“I’m a people person!” That was the battle cry of most of the students I knew in college as they declared, with several exclamation points and a smiley face, that they had decided to major in public relations, marketing or communications.
And indeed, things have not changed a lot since my college years. The field remains populated with individuals sporting superior moods, manners and manes. When I’m in a PR agency suite, the REM lyric “shiny happy people holding hands” is the soundtrack I often unconsciously put to the scene.
Still, there are a relative few unreformed, unrepentant Grumpy Guses and Gertrudes in the business. They close their doors and look inward as their colleagues chirp about all the trendy things they did together over the weekend. They slink away in horror when ice breaker games inevitably break out at inter-office meetings. They do their best thinking alone in their drab, toyless offices, not in those madcap agency brainstorming sessions. They work in public relations, but avoid relations with the public.
And the business needs more of them.
This is wholly unscientific, but I’d guess 80% of folks who work in PR are more extroverted and 20% are more introverted. In some types of practices the mix may be even more lopsided, such as consumer relations.
And it doesn’t seem like that trend is likely to end any time soon. When recently addressing a class of earnest University of Minnesota PR majors, I mentioned off-handedly that I was introverted. A young man with exquisitely highlighted hair expressed genuine shock that an introvert could work in public relations. I felt like Lobster Boy at a carnival freak show.
When I mentioned to this same class that I studied history and political science in college, a lovely young woman asked me, with sympathy in her voice, how I learned to write without the benefit of a public relations major. Her concern was genuine, and oddly touching.
Look, don’t get me wrong. The perky People Person is clearly a great profile for many aspects of public relations. It helps with the initial job interview, event planning, most types of new business pitching, interoffice team building, and many other aspects of PR work. Moreover, extroverted PR people connect well with extroverted clients, of which there are many in this world.
However, it strikes me that the biggest downside of overstaffing with extroverts is that many extroverts are a bit too eager to please and be liked. PR people often are most valuable when they are delivering the least popular counsel. “I recommend you not say that because it’s not true and fudging will kill our reputation.” “I know you’ve always done things that way, but you have to change with the times.” “You’ll look foolish if you do that, because it doesn’t pass the smell test with our target audience.” “We can’t charge for that because it’s not in their best interest.” “Sure it’s hip and fun, but it doesn’t achieve the goal we were hired to achieve.”
Now more than ever, the PR business needs to be offering more of this kind of tough love. Few enjoy delivering such unpopular counsel, but my experience is that those who most love to be loved particularly avoid it. Such candid counsel often chills relationships, and that is a higher price to pay for the extrovert than the introvert.
Moreover, some parts of PR work lend themselves to introversion. The essence of public relations is empathy. It’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, because you can’t effectively persuade the target audience or your client until you can get yourself to think and feel like them. It strikes me that empathetic analysis is often an inward looking endeavor that suits the introverted well. Likewise, introspection can come in handy crafting a persuasive argument, analysis, plan or strategy.
None of this is to argue that PR agency Human Relations Department directors should replace all their Perky Pauls with Petulant Pams. Extroverts will always be the backbone of PR operations. And I must admit, sometimes the icebreaker games aren’t as humiliating as I expected. But it is to say that Meyers Briggs diversity in PR is as important as other kinds of diversity, and that the best hire may not always be the best interviewer, or the person with the most narrowly relevant resume.