3 Ways Female PR Execs Pursue C-Suite Seat

It’s a start.

When Barri Rafferty in late November was named Ketchum’s next global CEO, she became the first woman to lead a top-five PR agency.

It’s fitting that Ketchum has taken the lead when it comes to promoting female PR executives.

A recent survey released by the global PR agency and the Holmes Report said that while women make up about 70 percent of the PR industry, they represent 30 percent of the industry’s CEOs.

With Rafferty’s appointment as CEO, perhaps the 70-30 will start to change the industry to reflect more balance. The move is long overdue and sends a positive message to society.

“There is a legacy of women leaders who have paved the way in our industry, like Marcia Silverman, Karen van Bergen, Margery Kraus and Donna Imperato, to name a few,” Rafferty told Gould+Partners. “I hope that I am just the first of many women taking top leadership roles at the largest global firms, and I hope this inspires other agencies to appoint women to top roles within their organizations.”

Several weeks before she got the nod as CEO, Rafferty was a featured speaker at a PR workshop titled, “Chasing Your C-Suite Seat.”

Rafferty was joined by Karen van Bergen, CEO, Omnicom Public Relations Group (and Rafferty’s new boss), and Amanda Kowal Kenyon, Chief Organizational Effectiveness Officer, Ketchum. (Omnicom Group owns Ketchum.)

(Left to right) Barri Rafferty, global CEO, Ketchum; Karen van Bergen, CEO, Omnicom Public Relations Group and Amanda Kowal Kenyon, Chief Organizational Effectiveness Officer, Ketchum.

The event, sponsored by The PR Council’s SHEQUALITY Project, was held at Ketchum’s New York office. About 20 PR executives, mostly women, attended the program.

The C-Suite is an expanding environment within corporate America, of course.

In the last several years, for example, relatively new C-level titles, such as Chief Communications Officer, Chief Revenue Officer, and Chief Technology Officer, have started to proliferate among both brands and organizations of all stripes. 

When you consider the pace of both economic and technological change, there’s little reason why PR firms (with any scale) shouldn’t have such C-level roles in-house, too. And how much longer before firms see the wisdom of having a “Chief Relationship Officer” in tow?

While they concede that it’s a difficult task, Rafferty and van Bergen stress that in order to increase their visibility vis-à-vis the C-Suite female PR execs need to reduce their risk-aversion.

“If you see something to innovate, reinvent or requires entrepreneurialism, that means taking risks,” Rafferty says.

Van Bergen adds: “Find environments [within the firm] that allow you to branch out into new areas.”

She also stresses that female PR execs “have to step up” and gain more experience in critical C-Suite competency areas that some women tend to avoid, particularly finance.

“To be a CEO, you need to have a strong grasp on the numbers, and be able to speak to them in a management setting,” van Bergen says. “Experience managing a large P&L is very important.”

At the same time, PR firms must step up how they communicate with both genders and position all their employees for success.

“Managers should have ongoing conversations with their employees— both men and women—about their workplace needs,” van Bergen says. “At certain life stages, employees will need more flexibility; this is particularly important to ensure you retain top talent if and when they choose to start a family.”

She adds, “ A lack of flexibility will drive talent to look for it elsewhere. I always say, would you rather have 75 percent of a star employee’s time, or are you willing to hand that off to your competitor?”

Rafferty and van Bergen shared some practical tips for aspiring female leaders within the PR field 

  1. Make a Business Case. Rafferty says women often start with the emotional side of a case and then move to the business side. They need to reconsider the equation. “You need to lean on the business case better.” She adds that women also need to embrace left-brain thinking (e.g. mathematics) with right-brain thinking (e.g. creative) inherent in PR: “Find people who know finance [and] admit it when you don’t know something” related to revenue and earnings, Rafferty says. “And if you don’t know, be sure and ask early on, ‘Can you walk me through this spreadsheet,’” as it relates to the firm’s business and clients. Mentoring, van Bergen says, is crucial.
  2. Speak Up. Studies show that women are interrupted more than men, and sometimes their contributions can even be ignored or downplayed. “My advice is to always speak up, speak louder and repeat yourself if needed,” van Bergen says. “Don’t let anybody get away with interrupting you, or ignoring a good idea. Stand your ground. And watch out for bad behavior toward other women as well. Calling attention to our tendency to interrupt, will make it less likely to happen again.”  
  3. Leave the Apologies Behind. Both Rafferty and van Bergen emphasize that women need to shift their language when it comes to the day-to-day operation and how they communicate with both men and other women. “Why are woman always apologizing?” Rafferty says. “You need to be coming into the conversation with confidence, and there’s no reason to apologize before putting it out there.”

Sixth Sense: How Female PR Execs Empower Themselves   

  • Be clear about your long-term ambitions
  • Step outside your comfort zone
  • Find an accountability buddy
  • Define your personal brand
  • Embrace the numbers
  • Pursue a minor 

Source: Ketchum and PR Council


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