Can PR consultancies lead a genuine #MeToo movement against sexual harassment in PR?

Some industry sectors are more to be more conducive to the harassment of women. The PR business, with its' combination of male leadership and a majority of women employees, is one such industry. PRmoment India reached out to PR professionals to find out what their experience is and what preventive and remedial action can be taken. A strong article sent to PRmoment India, by two young PR professionals, Karishma Joseph and Spriha Dhanuka advocated that it's PR consultancies that can truly drive the #MeToo campaign for PR in India.

What the #MeToo movement has done is redefine what is appropriate behaviour. What a casual patriarchy would dismiss as 'not such a big deal', has now started to come under strong scrutiny.

To resolve this, sensitisation at all levels of the PR business is needed, especially at the unorganised PR level. While the larger PR businesses in India are likely to have remedial systems in place, it's the unorganised PR sector that is likely not to have these systems.

Sources of sexual harassment in PR

PR professionals we spoke to said that the three main power structures in PR, i.e,  PR consultancy - client relationship, intra -agency power structures and the PR-journalist relationship are where understandably harassment takes place.

Ajay* (name changed), a young corporate communication professional, says bluntly, "The perception is the problem. Women in public relations are treated as if a commodity by not just their peers but also by the journalists."

Adds Ajay*, "Agency-client is a relationship of subordination and control."

Ajay, also says that at the PR consultancy level he has seen personal comments being made, "How to dress to meet the ‘client’. Like seriously? How does that matter? Senior management is regularly known in agencies to comment on the dressing sensibilities, hair and other physical attributes of women either privately or publicly."

Kiran Ray Chaudhury, co-founder and joint managing director at 80dB, however strongly disagrees with this assessment. She says, "The truth of the matter is that PR does attract a lot of women. 20 years ago, it may have been seen as a wine and dine profession, but this is no longer so. Also, harassment can equally take place in professions such as consulting and banking, its all-pervasive. What is required is deep sensitisation and training regarding what is appropriate across a whole range of behaviour. While the profession may have evolved the training has not reached widely across the sector." 

However, it is also true that nothing invites more comment than how a woman dresses. As a political reporter covering Parliament and the INC party, with TV 18 in the 90's,  this reporter heard government officials saying that women journalists should not cover Parliament in jeans. A leading PR agency told this reporter that they have cracked down on casual dressing at work as they must be properly dressed for corporate meetings. While this did not apply only to women, the fact is that women are more vulnerable to being judged for this. A case in point is the reams of comments and critical articles about Meghan Markle wearing an off-shoulder dress at the 'Trooping the Colour', ceremony earlier this month.

"Ironically, most employees (HR Departments included) are unaware of the  'Internal Complaints Committee' that is to be in place for cases to be reported."

Smruti Alinje Bhalerao, founder, Prittle Prattle shares her experience where she says, " A potential client was seeking favours and was sending lewd text messages to an employee of the agency, ahead of the signing of the contract. The employee reported this to the senior authorities. The deal was immediately withdrawn and a complaint was filed against the client. The organization prevented harassment and supported the employee who was being harassed to come forward and ensure that the problem was addressed quickly and effectively."

Preventive and remedial action against sexual harassment in PR

Two young PR professionals wrote to PRmoment India with a strong article on what they have observed regarding sexual harassment. Spriha Dhanuka, from The PRactice and Karishma Joseph from 'The Mavericks', say in their article that, "When all our timelines were flooded with our nearest and dearest bravely posting #MeToo, as new and fiercely feminist entrants to the PR field, we were forced to reflect on what this meant for the industry. A survey done by an international PR magazine mentioned that 1 in 6 women experienced some form of sexual harassment at the workplace. While the survey was not specifically about Indian firms, our dipstick showed that the Indian PR industry seems to be no different, besides showing an even greater reluctance towards having a healthy dialogue than our western counterparts."

"Having the leadership of an agency develop a strong voice against any kind of sexual harassment, with an effective induction plan coupled with frequent sensitisation plans for employee awareness, can help cement the reputation for the agency itself," advise Joseph and Dhanuka.

Joseph and Dhanuka, who were very clear that they want their names to be mentioned along with their opinions, add, "What we have consistently found is that the power of the PR industry to influence clients, and therefore the public at large, means that we must epitomise the “change begins with us” dictum. As succinctly outlined in the Spiderman comics, with this great power, comes great responsibility. Our attitude towards sexual harassment and our advice to clients on these issues informs how the Indian public perceives them, creating huge opportunities for us to impact popular perception."

Joseph and Dhanuka further share that, " Paring apart the layers of harassment - looking at someone a certain way, pantry banter, inappropriate exchanges on social media - all fall perfectly well within the ambit of sexual harassment at the workplace. Having the leadership of an agency develop a strong voice against any kind of sexual harassment, with an effective induction plan coupled with frequent sensitisation plans for employee awareness, can help cement the reputation for the agency itself. Clients facing allegations of sexual harassment often become a tricky situation that makes client servicing teams walk on thin ice. However, once there is clarity and direction from the leadership on these issues, employees can begin echoing the same sentiment and advise clients in a smoother, non-negotiable process." 

Joseph and Dhanuka also add that "Having only corrective measures in the event that an unfortunate incident does take place, simply does not suffice; creating a situation where gender equity and safety is a concern only once it’s a ‘problem’. Ironically, most employees (HR Departments included) are unaware of the  'Internal Complaints Committee' that is to be in place for cases to be reported. “If/when something happens, then we will look into it” cannot be the accepted train of thought (and oft-delayed action). It is necessary for agencies to seed preventive measures as well as disseminate information about available corrective measures more widely and actively."

In conclusion, it is not as if harassment is specific to PR. Professionals in service industries such as aviation, hospitality, advertising, beauty and media are also vulnerable. A recent survey reported in Washington Post said that women in restaurants and clothing sectors are the most vulnerable.

However, this does not take away from the fact that better sensitisation training and education is also needed in the PR business, along with strong remedial structures across the PR business. Not just at the larger PR agency or company level, but also for the protection of people working across the scores of smaller agencies and stringers in PR. 

*Names changed to protect their privacy.

If you want to find out more about your legal rights against sexual harassment, please see these sites :

The law against sexual harassment:

Vishakha Guidelines:

Working Rules for internal Complaints Committees:

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