If you have a dismissive attitude to public relations — as no doubt many Crikey readers do — you will be delighted to discover that research has uncovered something very interesting about young PR students. Some of them suffer from what has been dubbed the “Samantha Syndrome”.

If, like me, the TV program S-x and the City tragically managed to pass you by, you need to know that in the series there is a character, Samantha Jones, who is a PR person. In the UK she would be what the tabloid media call “a PR”, which is shorthand for a young, blonde attractive woman who does events and whatnot.

Dr Jane Johnston, associate professor, journalism and PR, at Bond University, is soon to give a paper at the second annual film and media conference in London. Dr Johnston, as well as being the author of influential PR textbooks and research, is also a noted blogger. In one of her recent blogs, she talks about her forthcoming paper, “The Samantha Syndrome”: Screen depictions of PR. The blog says: “The paper looks at screen depictions of women who work in the public relations industry. In particular, it focuses on the contemporary popular productions of S-x and the City, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Sliding Doors as well as the 1940s film Miracle on 34th Street, to investigate the main typologies of women in public relations. It finds that despite a great diversity in professional roles on screen, there is little ethnographic or demographic variation in character representation. Women are almost always single or, in rare cases, divorced; they are usually white, middle class, attractive and young (20, 30 or 40-something), and often blonde. Iconic in this stereotype is Samantha Jones, the post-feminist stalwart of Sex and the City whose public relations career represents but a blimp in the life of the New York nymphomaniac.”

There are many surveys of students which suggest that some of them are initially keen on PR as a career because they believe it is a whirl of events, parties, cocktails and exotic travel. Sometimes they have been told by a careers counsellor that they should try PR because they are “good with people” – a comment which usually guarantees failure at PR job interviews when the candidate mouths it.

Dr Tony Jaques, of  Issues}Outcome, who publishes a newsletter on things PR and a blog, has also recently drawn attention to an article in prdaily by Michael Sebastian, who also writes about Samantha and the experience of US PR educators who need to dispel “Samantha Syndrome” misconceptions about the trade among young students.

The fascinating thing is that not only is the image largely wrong but it also masks a rather more interesting economic factor about PR. For many years economic research showed that “feminisation” of industries and professions (e.g. secretarial work and kindergarten teaching) tended to lead to lower wage and salary levels. Significantly, “masculinisation” of some industries leads to increases in wages and salaries. For instance, IT programming was once predominantly done by females and is now a male-dominated industry with a particular culture. Former Crikey website editor Ruth Brown has written about how people are working to reverse the IT trend and reintroduce some diversity.

In the case of PR, though, not only did the industry become progressively feminised but it was also one of the early exceptions in which wages and salaries increased, rather than decreased, as the process unfolded. Indeed, it is one area where the glass ceiling doesn’t seem to exist. And that, alone I suspect, is a reason not to be dismissive of the industry — Samantha Syndrome or not.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey