“How many of you in the room have ever felt stuck at some point in your career?”
At the opening session of the Public Relations Society of America’s Corporate Communications Conference in New York, dozens of hands went up—most of them women.
Conference attendees were responding to a question from Joanna Coles, producer, author, journalist and first chief content officer of Hearst, who discussed the media landscape, her role on the board of Snap Inc., diversity in PR and in the larger business world.
I struggled to decide which of Coles’ comments to distill here. As someone with an impressive and long-running career at the helm of some of the biggest media properties in the world, Coles has a deep well of wisdom to draw upon for PR pros.
Still, the conversation seemed to gravitate to career advice and the C-suite's gender gap. (Or perhaps, that’s what I, a female-identifying writer, was listening for most, given Coles’ ability to carve out a path at the forefront of the media world.)
While Coles offered plenty of wicked celebrity anecdotes and tips for communicators, most attendee questions centered on career advancement.
Coles’ first morsel regarding executive gender parity? Closing the gender and diversity gap in leadership is not up to women alone.
Moderator and PRSA corporate communications chair James Shackelford noted that 73 percent of PR professionals are women, while only 30 percent make it into the C-suite. 78 percent of the C-suite is made up of white men, he added. Playfully skewering Shackelford, a white male and her interviewer, Coles said, “This is not a knock on white men, but come on, guys, you’ve got to make more room for us.”
Female attendees, recalling their formative years reading Cosmopolitan (Coles was EIC), later asked her how women and minorities could move up the ladder. One brave soul shared that at her law firm, only one of 90 attorneys is African American. Coles said that diversity must begin at the start of the employee pipeline, whatever that looks like at your company—whether on-boarding interns, fellows or associates. Leadership must be wholly invested in grooming the next leaders when they’re greenest.
Coles’ next point tied into crisis management, but could also help women and minorities in PR ensure executive leadership roles: Make sure you’re frequently in the room with members of your C-suite.
Referring to CEOs and brands taken down by a single customer tweet or employee post, Coles said, “Any CEO who doesn’t have a comms person in the room is insane. As a comms person you need to be in the room at all times. You are one customer or employee tweet away from chaos.”
It follows that if women and minority PR professionals argue in favor of the necessity of a seat at the table for crisis prevention, that they can improve visibility to the CEO while they do so.
Coles’ other tips for career advancement ranged from seemingly minor adjustments to big-picture shifts:
- Introduce yourself with your full name. It signals self-confidence. “When men introduce themselves, it’s ‘Hi, I’m James Smith.’ With women, it’s too often ‘Hi, I’m Becca.’”
- When arguing for resources, a promotion or a raise, use 'we' instead of 'me.' It shows you’re a team player.
- State your goals, plans and the value you and your team are bringing to the company often. Make sure they tie to the bottom line. “Most bosses just want to make sure you have a plan. They don’t want to have to come up with it themselves.”
- Don’t ignore the value of peripheral connections. Coles said she's not a huge believer in networking for networking’s sake. She prefers the karmic view, “do unto others…” (within reason). Most job offers come from an acquaintance—especially if you’re able to help out a person when the time comes.
- Your colleagues are your best mentors. Coles doesn't advocate for one-to-one mentorship, but she noted that colleagues’ behavior is the best indicator of whether you’re a team player, or attempting to elbow coworkers out of a job.
- Get better at giving employees hard truths. To display leadership qualities, you must be ready to tell a direct report when they’ve disappointed. In addition, tell that person exactly what she/he can do to correct things. There’s a way to do so without leaving them “on the floor and completely broken”—and it helps those employees in their career growth as well.
With more women and minorities in communications following these guideposts, perhaps a representation shift at the top will come sooner than later. Until then, white guys, it's up to you to give us some breathing room.
Follow Sophie: @SophieMaerowitz
Follow Joanna: @JoannaColes