Tackling Imposter Syndrome in the PR and Communications Industry
About the author
Joanna March prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy. She is currently avaialble for interim projects.
In June 2019 Mandy Pearse, Chair of the CIPR, a Chartered Marketer and MBA with more than 25 years’ experience wrote a blog piece for Influence admitting to a ‘huge bout of imposter syndrome’ while preparing for her CIPR Chartered PR Assessment. A few short months later, not only had she achieved Chartered status, but she was the CIPR’s 2021 President-Elect, elected by her peers to lead the world’s only Royal Chartered professional body for public relations practitioners.
Imposter Syndrome was first identified over 40 years ago in a paper by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. In the years since the topic has been explored by countless academics seeking to better understand how people can overcome their internal barriers and achieve success.
Expert Clare Josa has specialised in helping people to overcome imposter syndrome for nearly two decades. She led the 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study, a robust piece of work examining the impact of imposter syndrome on businesses and individuals. Her research is supported by a book ‘Ditching Imposter Syndrome’, a self-help guide designed to help people achieve their ambitions.
In the eighteen months since Josa’s landmark study was published, the world has been ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic. This has made the situation worse; many talented individuals have been furloughed for long periods, have lost work and confidence in themselves. For some, the feeling of imposter syndrome has been further heightened as companies lay off staff in an effort to save money and cut costs.
In an industry where the lack of representation within the C-Suite or at Board level is frequently lamented, perhaps the imposter syndrome felt by many of these talented individuals is not only holding back individuals but the PR and communications industry too.
In her book, Josa admits that imposter syndrome is difficult to define. She shares five different definitions, including examples from Michelle Obama and Sheryl Sandberg before settling on the following definition:
“Imposter Syndrome happens when there is a mismatch between who you see yourself as currently being, and who you think you need to be to achieve or create a goal, despite the evidence that you’re more than capable.”
So why does the PR and communications industry have a problem with imposter syndrome?
Josa’s research reveals that imposter syndrome contributes to the gender pay gap and is a key factor contributing to the ‘glass ceiling’ that affects minorities and women. A correlation between the impact of imposter syndrome and the current situation for many people working in the industry appears when you consider Josa’s research alongside CIPR’s 2020 State of the Profession survey. A key finding of the survey survey indicates that while women account for 66% of practitioners, men are more likely to hold the most senior roles within the industry (29% male vs. 19% female).
The survey also reveals that the profession ‘was less diverse than it had ever been in the past five years with 92% of practitioners classifying as white.’ Just 8% of practitioners responding to the survey came from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities which indicates a worrying lack of diversity in an increasingly diverse population.
Feeling like an imposter was a common response to the CIPR’s Race in PR report published in June 2020. The report highlights many problems Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic practitioners face with ‘an internalised fear of being a fraud’ a worryingly common theme.
Josa’s published research doesn’t include figures on ethnicity but Binna Kandola, author of Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference suggests the lack of role models may be contributing to the problem. He sums this up in his article ‘How Imposter Syndrome and Racism overlap’ published in HR Magazine:
“It’s no wonder… that so many BAME workers are feeling the effects of imposter syndrome. With a severe shortage of role models to aspire to emulate, as well as the constant reminder that they are different to the vast majority of their colleagues, they can easily start to feel as though they don’t belong.”
Josa’s research also reveals that women are also adversely affected by a lack of visible role models. So, with fewer women occupying senior roles, they are more likely to experience greater problems with imposter syndrome.
It is worth noting that while men and women are almost equally afflicted by imposter syndrome (49% of men vs 52% women), gender differences emerge as careers progress. Men tend to be less afflicted by imposter syndrome as their careers progress because they are more likely to feel their skills are validated by promotion.
The correlation between some of the more worrying findings within the CIPR’s 2020 State of the Profession survey and Josa’s research indicates that imposter syndrome needs to be addressed if the industry is serious about tackling its diversity issues. There is an urgent need to address the under-representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals at all levels of the industry and to increase the representation of women at the very highest levels of the profession.
Even more worryingly, left unchecked imposter syndrome contributes to mental health issues. With almost a quarter (23%) of PR professionals saying they have taken sickness absence from work on the grounds of stress, anxiety or depression there is clear evidence that the industry needs to do everything it can to help tackle the underlying problems.
Why are we here?
The PR and communications industry protects the image and amplifies the achievements of businesses, organisations and individuals. The work is highly visible but, in some organisations, the individuals responsible for and the skills required for producing and delivering it are rarely acknowledged. Nameless individuals craft content for websites, draft speeches and presentations for senior leaders. Their skills constantly shine a light on the achievements and good work of others and promote products and businesses while they frequently sit in the shadows.
In addition to this, the 24-hour news cycle and seemingly exponential growth of social media has fostered a dangerous ‘always on’ culture. 52% of respondents to Josa’s research survey showed damaging perfectionist behaviours which include choosing to work longer hours than necessary leading to exhaustion, overwhelm, performance and mental health issues. In an industry devoted to creating and protecting the public image and where public ridicule can result from a simple typo, it’s easy to see how the four Ps of imposter syndrome (perfectionism, procrastination, paralysis and people-pleasing) thrive.
Despite being trusted advisors, PR and Communications practitioners are frequently under-represented in the C-Suite. The issues with this under-representation are simultaneously addressed and acknowledged in the recently published CIPR Skills Guide ‘From Comms Professional to CEO’. One common insight noted by contributors to the guide is a lack of visible role models transitioning into the senior-most roles. Josa’s research cites a lack of role models as contributing to imposter syndrome so unless there is a concerted effort to address this there is a risk that this could become a self-perpetuating situation.
Ruth Davison, CEO, Islington and Shoreditch Housing Association said in her interview featured in the Skills Guide that “Comms people should believe in the worth of our own profession. The accountants and lawyers aren’t sitting there thinking ‘do you think it’s alright if I am a CEO?’ It never crosses their mind. Don’t be guilty of thinking, like others, that comms is fluffy. It isn’t.”
How can we overcome it?
Further education and training is frequently seen as an obvious way to conquer imposter syndrome. The lawyers and accountants Ruth Davison refers to must study for and pass exams before they can practise their profession and they must complete annual CPD to retain professional certification in contrast, it has long been possible to have a successful career in PR and Communications without any professional qualifications. This is slowly starting to change and increasingly, employers are looking to employ people in senior roles who do hold relevant professional qualifications.
The CIPR gained formal Chartered status in 2005 and its mission is to ‘build a chartered public relations profession’. The number of professionals with Chart.PR status is increasing but there is a long way to go before the profession garners the same levels of respect and representation as lawyers and accountants. The industry operates in a rapidly changing environment, so practitioners have long committed to CPD on some level to ensure their skills remain relevant but is this adding to the problem by continually upskilling practitioners rather than equipping them with the core analytical skills required in the C-suite?
Visible leaders with a background in PR and Communications are rare however there are signs that this is slowly changing. The aforementioned Skills Guide is a positive sign that the industry is considering what it needs to do to address this issue. Ella Minty, Founding Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Board member (2018), former UK Government Communication Services and Institute of Directors mentor, published author and university lecturer recently argued that ambitious PR & Comms professionals need to develop knowledge that goes beyond the core skills of ‘creating various campaigns, promos, social media this and that, news releases and so on’.
In her blog post featured on Influence, she said that PR and Comms professionals must “offer advice and guidance based on proper research and analysis, multiple considerations of various parameters in play in a constantly changing environment, and a proper risk/reward overview of “if we do this, then that will happen”. As the profession upskills, more individuals will be equipped with these skills so they should be able to progress to the most senior roles.
Josa’s research reveals that women exhibit a stronger tendency to become ‘addicted to getting more qualifications or waiting until they had more experience’ and their ‘subconscious self-sabotage is costing careers’.
The risk here is that practitioners focus their efforts on building a broad skills base rather than developing skills that go beyond core communications functions, this is something that mentoring can help address.
Mentors act as role models who can help guide the next generation of practitioners and leaders. They can help individuals forge their career path and focus on the skills and qualifications they need to develop to achieve their aims. There are many schemes available; some large businesses and organisations run their own mentoring schemes, professional networks such as the CIPR run schemes for their members and there are schemes for practitioners with Black, Asian, mixed-race and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Everyone who participates in a mentoring scheme benefits – mentors receive validation of their skills and professional expertise (a sure-fire way to help address imposter syndrome) and mentees benefit from the experience and guidance of their mentor.
PR and communications professionals occupy a unique position in most businesses and organisations. They may not be well represented in the C-Suite, but they frequently have the ear of senior management. They often act as an organisation’s moral compass and can (and do) have some power to influence decisions every single day. Their key strength must lie in their ability to speak truth to power to ensure businesses and organisations operate in a morally responsible way, something that can only have a positive outcome. Imposter syndrome must be tackled so that these individuals are confident enough to use their voices. It’s also worth noting that encouraging individuals to step away from their imposter syndrome can only be beneficial for the entire profession as it strives to increase diversity, address the gender pay gap, improve the mental health of practitioners and increase the profession’s representation within the C-Suite.
Ditching Imposter Syndrome by Clare Josa, published by Beyond Alchemy Publishing UK
Imposter Syndrome White paper, Clare Josa. November 2019 https://ditchingimpostersyndrome.com/research/
CIPR State of the Profession Survey 2020: https://cipr.co.uk/CIPR/Our_work/Policy/CIPR_State_of_the_Profession_2019_20.aspx
CIPR Race in PR – BAME lived experiences in the UK PR industry https://newsroom.cipr.co.uk/unequal-opportunities-non-inclusive-cultures-and-racist-experiences-cipr-publishes-new-report-into-lived-experiences-of-bame-practitioners-in-pr/