John Harrington
Sep 14, 2020

Yes, ageism can affect young PR pros too

Ageism is not only a problem for 'older' PR professionals; it can also negatively affect their younger counterparts.

Younger PRs can feel stereotyped as digital experts (picture: Morsa Images via Getty Images)
Younger PRs can feel stereotyped as digital experts (picture: Morsa Images via Getty Images)

Editor's note: This article was originally published by PRWeek UK. Although it features responses from several members of PRWeek UK's 30 Under 30 feature from this year, we think the issues are universal. We'd love to hear input from young PR pros in Asia-Pacific. Please use the feedback form or contact PRWeek Asia editor Surekha Ragavan

Ageism is not only a problem for 'older' PR professionals; it can also negatively affect their younger counterparts.

The issue has risen in prominence since WPP chief executive Mark Read made comments last month that many interpreted as ageist—he has since apologised.

Writing for PRWeek in the aftermath, two PR agency bosses in their 40s recounted their experiences of the issue in the comms industry, with Cirkle chief executive Ruth Kieran arguing that the sector is "structurally ageist". Below, some 20-somethings in the industry describe how younger people can also be disadvantaged by age-based prejudice and stereotyping—although sometimes, the picture is less clear-cut.

Rachel Besenyei (25), head of growth and social, BrandContent

As budgets continue to be squeezed, client and agency-side demands on staff and account teams have grown to be unrealistic and unmanageable. Even entry-level roles in PR now require applicants to have not only good communication skills and a willingness to learn, but also a grasp of “digital” more generally. Ageism isn’t always overt in job descriptions, but it shows up through organisations that hire on the basis of a personal TikTok profile in place of a CV, or requirements for “social-first” thinking and campaign ideas.

It’s no longer enough simply to be good at media relations, you also have to furnish your own social-media profiles with regular thought leadership content and get involved in relevant conversations online to be considered good at your own PR. And it's implied that you’ll make time for all of this, unpaid, around the nine-to-five.

The idea that young people are “digitally native” in a way that older people aren’t is also a convenient excuse to fill accounts with young, “socially savvy” under-30s who also happen to be much cheaper to employ. It’s not only that their salaries are lower (mostly as graduates straight from uni or college, entering a saturated job market in the middle of a pandemic) but also because the company “benefits” this audience accept are cheaper too. Free fruit might appeal to someone at the start of their career, but it won’t pay for your children’s after-school club or the retirement home for your elderly parents.

Small wonder that those over 40 are pushed to move in-house or switch industry altogether, where the work is more flexible and the pay much fairer.

Matt Mckenna (28), head of communications (UK),

I definitely think you see a narrative that younger people in the industry are social-media experts, regardless of whether they even have accounts on the platforms in question.

While it may sometimes be a case of agencies mirroring what clients want to see, I have seen many ‘older’ PR professionals who are extremely savvy with the tone and analytics behind successful social-media campaigns.

Tiffany Burrows (27), account director, public affairs, Newington Communications

Our industry needs to be more diverse, in every sense of the word. We make better decisions (and laws) when different people’s perspectives are heard. We are more creative when we share ideas with people with a different background to ourselves. We reach quicker solutions to communications problems when it is approached from every angle.

Diversity of age is no exception.

As people progress in their career, they age. It is a fact of life that we all have to contend with. However, one thing that we shouldn’t have to contend with is the attitudes bestowed upon us as we do so.

Now I won’t go all Kevin and Perry (showing my age here) by saying that we didn’t ask to be born and it’s not our fault we’re young, but I will say that the views of the next generation, however you want to define them, can be dismissed too readily. For all the reasons I outlined at the outset, this is bad for comms, bad for business—and in public affairs, bad for policymaking.

I found that my involvement as chair of the PRCA’s NextGen Public Affairs Committee kickstarted my energy and enthusiasm for public affairs, and for making sure those in the first 10 years of their career had a seat at the table. It is these people, whether in agency or in-house, who will be what the industry look like in the years ahead—and if we don’t start listening to them now, what hope can we have for supporting them to become the PR leaders of the future?

The age-old adage (no pun intended) is that experience comes with age, and that is indisputable. But that is not to say that the experiences of the young are irrelevant, nor should they be treated as such.

Rebecca Parlby (29), account director, Lansons

I have never witnessed workplace discrimination based on age, nor have I been subject to someone assuming that because I'm in my 20s I should be an expert in all things digital or social media.

That said, I have definitely fallen victim in the past to a self-imposed, but also very powerful, pressure of thinking I need to be at a certain level on the career ladder just because a particular milestone birthday is approaching. This point is potentially very damaging for the industry, and also for the expectations of younger PR professionals.

It’s certainly not an issue unique to our industry, but is perhaps felt more profoundly than in some others, simply because it naturally attracts a younger workforce due to its numerous entry-level opportunities. Regardless, any underlying assumptions about age and level of seniority are damaging not only to the industry, but to our future selves.

The ingredients needed to be an exceptional PR professional—strategic thinking, agility of thought, creative mindsets, decisiveness, assertiveness, expansive networks and well-rounded worldviews—are all developed with time and, more importantly, through having diverse and varied experience in not only the workplace, but also in life more generally. We do our future selves an incredible disservice if we focus too much on where we’re at on the hierarchical career ladder, and not allowing ourselves enough time to develop, gain experience and gradually evolve into the professionals that we strive to be in the future.

Misha Talheth-Fell (28), senior account director, Porter Novelli

I asked some senior colleagues about the issue, and here’s what they said:

Ageism is actually good—younger employees drive the technology and social media side of the business while those with greyer hairs complement this by bringing invaluable experience, expertise and knowledge to the table.

No, ageism is definitely bad—there’s a misconception that young people bring creativity and dynamism, which has led to the stereotype that PR is a young person’s game. This could mean that the industry is missing out on a more diverse talent pool.

In my view: yes, PR agencies are skewed towards a younger demographic, but not necessarily in a pejorative or prejudiced manner. I believe this imbalance is structural; a consequence of the traditional agency model, which is compounded by the industry’s tendency to select from a narrow talent pool.

In my experience, more seasoned, senior individuals with decades of industry know-how are highly valued within the agency set-up, setting the direction of the company and providing strategic counsel to clients from director roles.

However, there aren’t too many of these higher-paid positions available, which I’d say is a major factor in the dearth of older practitioners in the traditional agency environment.

Much of the day-to-day work within an agency can be done to a very high level by less experienced, cheaper staff, and this naturally leads to a workforce weighted in favour of younger individuals.

But what about older individuals who don’t have decades of PR knowledge and might be looking to retrain or start afresh in a new career? This is where our industry lets itself down—those opportunities seem to be few and far between.

Indigo Le Fèvre (29), senior account director, The Romans

Ageism shouldn’t be perceived as linear—it works both ways and, ultimately, doesn’t serve anyone. The second we define someone’s capabilities by their age, we’re already discriminating (whether positively or negatively) and contributing to the issue at hand.

I don’t think age should be used as a determiner of value. Surely it’s more about experience—be that lived or learned—and the relevance of that experience to the work at play?

This whole debate signifies a fundamental need for greater mutual respect across the industry. ‘Young practitioners can learn from their elders’—absolutely. But can ‘elders’ not learn from us ‘youngsters’ too? I learn something every day from the most junior and the most senior people I work with. How great is that?

I want to surround myself with a team of individuals who each bring something different and unique to the table, regardless of how many years they do or don’t have in the biz. Diverse thinking breeds creativity—and it's creativity that generates brilliant work.

Let’s face it, though: if it takes reaching a 40-plus age bracket to experience a semblance of discrimination in the PR industry, you’ve done bloody well. To be clear, I don’t condone any form of discrimination and wish we could eliminate the lot entirely, but that won’t happen overnight.

Must PR ‘recognise and tackle its ageism problem’? Sure. But there are undoubtedly more pressing demonstrations of discrimination that need to be tackled first—racism, sexism and pay equality, to name but a few.


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