Study suggests a divide between PR professionals, general public

A recent study from New York University’s School of Professional Studies and the U.S. trade publication PRWeek revealed a significant disconnect between the attitudes of the country’s PR professionals and the general public, raising questions about their ability to connect with the consumers their clients want to reach.

The study found that PR practitioners are “significantly more progressive” than the general population when it comes to politics, economics, public safety, and society.

For example:

  • 68% of PR practitioners identified as “progressive” when it comes to political ideology, compared with just 26% of the general population;
  • 7% of PR respondents identified as “conservative,” compared to 34% of the general population; and
  • 25% of PR respondents identified as “centrist,” compared to 40% of the general population.

The study also examined attitudes towards some of the fundamental aspects of society, such as social and economic issue. In each case, there was a significant discrepancy between PR professionals and the general public.

On social issues, for example,

  • 83% of PR professionals identified as progressive, compared to 31% of the general population.
  • Just 6% of PR professionals identified as conservative, compared to 31% of the general population.
  • 45% of professionals identified as “very progressive” on social issues, compared to just 14% of the general population.

The new wave of PR professionals between the 20 and 29 also tend to be more progressive than their peers aged 30 and older in terms of political ideology (79% versus 63%), as well as their position on economic, social and safety issues. “We can speculate whether this is a function of youthful idealism, or a sign that the profession will trend even more progressive as younger practitioners rise in the ranks,” the study’s authors concluded.

Sarah Spence

The new study is not the first time the gulf in attitudes between communications professionals and the general public has been contemplated. In 2016, in the aftermath of a stunning U.S. election outcome that saw Donald Trump win the presidency, Forbes wondered if the traditionally left-leaning ad industry, populated largely by progressives residing in major urban markets, could still effectively create communications capable of resonating with the entire population, not just those who shared their beliefs.

Earlier that year, Digiday ran an article entitled “Why Republicans at ad agencies keep a low profile,” which stated: “The agency world is open to you as long as you stand for the ‘right’ thing. And right now, being Republican is as wrong as it gets.”

And a 2019 study out of the U.K. found that 44% of advertising and marketing professionals identify as left-leaning, and 36% as centrist, compared to just 25% and 52% of the modern mainstream.

Jennifer Scott, a clinical assistant professor for PR and corporate communication at NYU’s School of Professional Studies and one of the study’s three co-authors, told PRWeek that the differences between the attitudes of PR professionals and the public can mean “there’s not a lot of common ground to build campaigns on.”

PR professionals see younger demographics demanding that brands take a stand on issues, she said. “[E]ven research into target audiences isn’t necessarily likely to temper the tendency to go very progressiveIt may take a brand to a place that seems mainstream, but that, in fact, triggers a momentum of polarization. Then the brand is in trouble.”

While the study is limited to US PR professionals, Canada’s communications industry, largely headquartered in three major cities, has long demonstrated a left-leaning political and social posture. Which begs the question: Can a left-leaning PR professional working in Toronto or Montreal create a communications strategy that takes into account the perspectives of a Conservative voter in Medicine Hat?

North Strategic CEO Jessica Savage: It’s important to note that unconscious biases are natural and everyone has them, said Savage. “Recognizing our biases is the first—and essential—step towards dismantling them,” she said. “Our industry can work against bias through education and by ensuring our organizations and outputs reflect a breadth of perspectives, backgrounds and lived experiences.”

Sarah Spence, CEO of Tadiem (including Narrative):There is potential for PR practitioners’ attitudes to colour their approach to communications, she said. But she’s also optimistic about the direction the industry has been taking in recent years. “There is so much more self-awareness of implicit-bias, and I think many are working hard to ensure the profession embraces diverse voices.”

Josh Cobden, executive vice-president of Proof Strategies: The crux of the NYU/PRWeek study is how the word “progressive” is interpreted, said Cobden. PR practitioners possess a natural ability to understand and communicate different points of view, and might feel that this tendency towards empathy equates to a progressive attitude, he said.

“[G]iven this association, I’m not surprised PR people view themselves as very progressive… Similarly, many viewpoints that could be considered as ‘progressive’—such as the view that businesses should focus in creating positive social impact as well as generating profit for shareholders, or that CEOs should speak out about social issues—are also those that are commonly associated with having ‘purpose.'”

And while Canada and the U.S. share many cultural references and touchpoints, it’s also important to note that Canada remains considerably less polarized than its neighbour to the south, “where almost everything has become politicized and regarding oneself as progressive or not is deeply connected to how you vote,” said Cobden.

Josh Cobden

While companies obviously can’t dictate their employees’ beliefs, we asked the PR execs if there is anything they can do to potentially mitigate factors such as political leanings. “I heard someone wise say ‘Don’t create a safe space at work, create a brave space where conversations can happen,'” said Spence. “As leaders we need to hire a diverse spectrum of talent. We can focus on talent that have the self-awareness to understand their natural biases and strive for objectivity in every story we help tell.”

“By nature, PR professionals are scenario planners,” said Savage. “We always want to consider a range of different stakeholder perspectives and potential outcomes, to plan accordingly. If everyone on your team agrees to a PR plan from the get-go, that can be a red flag. Ideally, people are challenging singular perspectives and avoiding groupthink so you get the most well thought out approach.”

However, as Canada’s communications industry works to be more inclusive, it is destined to become more progressive, said Savage. “The strongest PR organizations have practitioners who hail from a diverse range of backgrounds, communities and life experiences as well as opportunities at all levels to share different perspectives,” she said. “This progressive approach needs to play out across all aspects of the business, from recruiting to learning and development as well as diversity in leadership.”

Chris Powell