PR Glass Ceiling Persists

I had hoped that it would be a celebratory dinner for two reasons. A good friend of mine was turning 40, and unbeknownst to all the other dinner guests, he was also about to hear whether he had been promoted to a corporate-level position within his relatively large company. We had kept in close contact during the interview process and I was excited, hoping that his dream was about to come true. “Didn’t get the job,” he texted me earlier that day. “Don’t mention it at dinner please.” He’d apparently hit a glass ceiling in the world of public relations.

The birthday celebration was nice, but my friend was obviously upset  He has been with his company for more than 15 years and performed exceptionally, starting as a public relations assistant and rising to the level of Vice President of Corporate Communications. The person who got the job he interviewed for came from outside of the company, which disappointed my friend further.

My friend was told that he didn’t have the operational experience for this new corporate-level position. That may be true. He has spent 15 years managing the company’s brand, image, media, and corporate communications. The company is a manufacturer, and my friend admitted that he “doesn’t know very many people who get their hands dirty.”

One of the fascinating aspects of my job is researching the backgrounds of corporate executives and board members. I enjoy seeing the unlikely progression of those who’ve reached great heights: the salesperson who eventually becomes CEO, or the factory worker who one day becomes CFO. Unfortunately, what I rarely see is the public relations person who moves beyond his or her role.

Ursula Burns is one of my favorite examples of an amazing career trajectory. Burns began working at Xerox in the summer of 1980 as a mechanical engineering intern, completed a master of science degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University a year later, and began working full-time for the copier maker. Today, she is the President and a director of Xerox, and a member of the board of directors of American Express and Boston Scientific. The three companies have a combined market capitalization of more than $85 billion.

What makes Burns’ story more interesting is that her boss is Chairwoman and CEO Anne Mulcahy. Mulcahy started her career selling copiers in the field and is now also a director of Citigroup, Target, and The Washington Post Company. Also intriguing is the fact that Mulcahy has a bachelor of arts degree in English/journalism from Marymount College, a tiny school that has since been absorbed by Fordham University. There has been no MBA or post-graduate degree for Mulcahy; she learned in the field.

I certainly don’t know the background of every corporate executive or board member in America. However, I’ve researched over 5,000 such individuals during my career and I cannot recall one person who moved from public relations into a high-level operational or management role. (Unless you consider investor relations a radical departure from public relations.) Such people surely exist, but their numbers appear to be dwarfed by those who have climbed up the corporate ladder from sales, marketing, manufacturing, operations, and administrative positions.

In response to his rejection, my friend decided to enroll in some finance and business administration classes. He already has a bachelor’s degree and he went to journalism school. He also said that he’s going to “increase my visibility within the company.” Next week, he’s traveling to the company’s main manufacturing facility to speak with workers and managers.

One avenue that was offered to my friend is for him actually to switch jobs within the company. The job change would be a demotion in terms of title, but his pay would remain the same. He’s considering it and says he’s more likely to change jobs if it means that he could gain the necessary experience to be considered for corporate-level job openings outside of the public relations industry.

“I’m a Vice President but there’s no room for upward movement unless I change career paths,” he said matter-of-factly.

Public relations is a great field, of course, but I find myself concerned that PR people are prone to hit a glass ceiling, as my friend has. The specialization of the job lends itself to being pigeonholed as someone in a support role instead of a leadership one, and this hinders career advancement. In addition, PR people are not always welcome in a corporate-level position, often being dictated to instead of listened to, a huge mistake that corporate-level executives often make.

If your ambition is to move beyond the glass ceiling of public relations, I would seriously advise putting yourself on a path that includes learning about the company beyond what you need to communicate, forging professional relationships with managers in other departments, making yourself visible outside of your job function, and reminding people through your work of the necessity and importance of public relations.

Phase 1 of my friend’s career may very well be over, but what a great phase it was. He went from making $20,000 a year to making well over $200,000 per year, supervising dozens of employees. He should not ignore or devalue his accomplishments. A new challenge awaits; it will allow him not only to utilize the public relations skills and knowledge that brought him to where he is now, but also to broaden his professional experience and prepare him for the next level.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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