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Missing in Action: Where Are the Men in Public Relations?

Published on Sept. 22, 2022, at 3:07 p.m.
by Seth Self.

P.T. Barnum. Ivy Lee. Edward L. Bernays.

These names are some of the most famous in the field of public relations, known across classrooms and in textbooks as founding members who helped the field develop into what it is today. One characteristic connects them: the fact that all of them are male.

While the beginnings of the public relations field may not be as male-influenced as it is often presented (think of Betsy Plank, or Bernays’ own wife, Doris Fleischman), this seemingly male-dominated origin contrasts glaringly with the current makeup of it, in which 70% of public relations practitioners are women.

This shift emerged in the 1990s and 2000s and has accelerated ever since. According to USA Today, around 59% of public relations practitioners were female in the year 2000; that number rose to over 65% in 2016.

Where did all the men go?
“If you want to look at the future of the industry, you have to look at classrooms today.”

That is the sentiment voiced by Shelley Spector, co-founder of the Museum of Public Relations headquartered in New York City, on the current state of gender parity within public relations.

Spector, a journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, has spent much of her public relations career devoted to promoting diversity within the field. She believes that gender parity — specifically, the fact that field at the professional level consists overwhelmingly of women — presents a new challenge for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“Our next big diversity problem is the lack of guys,” Spector said.

As a teacher and lecturer, Spector has seen the number of men in public relations classes diminish in recent years. She believes this trend will present a problem for the profession going forward, as it continues to express itself across public relations classrooms.

In other words, without more men in the classroom now, Spector believes the industry will miss out on unique perspectives.

“Colleges have to start recruiting guys,” Spector said, noting that the industry cannot change until more men enter through the classroom first.

The problem? No one really knows how to make that happen, because no one truly knows what caused the decline in male participation in public relations in the first place.

Spector noted the trend began around the mid-1990s, and that, despite numerous attempts at research, there is no conclusive evidence pointing to a singular theory on what happened.

One potential answer Spector mentioned is how public relations is portrayed in the media. Shows and portrayals such as “Sex and the City” have conjured a specific image in the public mind for public relations, one that could potentially cause men to think of the field as being more suited to women. “It’s almost self-perpetuating,” Spector remarked.

An opportunity in the redefining of public relations
Dr. Cayce Myers is a professor of public relations at Virginia Tech, having taught in the field for almost 12 years after entering the industry upon years of practice as an attorney. Despite agreeing with Spector on the issues facing the field regarding gender parity, he sees a unique opportunity for public relations to bring in new faces going forward.

Myers believes the field is currently undergoing a transformation in the way it defines itself, noting that the field has become more integrated in recent years. In fact, Myers said the term public relations “may no longer fully capture what the field is.”

“On a bigger scale, PR as a practice does a poor job of explaining what it is,” Myers said, which in turn leaves room for the field to be defined by others. This is often done in the form of stereotypes, such as practitioners being seen as nothing more than spin doctors.

In his time as a professor, Myers has seen the decline in men in the classroom described by Spector; the makeup of college students in the field was already heavily female when he began teaching, he said.

To Myers, all of these developments are important. How the field defines itself plays a role in its public image, thereby influencing who might be interested in a career in public relations.

By redefining itself and thereby disproving such stereotypes, Myers believes public relations can attract new students, including more young men.

Where does the field go from here?
Spector and Myers, both public relations professionals but in different parts of the country, agree on the field’s need to address this issue in gender parity. Yet, it is often not seen as a problem by others in public relations at large.

Spector put it more clearly: “When I bring it up, no one is talking about it.”

Perhaps this lack of dialogue surrounding the absence of men in public relations is due to the discrepancy in gender parity within leadership roles in the field itself. Men remain overwhelmingly in positions of leadership, despite this imbalance among professionals as a whole. This can lead to misperceptions of the field being as male-dominated in the middle as it is at the top.

Still, the data remains: There is a lack of men in public relations overall. Though the underlying cause of why may not yet be known, the discrepancy will continue to exist until more steps are taken to address it.

There is an old saying that the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one. Public relations professionals such as Myers and Spector might argue that this admittance is exactly what the field should do.

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