Workplace Harassment: Our roving guest reporters look at burning issues within PR

A Gen Z Eye on PR

Our roving monthly reporters Spriha Dhanuka and Karishma Joseph share their views on workplace harassment. Every month, the two young PR professionals will pick up a topic with PR they feel strongly about in our new column under #LifeofPR called " Gen Z Eye on PR.

Inaction Speaks the Loudest:

"Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph." - Haile Selassie

We’ve seen it everywhere: revealing perpetrators like Weinstein or Cosby, or victims like Terry Crews or your best friend from middle school, an overwhelming number said #MeToo. 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 in 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.

Colleagues far and wide have repeatedly been on the receiving end of lewd comments, gestures, and actions, most unaware of what exactly falls under the legal and social purview of “sexual harassment”. Being newer to the industry might put us higher on the naivety scale but also on the optimism and action ones. A plethora of articles, anecdotes and brainstorms later, we agreed that it all seems to boil down to a strong and vocal management with a zero-tolerance policy, which can then be amplified by employees and clients.

As extended arms of clients, the PR industry must begin taking matters into its own hands, to get over the hump for effective change to trickle down to consumers. 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.

The Indian public relations industry has a rather unique gender imbalance, with a male-heavy leadership (all too common across industries) managing a largely female workforce. While sexual harassment can happen across any gender combinations (a topic that also requires far more workplace education), we have also found it to be undeniable that the most common form of sexual harassment is conducted by men against women. The PR industry’s gender dynamics make the issue of sexual harassment an even more pressing and pertinent one, and the lack of measures in place, even more concerning.

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.

As extended arms of our clients, we should aim to work with clients that not only resonate similar values but are willing ears to the advice we offer. A trickle-down effect that has the client servicing teams respond to a client situation of sexual harassment, akin to a response from the leadership team, is where we would like to see the PR industry headed.

There are several gaps with respect to preventive measure across Indian workplaces, including the PR industry. 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.

Indicative solutions to the issue at hand:

1. A thoroughly detailed and widely disseminated induction process should be introduced, which will help increase employee awareness. These should be complemented with frequent sensitisation programs listing the many facets of harassment, and the ways to deal with them.
2. An explicit escalation plan should be established, which will be adhered to in the event of an unfortunate incident. Information about the ICC should be made available to all employees. HR departments are integral to ensuring all employees are well aware of mechanisms in place for their safety. 
3. A more gender-balanced leadership, that is committed to paving the way for ongoing healthy dialogue. Employees might feel an increase in comfort levels through equal representation and a leadership that is constantly striving to create a comfortable and informed workplace.

Brands are often accused of using opportunities like ‘Women’s Day’ or ‘Mother’s Day’ for PR stunts with no depth. Limiting your action to writing compelling pitches on "Day for Sexual Harassment" is still in action. As PR agencies, we have the power to advocate for brands to create real change and actually stand for the values they espouse in their press releases and social media campaigns. This attitude MUST be deeply ingrained in the functioning of the agency itself, in both letter and spirit, to actually trickle down to clients and the public. A PR agency taking a non-negotiable stance on sexual harassment might lead to them losing a few clients, but the corresponding addition in the spine is well worth it in our opinion.

Spriha Dhanuka - The PRactice and Karishma Joseph - The Mavericks.

Two young, fiercely feminist entrants to the Indian PR industry analyze their world paring apart layers of complex issues with their sharp perspective.

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