any monkey can do it"
In the days since Johnson, chief communications officer for J. Walter Thompson, filed her discrimination lawsuit against chairman and chief executive Gustavo Martinez, who resigned on Thursday, the industry has stood transfixed, watching one of its most respected publicists defiantly break the omertà.

If the allegations in Johnson’s suit prove to be true, her experiences would seem to represent an extreme for any era. Interviews with close to 20 PR professionals who work for and with ad agencies — male and female — unearthed not a single instance of behavior that came anywhere near the "constant stream of racist and sexist remarks," not to mention "jokes" about raping her, that Johnson describes.

"Not every agency exec is an asshole," said one female industry publicist, who — like most of the people interviewed for this article — requested anonymity so she could tell her story without endangering her career. "The majority treat their PR people with respect and see the value they bring to their company and even to their personal careers. And they appreciate that we go up to bat for them on the daily."

"But then there are the ad execs who treat their PR people with complete and utter disrespect," she continued. "Demeaning comments and inappropriate behavior. Yet those are the very guys who rely on us to feed their egos, do their dirty work, make them look ‘good,’ and help them get rich and famous. It's fucking twisted."

The industry’s changing attitudes toward women are well-documented, and have inspired countless empowerment and mentorship programs. Less discussed is its attitude toward public relations, which some say is moving in the opposite direction.  

"A lot of people in advertising think PR is just something you buy and any monkey can do it," said a female agency publicist who asked not to be named. "Unfortunately, sometimes that’s just how you’re treated, like you’re an idiot."

One male agency PR exec feels caught in a paradox: "On the one hand, I think the industry has greatly recognized how important PR is. On the flip side, most corporate communications departments have been reduced in size." Of course, such is the plight of any department that doesn’t directly generate revenue, he noted.

An ugly combination
When you combine the industry’s attitude toward women with its attitude toward PR, the results can sometimes be ugly. Said one female communications director who recently left an Omnicom agency: "You get called ‘princess’ and things like that. It’s meant with affection, but it can be dispiriting."

Still, talk to women who’ve been in the job less than 10 years, and you don’t hear many horror stories. "I have never felt that I have been unfairly treated or denied a promotion or my suggestions weren’t taking seriously because I’m a woman," said Isabelle Gauvry, director of PR for OmnicomMediaGroup, who started doing agency publicity about six years ago.

Those who’ve been in the industry longer have less flattering stories to tell. For example, at least two prominent industry publicists say their employers took advantage of their maternity leave to replace them.

"The agency had gotten jealous about all the publicity a competitor was getting and thought that they deserved to be on the cover of Entertainment Weekly or Vanity Fair versus the pages of ad trades," said one of the those publicists. "They were interviewing for my replacement before I even had the baby."

Adding insult to injury, when the agency president called to tell her she was fired, he mentioned that his own wife had stayed home after having a baby — implying she should, too.

"His wife had the luxury of staying home given that they were very well off," she said. "I couldn’t. And I loved my job." She sued and settled out of court. "But not before I was really intimidated by senior management. They made me feel like I would never get a job again."

Why the role is still dominated by women is hard to say. Surveys of the PR industry overall suggest it consists of about 70% women. Though no one keeps track of the gender breakdown among agency publicists, those interviewed for this article put it closer to 90%. "I’ve probably interviewed 1,000 PR people over the years," said the owner of a PR firm that specializes in ad agencies. "I think I can count on one hand the number of guys that I’ve ever even interviewed. It’s crazy."

Some blame the male ego; creatives simply prefer an attractive young woman be the one to polish their image, they say. Rob Schwartz, chief executive of TBWA\Chiat\Day NY (and a former creative director), argues that truly big egos will gladly work with anyone if it means getting press. "I’ve never for a second as creative director or CEO thought we should have a quote-unquote ‘PR gal,’ " he said. The creatives he knows "just want the person who can influence the journalists, male or female."

And there are plenty of men doing the job. Roy Elvove, director of worldwide communications at BBDO, and Owen Dougherty, chief communications officer at Grey Group, are just two contemporaries of Churchill who have crisscrossed each other at agencies over the years. But as in other professions dominated by women, like teaching and nursing, men disproportionately occupy the senior agency PR positions.

Behind the curtain
If the female publicist has so far been excluded from the empowerment conversation, it could be attributed to occupational hazard. After all, they are taught to be the "man behind the curtain."

"If I’m a client, I don’t want my PR firm in the press, and I don’t want them out there talking about themselves," said the president of the PR agency. It’s simply anathema to the publicist mindset to call attention to oneself, even when placed in a bad situation.

And gender dynamics don’t help. "The majority of people in power are men, so it’s easy to be silenced or intimidated if you are the sole female voice representing a softer side of the situation," said a former chief communications officer for a WPP agency.

Today, alerting senior management to a potential liability takes more than a typewriter and a good sense of humor, particularly when management is the problem. That Johnson found herself with nowhere to turn after top HR people allegedly failed to act is not surprising to colleagues. "You find yourself shackled because of the mafia that is the top tier of management at an agency," said the former WPP publicist.

If adland is to have a separate strata of women for whom silence is still requested, "there could stand to be a better process," she said.


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