Spin sisters

Spin sisters: By Janelle Brown. Why is PR the only high-tech field that women run?

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Last month, Upside released its annual 100 Digital Elite list. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, only eight women were included on this list of Silicon Valley muckety-mucks, with another five straggling in via a group of around 50 "honorable mentions."

That women are vastly underrepresented in the upper ranks of the high-tech industry is nothing new -- even the more eclectic Wired 25 list the same month included only three women (none, incidentally, actually in technology). But what was notable about Upside's Digital Elite feature was exactly where the women appeared in its 17 categories: Of the eight women listed, three were listed in the "PR Pros" category, as were two of the five honorable mentions. By comparison, of the 92 men on the list, only one was a public relations exec.

The debate about the underrepresentation of women in the technology industry has raged for years, with some feminists arguing that the geeky engineering focus of the industry excludes women, and other women maintaining that the industry's youth and lack of conventionality provides more of an opening for women to advance. There are certainly some women leaders in technology businesses -- CEOs like Kim Polese of Marimba, Katrina Garnett of CrossWorlds and Carol Bartz of Autodesk, or chief technology officer Judy Estrin of Cisco, venture capitalist Ann Winblad, Palm co-founder Donna Dubinsky and ubiquitous pundit Esther Dyson.

But within the technology industry, public relations is already a stronghold of female executives; it's the only area, actually, where the plaudits go more often to women than men. Thanks to public relations, women are not only entering the executive boardrooms of Silicon Valley, but also are often credited with wielding powerful industry-wide influence. Women like Pam Edstrom (executive vice president of Microsoft's PR firm Waggener Edstrom), Pam Alexander (president of Alexander Ogilvie) and Andy Cunningham (Cunningham Communications) now have recognized names and high-powered clients in every corner of the technology industry.

As Jody Peake, co-founder and executive vice president of Waggener Edstrom, puts it, "I get so intellectually stimulated when I get to sit next to senior-level people making changes in how the world operates, and go vicariously through all the things you do at a very high executive level in business."

But are women merely participating in the industry, as Peake put it, "vicariously"? Public relations may be the first visible stronghold of women in the technology industry, but does it mean that they are getting a seat at the table? Or is it, as some are concerned, becoming a pink-collar ghetto -- the default career for women in the digital world because they aren't given the opportunity to do anything else?

"I have this uneasy feeling that the reason there are so many women in PR is that it's a form of journalism that's less respected and therefore easier for them to get ahead," says Richard Brandt, editor-in-chief of Upside. "But I have also seen the profession increase its role, its influence and its importance very dramatically over the last couple of decades. And at the same time that's when a lot of women have gotten into it."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has tagged public relations as one of the three fastest-growing industries in the United States (No. 1 is computer and data processing services, and No. 2 is health services). High tech, in turn, is the fastest-growing sector of PR. According to Glen Broom, a professor at the School of Communications at San Diego State University who has been tracking the growth of public relations, the industry has doubled in size in the last 15 years; today, he says, there are an estimated 350,000 public relations professionals in the United States.

Increasingly, those employees come complete with a formal degree in public relations: There are now 300 colleges in the United States that offer some sort of undergraduate or graduate degree in public relations.
Most of those PR graduates are women -- 70 percent of all graduates, according to most estimates, with some schools boasting an 80-20 split.

Larissa Grunig, a public relations professor at the University of Maryland who studies the feminization of PR, believes that part of the reason public relations is such a popular field for women is because there are accessible management positions -- but that they're accessible only because they're not considered as important.

"Companies consider PR as marginal to organization function, not central like finance or marketing. They're not afraid to give women a shot at PR because the risk factor is low," says Grunig. "This is a place where companies traditionally hire women within the executive ranks. If an organization pays lip service to affirmative action and the importance of hiring women, but doesn't trust women to be as effective in management, PR seems like a safe place to put women."

Even though large numbers of men also flock to the field, communications, marketing and PR are still stereotyped as "female," and therefore less important, tasks. Communication and relationship nurturing may be important to the growth of a company, but we still live in a world where CEOs and CFOs are put on a pedestal for number crunching and strategic planning.

And though there are plenty of women in executive PR roles, Grunig and Broom agree, there aren't as many as there should be, given the huge preponderance of women in the overall PR ranks. "Women traditionally in PR have been held to more of a technician's role, hired and paid to do the work of PR -- the craft, the writing, the media relations, the special events," explains Grunig. "Women are over-represented in technicians' ranks, and under-represented in management."

But the suggestion that women might not be getting equal play in decision-making doesn't sit well with the female executives in the industry. Jonelle Birney, the new CEO of the female-helmed PR firm Blanc & Otus, has a small forest of photos and awards in her office from her last job as vice president of public relations at MCI. There's a plaque awarding her the Silver Anvil award for excellence in public relations, snapshots of her sipping wine with the top (male) executives at MCI and a framed photo of her at the press conference announcing the MCI merger with BT. She has, she insists, always been given a seat at the decision-making table with the men.

"At MCI the senior people appreciated the role of public relations -- I always felt I was treated like an equal and respected. It was never 'she's the woman,' and I was always in the room," she says. Since she graduated in 1980 with a degree in PR, she says, she's watched her industry become increasingly respected by executives. "Public relations has grown to mean so much, and enough things have gone wrong in the past that corporations have started to realize that they have to take this seriously and be proactive."

What, though, does public relations "mean"? Traditionally, it's been seen as a matter of just sending out press releases -- but the women who are helming these positions say that this is changing. Even if public relations truly is a "ghetto," it is one that is wielding increasing power.

Public relations has existed as long as individuals have tried to manipulate their image in the public eye. As American industry has grown since World War II, so have pressures on businesses from activists, journalists and consumer groups, and the public relations industry has exploded as a result. "Flacks" can be found everywhere from the White House to newspapers themselves -- anywhere a company wants to make itself look good in the press.

But the role of public relations is changing, thanks in part to leaders like Andy Cunningham, CEO of Cunningham Communications, who are consciously trying to make public relations into a sexier industry that involves more than fielding calls from reporters. Cunningham, who began her career in trade journalism in the 1980s and ended up publicizing the launch of the first Macintosh, currently has 140 employees in three offices, and is working to invent what she calls the "new public relations."

"Public relations has always been an afterthought: 'We screwed up as a company, get those PR people out there to make the journalists go away, manipulate the press, make it all OK.' PR people have always been on the outskirts of the company, being pooper scoopers. You don't get a lot of respect in that kind of a field," Cunningham says. "Now we're becoming part of the inner circle of the company. We're now bringing a perspective and a database of knowledge about markets into the decision-making room. You just can't get away with shit anymore as a company. If you want an image as a company -- you want positive brand and momentum -- you better understand what you're doing, because within two minutes on the Internet you are going to get found out."

The Internet, apparently, has changed all the rules of public relations: Not only is competition being accelerated by technology that changes faster than the speed of light, but the media is growing and consumers are becoming more vocal. Business success is increasingly due to what PR agents call "mindshare" -- getting the right kind of attention in the vast morass of competitive products and accelerating news headlines. As a result, the role of public relations in the technology field is expanding.

Today's public relations professionals say they no longer merely peddle their company's image to journalists (though that is still part of their jobs), but advise on positioning, work with market analysts, help organize conferences, instruct their clients on how to align their images and their practices and suggest business strategy. The most influential PR companies are trying to build a family roster or "keiretsu" of prestige clientele, similar to that of venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Pam Alexander, for example, is a major force within industry conferences and publications -- among her numerous clients are TechNet, TED, Qwest, Hewlett Packard, Ziff Davis and the Red Herring -- and the parties Alexander Ogilvie throws at Comdex and E3 are lavishly studded with both shrimp and industry bigwigs.

"It was never my goal to be a PR person," explains Pam Alexander. "I thought of myself as a market researcher and educator, which I think is the best kind of technology specialist. You're always reading about what's happening in the industry and thinking about what the implications are, and then you teach that to your clients."

The changing image and function of public relations may be partly due to its increasingly academic roots, as well as the influx of former journalists to the position. Countless public relations professionals have backgrounds in journalism and, in fact, the growth of public relations as a career seems to be at the expense of journalism. At the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, for example, the number of applicants to the Integrated Marketing Communications program has risen 15 percent in recent years, while the number of students applying to the traditional journalism program has dropped an equivalent amount. Only 20 percent of all recipients of journalism and mass communications bachelors degrees in 1997, according to a survey by Lee Becker of the University of Georgia, found work in some reporting, writing or editing capacity; nearly 21 percent took jobs in public relations.

The forces responsible for these trends are easy to locate. Public relations jobs currently pay significantly more than, say, a newspaper job (an entry level position in PR can offer starting salaries in the low $30,000 range) and the growing industry is snatching up students as fast as they graduate. But public relations also entices young careerists with its management potential and the opportunity to learn business skills -- plus it's a flexible career that can be used as an entryway to any industry, from entertainment to high-tech.

"I think a lot of people look at high tech and say, 'How can I get in that? The Net, the Net -- how do I get involved in it?'" says Tara Suan, who since her graduation from UC-Berkeley in 1994 has worked as a high-tech publicist at Niehaus Ryan Wong and currently is marketing communications manager at Topica. She is, she believes, typical of many young people in her field -- her journalistic aspirations were undermined by the reality of the paychecks, and she was enticed to public relations as a way to get into the exploding technology industry. "Truth be told, I would not have gone into PR if it weren't for high-tech PR, and I wouldn't have stayed had I not liked the Net so much. It was the promise of being able to do something really new."

Alexander, along with many other of the women in public relations, insists that the predominance of women in the industry has nothing to do with gender issues. People choose the career out of intellectual curiosity, rather than because it's friendly to women, and the sheer number of females is an accident of education rather than ghettoization. But at the same time, it's hard to deny that public relations is where women are -- as Birney puts it, "It's almost expected -- it seems women are always in HR and PR. "

Taking that one step further, Brandt worries that the dominance of women in the industry may actually harm the prestige of public relations. "There have traditionally been industries throughout history where women have taken over and they become a ghetto -- the pay goes down, the respect for the industry goes down, and it's stigmatized," he explains. "Will that happen in public relations? To some extent I think it might."

But that's still conjecture, and today it's difficult to determine whether PR truly is a ghetto. If the only women in the technology industry getting recognition are the public relations executives, is that a measure of where women are encouraged to be, or where the world is encouraged to look for women? A few plaudits from the media, after all, do not necessarily represent industry groupthink.

And there are, as Alexander points out, more women emerging in Silicon Valley as venture capitalists, journalists, financial officers, even chief technology officers. It's an evolutionary process, Alexander explains: "If you look at our educational system up until now, [the predominance of women in PR] is a reflection of how people were directed in their studies. I think if I or a lot of other women had gone to school 20 years later, we'd maybe have been encouraged in math and science more than we were."

As an upstart industry that prides itself in offbeat approaches, after all, Silicon Valley ought to be less grounded in gender stereotypes and glass ceilings than other industries. Maybe public relations is merely the first portion of that industry to witness some gender equity. In an information economy, where communication is increasingly vital, perhaps that's not such a bad place to start.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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