It took a lot of hard work to develop a skill set to design and execute on integrated PR SEO campaigns and data-driven PR reporting and strategies. Once I had worked this out I could show others how to do it. This is when I experienced the greatest conflict and biases.
The challenges I had to overcome may have looked gender based on the outside, due to the gender split between the industries. However, in my view, the conflict is more a consequence of misunderstanding and mistrust between each discipline.
Historically, the differences between SEO and PR and the personalities they attracted were at odds with each other. When SEOs and PRs came into contact with each other, both groups had adverse experiences interacting with each other.
The discrimination on both sides was often unconscious and largely underpinned by alternative backgrounds, jargon, etiquettes, cultures and behaviours. They were both territorial, fearful that one industry would swallow up the other.
The PR industry has grown to $15bn. Spending on digital communications has grown as well – in-house communications leaders’ digital budgets are rising. Some figures have the global SEO industry worth as much as $65bn. These are large sums to win—or lose.
The relationship building between these two industries is on-going. Many agencies in both the PR and SEO fields have made leaps and bounds in hiring and developing specialists from both sectors and combining these two skillsets. Having helped agencies in both sectors and in-house teams do this, I have found a few common approaches that have been effective in achieving smooth and impactful integrations and reducing bias.
Humour over anger with unconscious bias
Now of course, there are some circumstances where you need to address an issue with seriousness. But, let’s only do that when absolutely necessary.
The language and manner we use to challenge bias is important. Our brains do not function well when we are in heightened states of emotion. Getting angry is simply less likely to bring about reasonable discussions with others.
Humour can be far more productive, the moment the PR and SEO teams start laughing together I know we are on track to getting some great results, because I have noticed a correlation between the ability to do this and the ability to have tough conversations.
It is important to recognise someone’s intent, separate that from their actions, and react accordingly. We need to find ways to communicate against unconscious biases through channels that can be heard, humour is one of the best I discovered.
Let me explain.
Early in my career, I was often mistaken for the office assistant when clients met me for the first time. They would ask me to get the tea, for example. Now I could have reacted with anger, but I didn’t, much to the amusement of my team, I would smile, get the tea and say, “I hope you like it. My speciality is integrated comms; but, I did my best.”
I enjoyed this game for many years, largely because these were not people operating a conscious gender bias. I looked at it this way: most SEO specialists at the time were male. Their expectation for me to be male was statistically correct, not necessarily conscious bias. Making them feel terrible was not the objective; working with them and helping to adjust their perceptions was.
Mary Poppins has given me some great life philosophies, and in this instance I saw making the tea as the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down.
I also decided early on to address the rooms I stand in. Instead of trying to change the minds of the people who think I don’t belong in the same room as them, I sometimes chose to work hard and make another room more successful and more fun. With client work this meant picking the clients most ready for integration initially and then moving onto the ones who were more hesitant.
Allies and advocates
I have to acknowledge that much of my career success was due to the support from people in the industry. Many of these were silent champions giving me feedback, putting me forward for conference speaking slots and shielding me against some of the gender and sector biases.
Getting publishers to talk openly about their linking policies, challenges and objectives has been key to me developing campaigns that were successful for them and clients. It helped me learn how to build pages that help journalists with their stories and thus build natural links.
Most of the people who helped me were male, as that was the dominant gender of the internet marketing industry. There were also women, some of which had had a much harder time than I did, being part of the industry way before I joined.
Some of the women have undoubtedly stood in my shoes (or me in theirs), which helped them recognise when support was needed. That may have made it easier for them to support me, in a way, than it was for some of the men. The men had to rely on keen observation rather than experience to determine how and when to offer advice or help.
But I don’t really distinguish whether these people were male or female. I notice more that they have congruent values including proactivity and the courage to stand up for someone both publically and privately. Something we should all foster irrespective of industry sector or gender.
We live in a world that puts immense emphasis on the ‘hero’, but it seems to me that many of the people working to change the fabric of society largely do so silently. It is therefore no wonder that it is only with hindsight you notice how much insight, shielding or advocacy someone has given you. It is never too late to say thank you.
You don’t need to send expensive gift baskets; but, you do need to be genuine in your gratitude. With media I have gone out of my way to give journalists exclusives, access to interviews or help them on stories that were sometimes unrelated to my work objectives. Thanking someone is not just an expression of appreciation. It also communicates the value of their efforts. This undoubtedly fuels them to carry out similar actions in the future, and this is part of the two-way street of creating change.
Take stock of achievements and log the funny data points
I sometimes see people get more upset about a lack of gluten-free muffins at tech events than about accessibility and equality. This is in fact a good thing. These more minor complaints mean a lot of the bigger changes have begun. How fantastic it is for me to see this as a data point for success. So, bring on dietary complaints as a metric of progress! Of course, taking stock of how far we have come does not mean we can slack off, and it should not stop us helping others who are walking a hard path.
Finally, revolutions don’t go off without a hitch we need to be reasonable in our expectations of what the path ahead looks like. It does exist and will take time to change. Despite the fact that a vast amount of our communications are governed by mechanical systems, tools, processes and technology, we are human. We cannot just recode ourselves or our societies. It takes time, humour gentleness and, most of all, perseverance and bravery.