PR and the ‘chick factor’: What Kent State learned about the missing men of public relations

Girls, Girls, Girls! That Motley Crue classic might be a perfect theme song for public relations these days. But I gotta warn you, the video will set back women’s rights a hundred years! Link with caution!

Public relations belongs to the “girls” in 2008. Some 70% of PR practitioners and 80% of PR students today are women. At Kent State it’s closer to 90%. In the communication biz, PR has become the new nursing.

I know what you’re thinking: So what? Women do well in PR, don’t they? They do, indeed. But if you embrace diversity as I do, you have to worry about the trend line. Today’s public relations practice is out of whack gender-wise. The absence of men — particularly among the 20- and 30-somethings — hurts our profession and it hurts those who employ us. Men and women view the world differently. We bring different values to the table, thus different perspectives to PR problem-solving.

So today I launch a one-man campaign to bring gender diversity back to public relations. Care to talk about it? I have the summer off!

In search of the missing man

Students in my PR Case Studies class conducted about 70 on-campus intercepts to learn what male undergrads knew and how they felt about the PR major. In addition, students interviewed over 20 high school English/journalism teachers via phone or email. They also talked to their own classmates to learn what drew them to the major. Finally, we surveyed 120 students in a big-box freshman mass communication class.

While none of this research is generalizable, it does provide direction for future study. It also gave my students a foundation for creating their PR plans to attract more guys to public relations.

Next week I’ll do a second post to share the best strategies and tactics from our plans. But first, here’s what we learned:

High school students don’t know about PR. Most freshman and sophomore men told us that studying PR was never a consideration before coming to Kent State. Even some of the seniors interviewed were unaware that Kent State had a PR major.

Discussions among our own PR students (mostly women) reveal only about one in ten came to Kent State intending to study public relations. Most began in other fields and were drawn to PR through word of mouth. This also could explain why so few PR majors graduate in 4 years!

High-school influentials know little about PR. Only one of the high school journalism teachers we interviewed had any professional background in public relations. Few discuss PR careers among their students, even though many of those students have the perfect skill set for it. Said one teacher: “I just don’t know enough about public relations, so I don’t talk about it.”

Update 5/13/08: Forgot to mention that high school journalism programs are experiencing a shift toward females that’s similar to PR’s: very pronounced. So journalism programs may not be the ideal recruiting spot for PR. But since most high school journalism advisers are also English teachers, it still may be a conduit to good writers and communicators.

PR myths are alive and well on campus. Said one student during the intercepts:

“When I think of PR, I always picture a girl, because all of the PR majors I know are women. It’s a default general stereotype. Plus, it’s harder to tell if a woman is lying, so they’re probably better at the job.”

While a good many of our young men at Kent State see PR as “liars for hire,” most seem to know of the skills it takes to succeed in the major. They correctly identify writing, public speaking and organizational as central to a PR career.

Men in the large mass communication class (mostly freshmen) seem unaffected by the “chick” stereotypes voice by upperclassmen. More than 3 in 5 called the statement, “Men and women are equally suited to public relations jobs,” very accurate.

But here’s a reality check for you: Not one of the 32 men in the freshman mass comm class has selected the PR major. Not one.

Some of this is our own fault!

Students don’t know about the PR major in part because we don’t tell them. PR for the PR major — at least at Kent State — is pretty much nonexistent. Some findings from my students’ secondary research:

PR on the website? Good luck researching the PR major on our main website or the School of Journalism site. Information is sparse and hard to find. Type the key words “public relations” into the School of Journalism site and you get — wow — nothing. The search feature isn’t operating at all. Type the same words into the Kent State site and atop the list is an item on “newsroom convergence” from our alumni magazine. Not one of the top-ten links leads to useful information on the major. Clearly, we need to work on our web content and our search engine optimization for PR.

Face-to-face opportunities are overlooked, too. This year alone our Center for Scholastic Journalism will bring some 1,500 high school journalists to campus for 4 or 5 separate events. For each of those events, the PR major will supply only one guest speaker who will see about 40 students for about 30 minutes. That’s it.

The other 1,450 students won’t hear a peep about PR during their visits to Kent. Too bad, because most are scholastic journalists won’t pursue journalism in college. And way too many won’t consider careers in PR, in part because we didn’t tell them about it.

Oh yeah. The Center for Scholastic Journalism also hosts a handful of events for high school journalism advisers every year. What an opportunity to enlighten these teachers about careers in public relations. But we haven’t.

Academic advisers on campus don’t know about PR, either. The advisers meet with some 3,500 incoming freshmen every year are without the information they need. Imagine if just a handful of them became messengers for public relations. We could do this with a handful of orientation sessions. But we haven’t.

I’ll be the first to boast that we do a fine job preparing students to practice public relations, but we do a poor job managing our own. I didn’t need 14 PR majors in my Case Studies class to tell me this. Well, maybe I did.

More to do, more to learn

We need to build on this research and spread it across the country and around the world. Some thoughts on how to do that:

Survey a larger and move diverse group of college freshmen. Our one on-campus survey had some flaws, but it gave us a solid picture of how incoming students view PR. We should expand that survey to a sample of campuses around the country, and we should target students beyond those in “mass communication” courses.

Interview a broader sample of teachers. High school journalism and English teachers can be key influencers, but we need more input to understand what they know and how we might assist their students.

Interview high school journalism students who come to Kent State. It’s a convenience sample, to be sure, but it will help us better understand how these kids make career decisions. Some 1,500 of them will come to our campus next year. Why not talk to them?

If you have more ideas, post a comment or send an email. Also, if you’re interested teaming up on some additional research on the topic, I’m all ears.

31 Responses to PR and the ‘chick factor’: What Kent State learned about the missing men of public relations

  1. Greg Smith says:

    Bill, as previously posted, I’ve got 100,000 words on this topic (all recent research as part of my PhD).

    Here is my take in brief (is that possible)?

    Males are put off PR because it is not yet seen as a serious business discipline (too flaky and fuzzy). Media perceptions do not help, and this is where PR does lousy PR, externally and, as you pointed out, internally at university (we have the same problem here in Australia).

    Add to that is the fact that women are actually better at communicating, listening and (shock, horror) building relationships.

    I agree this is a worrying trend because it’s been proven in industries that become feminised, that the pay drops (you’ll have to read the Thesis).

    Check it out at http://people.aapt.net.au/~net/study

  2. Bill Huey says:

    “Plus, it’s harder to tell if a woman is lying, so they’re probably better at the job.”
    Priceless! You are doing a great service for PR, with the usual caveat that no good deed goes unpunished.

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for dropping in Greg. Now that my semester is done, I plan to spend time with your research, as many of my students already have. I’m less worried about the impact of this trend on paychecks than its impact on our clients and employers, and the quality of counsel they receive. And though I would agree that women are better at listening and relationship building, I still contend that the male perspective is important to have at the table.

    And Bill, I probably shouldn’t have run that comment from the intercepts, but it is, as you say, “priceless.” While that kid’s view wasn’t in the majority, it was representative of how quite a few undergrads view our business. It squares with Greg’s research that says men see PR is too “fuzzy and flaky.” We can’t ignore it.

    Another young man in the business school said he viewed PR majors as “hot chicks and trendy guys with Macs.” I have a Mac, and I’m not at all trendy. So this must mean I’m hot, right? “In your dreams,” my wife just whispered.

  4. Bill,

    What troubles me is that although the majority of PR pros are women, the top PR dogs (managers, CEOs, etc.) are men. Is this to say that men are better professionals than women? Or that they possess a quality that women don’t? Or is society still stuck on the fact that things won’t be ran properly unless a man is in charge?

    I may be taking this a little too far but it’s just an observation…

  5. Breeze says:

    I see a lot of value in the research listed here, Bill. Getting the right information into the hands of the interested–and those who influence them–will have a huge impact on PR’s profile.

    What I don’t see (yet, anyway) is how raising the major’s profile will necessarily translate to more men choosing to study it. Is it just a law-of-averages approach?

  6. What majors are dominated at Kent by men? What attracts them to that line of work? How do those reasons compare and contrast with what PR has to offer (apparently mostly to women)? The extremes may help you better define your challenge.

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    Excellent suggestion, Steve. And we have done some of that work. Notables among the non-science and tech-related majors are criminal justice, sports management, finance, and recreation management. You’ll see some suggestions, in my post next week, on how we hope to tie in with those majors using “minors” or “concentrations.” But we didn’t think about surveying the men in those majors to assess their hot buttons. Great idea.

  8. Allison says:

    When I came to Kent in 2001, I thought I was going to be the next Katie Couric. HA! I took one PR class, met Bill Sledzik and immediately changed my major to public relations. Truthfully, I wasn’t that sold on broadcast journalism and all the crazy moves/schedules it demanded of me. But PR — now that was different and intrigued me right away. Thanks Bill!

    Here’s a thought. Instead of professional organizations just reaching out the college level, maybe we need to expand out to high schools. At Marcus Thomas, we do have a handful of high school students here for about two weeks as part of their senior project. They get to tour the agency, met with professionals on all sides of the business and get a feel of what it’s like in a short amount of time. Who knows… I could be receiving some of their resumes in a few years for an internship.

  9. […] I liked this one, a very interesting post about gender in PR. Apparently PR belongs to the girls in 2008, what do you […]

  10. Jennifer Kramer says:

    Interesting discussions! I will be watching this very closely.

  11. Sally Hodge says:

    So happy you’re back from your break, Bill, and what a great project to take on during summer break. Your post and the comments are all to the point. Until PR is seen as more than just a “soft” discipline, it’s probably going to be more “acceptable” to women than to men. Here’s some mental meandering, though…

    Marketing is another one of the softer disciplines. (I’ll avoid a discussion about the interconnectedness between marketing and PR, ahem.) Yet marketing does attract a lot of men. It also involves advertising, which involves big bucks (much bigger than PR budgets!) and big bucks imply bigger power. So maybe those guys that are intrigued by (or even know anything about) the “softer” professions are following their perceptions of money and power?

  12. You know… I didn’t graduate ALL that long ago, but I certainly don’t remember such a divide. Don’t get me wrong, the chicks had the majority for sure… but not in the 80-90% range from what I remember. Not a lot of time for such big changes (or perhaps my memory’s just that fuzzy already!).

    But I hear you on the issue of college students not knowing what PR is when they get there. I didn’t. I was studying engineering, and came across PR completely by accident, decided to minor in it eventually, and changed it to my major solely b/c of my initial PR professor (who later became my adviser).

    Oddly, the vast majority of people I know in our “evil twin” field of marketing (especially when it comes to Web-based marketing) are men. I wonder what the stats are on that front in comparison.

  13. “Plus, it’s harder to tell if a woman is lying, so they’re probably better at the job.”

    lol Ironically, my personal experience is that men often think they’re better liars, so if they look at PR professionals as liars, I’d have thought they’d look at it as a better fit for them!😉

  14. […] PR and the ‘Chick Factor’: What Kent State Learned About the Missing Men of Public Relat… – from Bill Sledzik at Tough Sledding […]

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    Let me stick my neck out, seeing as how we are “meandering, as Sally says. Two things:

    1. Could it be that men are drawn to marketing (and not PR) because marketing is far less demanding in terms of writing and communication skills? The guys in our research at Kent state were turned off by the intensive writing requirements of the major.

    The marketing students I see at Kent are pretty smart cookies, but they often suffer from an affliction I call “CWFS” (can’t write for shit). Why? Because their high schools didn’t stress quality writing and their college programs extended the curse. The folks in our business school are working hard to fix this problem, but they have a long way to go.

    2. Could it be that along with the “softness” of public relations comes a dedication — at least by the real professionals — to a high standard of ethical behavior. You won’t find a “Principles of PR” book anywhere that doesn’t place ethics at the top of the values pyramid (or is it the bottom — the foundation?). Marketing isn’t there yet, which is why I call them our “evil twin,” and why I lose my mind (totally) when I see so many of the “PR/marcom” bloggers use these terms interchangeably. Most of them haven’t read the books on PR and won’t take the time to do so.

    Which leads me to this: Let’s not be too surprised that our undergrads don’t know anything of PR. A good half of the people who blog on the topic don’t know what it is either. No names, OK? As my grandma always said, “If you can’t be kind, be quiet.”

  16. “The guys in our research at Kent state were turned off by the intensive writing requirements of the major.” That’s scary. Everyone should know how to write well, and Kent State is listed as “selective” by U.S. News Best Colleges – 2008 rankings. It was forever ago, but my college (small, private, liberal arts, in Ohio) had pretty stringent writing requirements for all students, regardless of major. Even math/science majors had requirements for writing intensive courses.

    Of course we had a writer’s workshop too–for all of the students who were permitted to graduate from high school without being able to string together a sentence.

    CWFS is pervasive, even in PR(!) and that’s inexcusable.

    I don’t like it when PR gets used interchangeably with Marketing either. I’ve had too many issues in the past with questionable tactics suggested by marketing departments that didn’t seem to think beyond numbers. Suggesting to them that perhaps their marketing push was ill-advised, possibly unethical, and could damage the reputation of the company was usually met with a sneer or snide comment. Evil Twin, indeed.

  17. Bill Sledzik says:

    I worked for three large ad agencies in my career, Jen, and was nearly tossed from the room several times when I raised ethics issues. But that was 20+ years ago. Since then our “evil twins” in marketing claim to have discovered something called “relationship marketing.” It’s something we’ve been doing in PR for nearly 100 years, but for whatever reason the marketers seem to think they invented it.

    I have often quoted Pat Jackson on this blog. Pat understood better than anyone I’ve ever met just how to use the tools of PR in a responsible fashion to support and even drive the marketing machine. The name of the game is not to make money, Pat would say, but to build relationships. Money is just how we keep score.

    The problem with poor writing is everywhere, or so employers tell me. Many school granting degrees in PR to students who can’t “string a sentence together.” We encourage ALL of internship employers to subject candidates to rigorous on-deadline writing tests. In most cases, the Kent State kids kick ass.

  18. Jim Kenny says:

    When I was a senior PR student in 1990 at KSU I was asked to help plan for a JMC’s Diversity Day Celebration. My peers and I were each challenged to think of how we can present our respective majors to others in the University who aren’t represented in our disciplines. I made a case for how males are underrepresented in PR and why they should be given minority status treatment. The JMC Chair, who was female and came from an executive PR background, retorted that males weren’t deserving because they succeed in PR disproportionately to females or other conventional minority groups. That view might have been true but it didn’t serve the objective of the day’s events nor affect the trend line we were seeing.

    Bill, you’re doing the right things and asking the right questions to challenge the status quo. The 1/32 ratio cited above is more severe than my PR education experience. I suspect KSU needs to affect changes at the head so the body can follow.

  19. Bill Sledzik says:

    I see you aren’t the only one who didn’t see eye-to-eye with that director, Jim! In that same year — 1990 — I interviewed at Kent State and was the unanimous choice of the search committee. Your director hired someone else. I came in 18 months later to straighten things out! As Hannibal Smith would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

    Having worked in academe for 16 years now, I know better than to argue for minority status for men. Ain’t gonna happen, and it isn’t needed. But if we’re going to preach the need for diversity in this world, then you simply can’t ignore the gender problem in public relations.

  20. You may be onto something with the Hannibal reference. Paint the PRKent logo on a black van and chomp cigars while you drive. Oh, and paintball. Gotta work that in somehow.

    As for the above excerpt…

    PR on the website? Good luck researching the PR major on our main website or the School of Journalism site.

    …I’ve got your domain name right here, pal. Right here.

  21. I think that we’ll see a shift in PR in the near term. I’m a business major, Finance and Management Information Systems, but I’m now learning that I can use my technology skills to enable public relations campaigns in the Social Media space more and more.

    I would look to technically minded men to make an appearance on this scene. Perhaps, there needs to be a move in formal PR curriculums and schools to develop these sorts of programs and find new ways to market the major in general.

  22. Greg Smith says:

    Seems we’ve gone off on a “students can’t write” tangent. That’s so true. It’s the biggest problem here in Australia, too. But what is also interesting is that like you in the US, we also don’t seem to promote ourselves.

    Also, many students undertake PR because they see it as an easy/soft option. Consequently we get stuck with an over supply of lazy students (i.e., those who can’t write and can’t see the value in it). It doesn’t help when PR is position in “creative” Schools, rather than with business.

    At next Sunday’s career’s day I’ll be doing my bit to emphasise the writing aspect. Meantime, we continue to develop new units, including “writing for PR” and “working with the media”. These courses, however, are vocational and more suited to technical colleges. The dilemma is that employers expect students to be job-ready..

    So we are moving from the why to the how.

  23. Bill Sledzik says:

    James makes a great point. The PR majors who embrace the technology (versus those who simply use it, as I do), tend to be more marketable once they leave the university. I’d like to agree with you that men are more drawn to technical tools of PR, but we have so few men in the major here at Kent that I just can’t say. The most tech-savvy graduate I’ve seen in my classes is a woman who ended up as the Web content administrator for a major corporation.

    Greg raises a concern about our programs becoming too vocational. We don’t have that debate at Kent State, as we opted long ago to be a “professional program.” Our colleagues in academe often view us as a “technical school,” but employers view us as source of entry-level professionals who can (pardon the cliche) “hit to ground running.” Our classroom experiences here are very much real-world and hands-on, just like the faculty who teach them. It works for us, but you need administrators who understand professional education and are willing to offer tenure-track positions to people without PhD’s. Tough sell.

    A 92% placement rate leads to legions of happy alumni. Now, if only those happy grads would reach for their checkbooks.

  24. Hannah Smith says:

    It is important to have a diversity of students in public relations because you need people interested in different types of types of PR. Many women are attracted to the public relations program at my university because they want to perform celebrity PR or plan parties. They have the perception that this is primarily what PRos do. I think if we can change that reputation, and demonstrate that public relations encompasses a wider scope, then programs will benefit from both women and men with a wider range of interests.

  25. April Samuelson says:

    A lot of the people in the PR major switched from something else. The thing I noticed is that there are a lot of ex ____________ design majors who realized they can’t draw or don’t want their life consumed by studio and still want to do something creative. The other big group seemed to be ex broadcast journalism students who were pretty much told they didn’t have the x factor, or found their major to be a little too all-consuming. They want to A. graduated on time B. do something journalism related, but aren’t drawn to the nitty gritty world of newspapers (and they want something that will make them money.)
    Maybe talk to the students who switched to PR from something else and find out why, and apply that to similar, but male-dominated majors (architecture.)

    I can’t really see recruiting marketing majors because they’re more people who would be bsa and want to just be a paper pusher in the corporate world, but are avoiding the math-heavy part of the bsa major. Writing a lot doesn’t appeal to these groups. I think since the new marketing sequence is a lot more similar to ours, you should pay attention to if students are embracing it, and if so, which ones.

    I’d go after international relations majors…..a lot of them go after that major for the same reasons people are drawn to pr and many of them have misconceptions as to what jobs come with an international relations degree (many list pr jobs).

  26. Tommy says:

    Why don’t you hire some more male professors in the PR sequence at KSU? It might give the impression that the department is welcoming to males and the there are several opportunities for males in the field.

    Just my two cents.

  27. Bill Sledzik says:

    Not the worst idea, Tommy. But I think the folks in the affirmative action office would have a cow if we proposed giving hiring preference to men. Also, men are NOT underrepresented on our faculty. It’s 50-50 — at least for now. But keep in mind that when our older faculty started in the business, PR was 70-30 in favor or men.

  28. Scott Lansing says:

    I stumbled upon this discussion several minutes after registering with PR Open Mic today. Granted it’s a month old, I assume the disproportion on men to women in PR is still very much present in the profession.

    As a student recruiter for the UO I can’t tell you the number of young high schoolers who didn’t know what PR was. But I can tell you at least a third of the young men interested in joining the College of Business wanted to study advertising. I told them that “advertising is actually part of the School of Journalism and Communication. I started out as an Ad major but switched my focus to PR because I’m interested in strategic writing.” I think there are many who want the glory of the industry without putting in the meticulous effort.

    My 6th grade writing teacher told me I was a “bad writer,” so I got better. My high school history teacher emphasized concise writing in her class, which honed my skills for college (I later learned she worked in Advertising prior to teaching, so maybe that has something to do with my affinity for strategic communication). PR doesn’t have to be taught at an early age; better writing practices do. Then introduce the occupational paths to professional writing, aside from shooting for the next Great American Novel.

    In my PR Planning & Problems course I was one of 16 students with a “Y” chromosome. When asked “why PR?” I gave my usual answer: “crisis communication…public outreach…continue honing my writing skills.”

    A number of the young women in the class (and the entire major) were interested in entertainment PR, perhaps inspired by the offal — waste and/or unused parts of a butchered animal — MTV program “PR Girls,” which meant to glorify entertainment PR while in reality damaged the industry in the eyes of today’s twenty-somethings. (The word “awful,” although an adjective, just wasn’t enough to describe that program like the noun used in its place.)

    While PR practitioners spend so much time promoting and publicizing their clients, there’s a lack of energy dedicated to promoting the profession itself. Even if more men choose advertising and marketing over PR, I think people need a refresher course on the industry in order to steer away from the spin-doctoring perception that many hold.

  29. Jason G. says:

    As a 21-year-old PR major University of Miami, this article was very interesting. I’ll be starting my senior year this fall, and as I begin to reflect on my time there I really do see the startling gender gap within the business of PR.

    However, I don’t really mind it. In fact, I’ve found that I greatly enjoy working with young women, particularly in group projects. I’ve found my female peers to be highly organized, highly flexible and consistently willing to communicate on all levels.

    Not to say that men aren’t cut from the same cloth, but this whole “girls are more organized and better communicators” stereotype has certainly rings true in my experience. If working in the “real world” after graduation leads to much of the same, I’ll be one happy camper.

    Last but not least, I have a theory about the whole “can’t-write-for-shit” phenomena. We all know that reading for pleasure leads to better writing. However, there is a real dearth of good literature for kids and teens in schools.

    Instead of choosing from the wide array of Young Adult literature out there — much of it written in an easy style that is meant to engage readers from the first page — schools insist on relying on old classics. I love “Catcher and the Rye” as much as the next guy, but some of the other crap I read was a real snore.

    I didn’t pick up a book for pleasure until I was a sophomore in college. Always a horror fan, I looked for books that reflected that. From there I discovered Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Doug Preston and Lincoln Child, as well as some old Stephen King. Lo and behold, my writing improved.

    Coincidence? I think not.

  30. Bill Sledzik says:

    Great points, all, Jason. Those writers on your “pleasure reading” list all know how to turn a phrase, and reading them will certainly improve your writing style. They are the storytellers who write the page turners. I’ve taken a few of them with me to the beach myself, but I’m not sure Koontz, et.al., will stand the test of time when it comes to “great literature.”

    Like you, I eschewed the “classics” until shorty after I turned 40. I decided it was time to take them in, and I have been working on that ever since. (I include among my “classics” everything from “Robinson Crusoe” to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I have a liberal definition of “classic,” OK? I love 19th Century American Lit, my fav being Steven Crane.) But you didn’t need that mini-lecture, did you?

    By the way, boys are NOT cut from the same cloth as girls, and I think most sociology research will bear me our on that. There is a difference in how men and women approach tasks and life. Some if biological, more of it is sociological. That’s why we must strive for diversity in our field.

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