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Taking Gender Parity Personally

Editor’s note: In recognition of the industry ideals reflected in the PRSA 2014 International Conference theme “Leading the Way: Fearless Future for PR,” we’ve invited industry-leading female CEOs to share their inspiration, tips and advice on how to grow, succeed and advance to the highest levels in the profession. Follow the “Leading the Way: Lessons from Female CEOs” series using the hashtag #PRLessonsInLeadership.

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Forbes recently asked for my advice on six steps Corporate America must take to achieve gender parity, “Oh dear,” I thought. “If Corporate America hasn’t figured it out by now, how on earth am I to have anything to add?” On the other hand, as a female CEO in the PR industry, gender parity is a matter I have thought a lot about ever since being invited to attend the World Economic Forum. With women delegates representing less than 15% at the meeting, I realized there is a lot of work to be done to reach equality in business and to help women have more confidence to lead, and that is why I helped found the Omniwomen Board and a Women’s Leadership Panel Series at my company, Ketchum. A start, yes. Enough? No.

Gender parity is rife with issues that are institutional and individual, tactical and emotional.  There are no simple solutions. We need to work on succession plans for a start, but let’s put all of that aside for a moment and embrace the power we have as individuals to make change and put ourselves in positions to lead.  In other words, let’s take gender parity personally starting from now. But how?

  1. Good communicators make great leaders. As a female [or male] communicator you can take solace in knowing that there is a strong link between communication and leadership. This is validated by leadership experts, including bestselling author psychologist Daniel Goleman. With this in mind, let’s think about women as communicators. We at Ketchum polled 6,509 people in 13 countries worldwide on their perceptions of effective leadership, effective communication and the intrinsic link between the two. Again the communication-leadership link was validated, but we also found that women perform best on four of the most important leadership communication attributes – that we’re moving towards a model of leadership that is more fully engaged, collective, consultative, participatory, social, collaborative and partnership-focused.
  2. Define your personal brand. Clarify who you are and what you stand for – – and equally importantly, what you don’t stand for. Once you are clear your words and behavior should reinforce your personal brand. I like to use the “elevator speech” test. If you were to ride an elevator with someone and had just a few seconds to introduce who you are, what would you say? What would you do? What is the special thing you would want them to know? My own mantra is, “It is better to be trusted than to be liked.”
  3. Find your voice. When you look at studies of how leaders are perceived, TV interviews, in-person speeches and formal verbal and written announcements continue to be most influential. Here, it’s useful to remember the famous study by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian which found that when communicating with others, 7% of what you communicate gets conveyed in your words, 38% by your tone, and 55% through body language. Once you get that balance right, 25% of people say their opinion of a leader today is shaped by social channels like Facebook and Twitter. This means that the way you communicate through these channels is important – and your personal brand needs to shine across them all. When you are communicating through social channels consider how punctuation, length, pictures and links also represent your brand.
  4. Leave the apologies behind, ladies. How often do we apologize when we don’t have to? As the Pantene (client) #shinestrong campaign encourages us: let’s stop! Make a note today and become really conscious of when you do it, so you prevent those unnecessary apologies diminishing the power of what you have to communicate. Instead, add some swagger to your tone, be clear, concise and direct in your communication and move on to your next powerful point.

I accept that gender parity is complicated. But I also believe that we, as both women and men, can make a lot of progress if we each begin our own journey to see it as something we can address personally.

Barri Rafferty is CEO of North America for Ketchum, where she leads nine offices and oversees Ketchum Sports and Entertainment, Access Communications, and Harrison & Shriftman.

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