Profesora de Comunicación Corporativa de la Universidad de Huddersfield (UK)

“The private sector has a great deal to learn from public sector communication”

Por Karen Sanders, @kbfsanders, Catedrática de Comunicación en CEU San Pablo y ex-presidenta de ACOP.

Anne Gregory is one of the world’s leading PR academics. She was head of the Centre for PR Studies at Leeds Beckett University where she worked for 23 years and is now Professor of Corporate Communication at the University of Huddersfield.

I first met Anne in the 1990s when we were both founding members of the Institute of Communication Ethics. She is a straight-talking Yorkshire woman who has been hugely significant in building the UK Government’s communication and leadership capacity over the last ten years. Her research focuses on these areas as well as on the strategic role of communications and on ethics and globalisation. Anne’s multiple publications include the UK’s seminal book on Campaign Planning and the four volume Sage Master works on Strategic Communication, which she edited with Professor Robert Heath.

Anne’s research, teaching and role as Chair of the Global Alliance, the world-wide body of over 60 national and international public relations associations, has involved her in a great deal of travelling over the last couple of years. I was able to catch up with her on Skype on an early February morning.

Anne Gregory (@GregsAnne) is one of the guest speakers at the IV International Political Communication Meeting ACOP Bilbao to be held in July 2016 under the title “New communication: New politics?”.

Around 70% of those working in the Public Relations/Corporate Communication sector are women, according to the 2015 Global PR Report, the definitive global study of PR industry size and trends. Why do you think so many women are attracted to the PR and communications field?

I don’t think that the PR industry is any less typical than some of the other professions such as law, journalism, medicine and accountancy that have gone through a process of feminization. There is something about the professions that is very attractive to women because they give you a level of status. But there are a whole set of other reasons why women go into public relations in particular. Empathetic, softer business skills, the ability to get alongside others, to listen and to put yourselves in the place of the other, these capabilities I think come more easily to women than to men. They can also develop their craft skills typical for the communication profession such as creativity, visualization and writing. And women have proved themselves very capable. Women see things through. A lot of public relations is not just about starting and initiating something but seeing things through and attending to the detail. Without wanting to be too stereotypical about this, women tend to be completer finishers because of our socialization, but also because of that natural mothering instinct which sees people through both the tough times as well as through the easy times.

Only 30% of women occupy leadership positions in the industry. Why do you think this is?

PR is not atypical of other professions which are, to quote Larissa Grunig, predominantly female but dominated by the men. Once you get above a certain level, it is very clear that there is an inversion with men being obviously in the majority in the senior posts. This is the case in the professions more generally in the UK. Some serious work is being done to examine the reasons for this by the Government Communication Service in the UK. Why is it when you get to the senior civil service level all these massively capable women are suddenly not there? Some of that is easily explainable. You tend to be at the peak of your potential development at the time when the biological clock is running and career breaks also put a brake on things. But I think it’s more profound than that. Women sometimes lack the confidence to go for the big jobs and we know from research that they tend only to apply for those jobs that they feel fully qualified to do. Men on the other hand go for jobs even though they know they do not meet all the requirements. I am convinced there’s still a lot of conscious and unconscious prejudice and sometimes women can be their own enemies about who is trusted when you get to the highest level. There’s still something abroad in society, and that will be reflected in employer organizations, that says that women in the most senior and responsible positions are unusual and not only are they unusual but they tend to be of a particular type. Certainly in the world of top politics and top business it is overwhelmingly macho. From my discussions with senior women, I know that the women feel they have to behave in a particular way and that the leadership styles they would wish to adopt, they are cautious about and that is despite all the literature that says that feminine leader­ship styles are the ones that maximise team effort. Women often find they have to act in a way which is alien to their preferred ways of behaving as leaders. This creates inner tension. So some women remove themselves because they don’t want to be at the top and feel they have to behave in certain ways. This, coupled with the innate suspicion that still says that men natural­ly inhabit the top jobs and women don’t, makes for a poisonous combination.

You have done considerable work in the training of government communicators and, in particular, government communicator leaders. Are women well represented in this sector as communicators/communication leaders?

I work on a senior talent programme for British government communicators. Women are very well represented on the programme. They are the majority. We’re now on the third edition and around 60% are women. The UK civil service is putting extraordinary efforts into ensuring that women coming through that programme have no barriers to promotion. However, when you look at the top jobs, there are currently 14 Directors of Communication in the huge government departments and only one of them is a woman. I believe we’re at a point of transitioning and questioning. There are women being prepared for those senior jobs. The jury is out about whether they will come through into those senior jobs in any representative numbers. I know that a number of senior people in government communication are particularly concerned about this and want to ensure the diversity of senior people in government. And it’s not just about women. Where are the disabled people? Where are the black and ethnic minority people? Women are representative, a totem – they are not a minority in society – of the underrepresented groups as well as being the most significantly underrepresented group.

There are undoubted challenges in the arena of government for women communicators. Most senior politicians are men, most MPs are men and the world of senior politicians is rough and tough. Quite macho. Women have to engage in that environment. And there are particular pressures in those top jobs anyway that mark them out as very different from the private sector. There is a political overlay on everything that is undertaken which is very difficult to read. For civil servants, as opposed to political appointees, that line between working for the government but being politically neutral is a delicate one which brings subtle pressures and is less easy to navigate than “I’m not doing that because it’s not ethical”. Then there are the multiple accountabilities that people who work in government have. Literally the whole country can take an interest in your work. The Home Office is one of the top three stories in quality newspapers every day. Furthermore, anyone is able to enquire about the detail of your work because you are bound by the Freedom of Information Act which means the work you’re involved in can be scrutinized by everyone from the press to private citizens. So that multiple accountability together with political overlays and there being no hiding place because you have to be transparent in all you do produce great pressure.

One of my annoyances is that sometimes I hear people in government saying that we have so much to learn from the private sector. I think it’s the other way round. There’s a lot to learn from the public sector in terms of the intrinsic complexity and value of the work. People working in health and transport are doing things that impact on people’s lives every day. It’s a bit different from selling frozen peas.

It’s intricate, difficult work. If you add these other elements I mentioned earlier to the cocktail, there are a number of private sector people who wouldn’t last two minutes in such an environment. These are tough, complex, highly professional roles and massively pressured. So can women hack it? Of course they can. But they might do it in a different way. It’s the way they do things rather than what they do that seems to be the particular challenge.

We still live in a society where the hours people work are regarded as the final measure of their commitment rather than their loyalty and the level of focus they apply when they’re actually at work. Maybe employers need to come up with new metrics and be more demanding about the impact people have, not the hours they’re working.

What advice would you give to a young woman going into communication about the skills she needs to have?

Worldly wisdom. Go out and experience as much as you can. Put yourself out of your comfort zone. Put yourself in situations where you find it difficult to explain what you’re doing. Be endlessly inquisitive. You can learn how to write. You can learn how to do many things. But what you don’t learn very easily, and which are the key things in the world of communication, are judgment, wisdom, the ability to say no because you understand how things operate and you can give cogent arguments about how a different decision will produce different, better outcomes. Confidence, taking risks. With good training you can learn how to do the technical aspects of the job, but worldly wisdom is hard won by making mistakes, learning and moving on.

Could you tell us of any female communicators you particularly admire and why?

There are a couple of people I admire in the UK government communication world. For example, the director of communication of NHS Blood and Transplant, Leonie Austen. She’s in senior management and I admire her profound understanding and ability to persuade her Board that unless communication is at the heart of everything you do, you’re not going to get very far. Unless you communicate in ways that people understand and that resonate with them, nothing gets achieved because whatever an organisation achieves, it achieves though people, either inside or outside. So you have to work really hard to build trust and gain the right to explain or justify what you’re trying to do but also have to listen to them. She works with people and listens to them. She is massively informed and brings evidence to the Board to show them what’s happening out there and how Board decisions are likely to land. She is very clear about what the implications of certain decisions are likely to be and guards the reputation of her organization – she is the chief risk officer. She keeps the organisation safe. She’s very clear that if the organisation is going to progress and prosper, it needs to be very aware of its accountabilities.

Leonie’s often quiet but when she does make a contribution, boy, does it matter. She changes the course of conversations and decisions. She’s understands how to make an impact.

Are there any women politicians who you consider to be great communicators?

Angela Merkel. She is a woman of principle, grounded. Whatever you make of what she’s done in allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, you can see how her childhood experience in East Germany has embedded in her a clear value set which she’s prepared to go out and defend. She still makes her husband’s breakfast in the morning. Power hasn’t gone to her head.

I also like Glenda Jackson, the famous actress who transitioned to become a serious politician, and Giselle Stuart (UK Labour MP). What comes through is a clear set of values, wanting to make a contribution and it sounds really naïve and idealistic, but they’re not in it for the power, they’re not in it for the prestige but they want to make the world a better place. It should be the motivation of every MP but I’m not sure it is. For those who do have that underpinning, it comes across. The awful word that is used in our environment is “authenticity”. They’re genuine people. You might not like them but at least you can trust them.

You have been an outstanding leader in the field of communication. You were the first female PR professor in Britain and have recently been the first woman to lead the Global Alliance. Could you tell us about the challenges you have faced?

My role as the Global Alliance Chair has meant I’ve had to travel all around the world. I’m aware that as a woman I’d be regarded in certain cultures as second class. It was often clear when I travelled with a male companion where the deference was being shown and where it wasn’t and I’d have to remind them who was leading. You also know that as a woman you’ll be scrutinized not just for what you’re saying but also for what you look like and what you’re wearing. But in the end you just get on with it, try to build relationships and do the right thing.
The challenges for the communication profession as a whole involve establishing our own legitimacy. The World Economic Forum is very focused on the issue of the nature of leadership. We can and should be making a contribution to that space. After all, organizations and society are about communication, they’re constituted by it. But we’ve still a long way to go and we’ve only taken baby steps. And we risk other professions occupying this space. Management consultancies are already onto this track. And we need to secure the territory. Communication is about leadership because organizations can’t exist without communication even though they can exist without money or buildings. Communication is at the heart of everything that has meaning. We belong to a great profession and we need to step up to the leadership plate to secure its future and to be a force for good in the world.

 

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