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The Line Between Professional and Friendly in the PR World

July 16, 2009

A topic that has been bugging me since my intern days: the role of being a woman in the business world – especially in PR – and having to reign in your personality so that you don’t come off as flirtacious with clients. I’ve heard about and witnessed it before. Women are friendly to clients, asking questions and genuinely listening to them. The client, in turn, responds well. An outsider looking in, as in a supervisor, might feel that you are crossing that hazy line between too friendly and professional.

woman-with-briefcaseSo, what’s the line?

Three Things:

1. Do you keep your personality in check until you have an established relationship with the client?
2. What if you are a personable person? How do you turn off your personality?
3. Will the lines of professionalism change as we move into social media? Does having access to a FB page, a Twitter account, etc. make it easier to become friends with a client? And should you be doing that?

As PR professionals, we can be viewed as people pleasers. We try to make our clients and organizations happy with positive press and great media relations – all delivered with a positive and pleasant attitude. I think it might be easier for a PR professional unknowingly cross that line than most, because of the nature of our job. We just tend to be friendly, upbeat people.

What are your thoughts? Discuss.

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31 Comments leave one →
  1. @m_wible permalink
    July 16, 2009 1:26 pm

    I’ve struggled with this for quite a while and thank you for speaking out about it.

    Another question I have is how are you supposed to react if the client flirts with YOU. There have been times when I’ve maintained what I feel is a very platonic, yet friendly, relationship with a client and then one day they say something completely inappropriate. Then I’m left second-guessing whether or not I was really professional or if I crossed the line in any way, shape or form.

    I’ve been told my entire life that I have a flirtatious personality, even when I’m not trying to. It’s very hard for me to remain personable and friendly, without accidentally crossing the line.

    Thank you so much for writing this blog. You rock, as always.

  2. July 16, 2009 1:31 pm

    No problem. My friend Jen Wilbur jokingly refers to me as a ‘flirty nerd’, as I too have been told I have a flirty personality. My dad attributes it to the fact that I have two sales people as parents (they were both in medical sales) and I was constantly attending parties, dinners, etc – which forced me to make conversations with anyone.

    As my best friend says – the only reason the stop sign isn’t friends with you is that it can’t talk back.

  3. July 16, 2009 1:49 pm

    I hope we can generate some great discussion here Lauren as it’s a topic that bubbles up regularly. I don’t think we, as professionals, can hide our personalities when building relationships we want based on trust. At the same time, we know there are limits/boundaries between acceptable practices in professional and personal settings. I think it’s critical to be yourself in both settings and let the clients/others judge you as you.

    Over the years, I’ve learned that most often it works out best anyway. My clients choose me for that personality. Personality probably drive the decision of those who don’t choose my firm as well.

    So…be yourself, but your professional self at work too.

  4. July 16, 2009 1:50 pm

    Thanks, Mary. I’ve found through my jobs that the “brands” that fit me best are the ones that allow me to be my personable, gregarious self. I like that people respond to me and feel comfortable – I don’t think that’s crossing a line.

    Great points, as always.

  5. July 16, 2009 1:55 pm

    I think this is a great topic and one that needs to be discussed. GJ Lauren.

    I think with the trends that have come alongside with social media, this will become even more of an issue. You’re now expected to be personal and human. This could lead to very human interactions and all of them aren’t going to be “professional”.

    I don’t have an answer for this one to be honest. I think you should be yourself but if you’re a flirty person, this could be a problem. I think everyone has a little “flirt” in them though, and maybe it’s not so bad? Definitely creates a more friendly, light atmosphere… If you’re able to keep it within reason, maybe it’s okay. I really don’t know haha.

    @DavidSpinks
    @Scribnia

  6. July 16, 2009 1:56 pm

    Interesting questions here, Lauren. Here’s a couple thoughts (I’ve had limited contact with clients during internships, so please, correct me if I’m wrong with this).

    I’m in the camp that believes an outgoing, friendly personality makes someone easy to work with and I don’t think one needs to turn off their personality in the workplace. One can keep their natural personality and be personable while staying professional.

    To answer your first question, an outgoing personality may turn off some potential clients, but most should view it as a plus, especially given that they’re paying you to help with relations with the media and the public.

    I’m interested to see responses to your third question. I use Facebook for personal use, rather than professional, and as a way to stay in touch with friends, so I would avoid Facebook until it becomes a more personal friendship, but I use Twitter as a mix between personal and professional. Therefore, that could only help in creating a solid relationship with a client.

    Thanks for posting this, Lauren. I know it took some courage to do so.

    Tom O’Keefe
    @tomokeefe1

  7. July 16, 2009 2:09 pm

    Excellent post, Lauren.

    There is a fine line between friendly and flirty, especially in the PR world.

    I firmly believe that every person (male or female), should keep their moral compass pointed in the right direction at all times. It will never let you down.

    As a man in PR, I do see women (not those I work with…the women in my company bring their A game every day based on their merit) use their…um…selves…to get ahead with male clients. It makes me work THAT much harder to deliver the goods every single day.

    As for social media, it is an even scarier line to toe. I wrote about it a few months ago here: http://thebuzzbymikeschaffer.wordpress.com/2009/05/31/pr-buzz-everybodys-watching/.

    I think the rules on what is and is not “kosher” with PR-Media-Client social media interaction haven’t been written yet. As this first generation of users, we have a responsibility to use the tools appropriately and professionally.

    At the end of the day, be yourself, but be aware of what you are saying and who your audience is (or ever will be!).

  8. July 16, 2009 2:10 pm

    Mike – Great point. I was strictly talking about personality, but I do know women that use other “assets” to get ahead with males. And that’s not cool.

  9. July 16, 2009 2:14 pm

    I’ve heard about this before, but I think it’s subjective to the people involved.

    I do not think there are lines that are defined just because of the nature of the job — but obviously that is dependent on the situation at hand. That being said — it is also up to the professional to keep themselves in check.

    For example, someone who only keeps LinkedIn for their professional buddies, and Facebook for everything else, is stupid, in my opinion.

    Yes, I KNOW someone who does this. I think a LinkedIN account is for networking. A Facebook is for friends, family and people you have some type of connection too.

    Then again, I’m a traditional, very old school Facebooker. I joined in 2004 and continue to see it as a way to stay in touch with friends, and stay connected to new friends etc., I keep my Facebook very seperate from my other online accounts.

    But drifting BACK on topic — it is subjective and people should use caution always, until the waters are known to be calm. 🙂

  10. July 16, 2009 2:23 pm

    I’ve wondered about this too. I think its important to show your personality, but as a younger PR student I find that a flirty personality can hurt me even more as I am already working to earn respect due to my age. As a result, I decided I’m better off toning it down for now and then coming out more during established social events. That way I can hopefully be seen as someone who is professional when necessary, but also fun. I think its a tough line to toe, but it can be done without sacrificing who you are.

  11. July 16, 2009 2:28 pm

    Great post, Lauren!

    I definitely understand where you’re coming from…and like Mike said, some girls actually DO use their “assets” to get ahead (kinda reminds me of your Bruno post on Little Pink Book I just commented on lol)…but it’s all up to personal judgment and morals. It’s hard to define clear lines because every professional relationship is different depending on the client.

    On another note: Sasha – Totally agree with you on the Facebook thing. I signed up as a college freshman in 2004, so I try to keep it pretty separate from everything else…

  12. July 16, 2009 2:37 pm

    With Twitter & Social Media, The Lines of Professionalism are blurred, not just between client and professional, but between peers, & between employer and employee. It’s a very grey area and I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of stories about inappropriate interaction, innocent misunderstandings that lead to lawsuits…all because there are no clear boundaries or defined rules anymore.

    IMHO The key is consistency. I can’t and won’t suggest a universally applicable rule for all these situations and relationships. But what I can suggest is that you be true to your own personality. If you work in a profession that involves social media, you may just extend that degree of professionalism normally reserved to the workplace to your social media presence as well, especially if you are the voice of a company.

    I wish there were a clearer answer to this issue as it’s only going to get more complex and blurry.

  13. Laura permalink
    July 16, 2009 2:44 pm

    The fact that we are even talking about this is so sexist. Why is it that it is okay for men to be charming and personable to clients, but if a woman does it is is flirting? Woman should be able to be themselves in the workplace without some man or in this case a woman thinking that they are just trying to get ahead by flaunting their assets. And, why do we assume all clients are men? I have plenty female clients and I act the same way to them as I do to my male clients. Why are we propagating this stereotype by even discussing it?

    @mikeschaffer. I’m real sorry that you have to work THAT much harder because some women try to use their sexuality to their advantage. I really feel your pain. It must be hard being a male in the working world. Us women have it easy right?

    • July 16, 2009 2:48 pm

      Laura – Thanks for reading and for your stance – you bring up an interesting question. However, is it a stereotype if it actually happens? It’s happened to me, and my colleagues, and people I know – we are accused of flirting by supervisors with male clients. That’s not sexist if it’s a fact.

      I behave the same way toward males as I do females – genuinely interested in what they say, and I also happen to be a gregarious person. It’s viewed as ‘flirting’ for some reason.

      Mike’s point can be valid – for I have a lot of guy friends that do have to work harder with male clients. This is why women are more successful in sales at times. It’s very true and you can’t argue with it. Mike’s a great guy and I know he didn’t mean that it’s so tough to be a man in the biz world.

      Thanks for reading – I always appreciate feedback.

  14. July 16, 2009 2:47 pm

    Lauren,
    Thank you for writing this post! Like you and @m_wible, this is something I struggle with. There are times that being friendly with a client (or co-worker) will help get you where you need to be quicker than maintaining a stictly professional relationship. I think this is true of men and women (you’re more likely to do something for someone you perceive to be a friend/on your side), but women catch a lot more heat for it.

    I do keep my personality in check until I have a relationship with someone – in or outside of work. You get a more toned down version of me until I really know you. It’s still me and there’s still personality and sass, but it’s toned down.

    I had to really think about the question of “how” to turn off or tone down personality. I think I channel my inside voice. I’m quieter and more business oriented.

    I can’t wait to hear what others say about how they interact with clients using social media. I work for an internal department so this isn’t something I face. I do, however, have to determine if/when to add co-workers to my personal pages.

    Thanks for the great post!

  15. July 16, 2009 2:50 pm

    Wow…I signed up for Facebook right after I graduated college in 2004 (I feel so old!), so I always was in a professional setting while using it.

    My fiancee keeps a real tight fist over her Facebook account and only allows select people access to it. I don’t feel like I can do that in an industry where we need to know people.

    A friend told me once that I could “get along with a piece of toast.” I think every publicist needs some of that in us.

  16. Laura permalink
    July 16, 2009 2:55 pm

    Lauren,

    I’m sorry, but I just do not agree with you on Mike’s point. In my experience my male colleagues have always had it easy when dealing with male clients. Because they are male they automatically receive more credibility. I’ve had a very senior, very intelligent woman tell me that when she is in a meeting with men, the men will always defer to her male colleagues even if they are junior to her. So I’m sorry but no sympathy here for the men, none at all.

    • July 16, 2009 3:00 pm

      Hey, no problem Laura. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, and it always makes me think outside the box if it’s different from mine. It’s sad if that is still happening in the workplace.

      I truly believe that men and women, on the same level playing field – can be equal. Yes, there are times when men have the advantage – people can still view it as a man’s working world. But some women are known to use their physical assets to get ahead, and that’s always been there too. It’s almost a lose-lose situation.

      I think if you work hard, no matter your gender, you should be respected.

  17. July 16, 2009 2:57 pm

    Hey, Laura–I wasn’t trying to say men or women have it harder in the business world. Clearly, for the vast majority of time, it’s been a man’s working world and I could not be happier to see it become more egalitarian every day.

    My point was that when there are women using their bodies to sell their PR services, it is unfair to EVERYONE and makes everyone look bad.

    We all want to be judged on what we can and can’t do, not our anatomy.

    By “work harder,” I mean that it is a reminder to consistently do my professional best on every project every day…which is something every person, man or woman, should be doing, as well.

    As I said above, every person should be themselves. We are in an outgoing industry, and that is an important part of what we do.

  18. @abarcelos permalink
    July 16, 2009 3:01 pm

    What a great post Lauren! Such wisdom for a young one 😉 You shouldn’t have to ever change your personality, period, but us extroverts definitely comes across a person or two in our careers that have the gall to tell us to “change” or as I was once told “tone down” our personalities. I think that’s completely wrong. I think we are all adults and know the lines that can’t be crossed both professionally and personally. It is also our responsibility to tell others if they say or do something inappropriate and that you won’t tolerate it.

    Lastly (after seeing your tweet), I never viewed this post as sexist at all because I think both men and women have these issues.

    Thought provoking!! Keep it coming.

  19. ruthie permalink
    July 16, 2009 3:04 pm

    Laura,

    Thanks for this post! I have often struggled with ensuring that my personality comes off as professional enough. I am naturally bubbly, talkative, etc — and as a young female especially, this can sometimes come off as flirty or, worse, ditzy. (Although I honestly think that I would technically “flirt” with women & men equally, since I act the same with everyone!)

    I’d like to think that these warm aspects to my personality would be an asset (and not as in the “assets” referred to above!) because they help me build personal relationships with colleagues and clients, but I also worry that it could be seen as a weakness if it means people don’t take me seriously. I’d love to see more conversations about all of this, so thanks for your insight so far!

    @ruthiegelber

  20. ruthie permalink
    July 16, 2009 3:05 pm

    Oh jeez, and I mean “Lauren” of course. Now that you can take to be ditzy.

  21. July 16, 2009 3:15 pm

    Interesting topic…

    Let’s face it – being a man or a woman has an undeniable effect on business relationships. I’ve seen people overdo the “friendliness” factor to try to gain favor or win business. I’ve also been kicked off agency account teams because the client preferred to work just with the other women on the team. Some things, as unfortunate as they can be, just get back to plain old human nature or pre-conceived notions.

    That said, if someone’s just being herself like you describe in your post, I would hope that supervisors/colleagues/etc. wouldn’t hold that against her. Or, at the very least, they would give her the benefit of the doubt. This is exactly the kind of issue that can spur crazy office politics/rumors/rivalries, turn people against each other and detract from everyone’s ability to just do their job. It’s tough to do sometimes, but people have to remember not to rush to any sort of judgment, even when they end up in situations like I described above. Rarely, if ever, is there any truth to the matter, so taking a deep breath and a step back is better for everyone and surely a lot less stress for you.

    @JasonSprenger

  22. July 16, 2009 3:17 pm

    Much needed topic it seems, Lauren.

    One – you should never change your personality for anyone, client or not. Two – I think the social media world definitely eases anyone’s thinking that a female professional should be less personable when talking with clients. We pride ourselves at being authentic & open, and those ‘tenets’ have been seemingly implanted in most of our minds. That being said, as businesses continue to evolve and show their true personalities, I don’t see why professionals, female or male, should ever hold back their own personality.

  23. July 16, 2009 3:23 pm

    By definition, flirting is feigning interest/attraction for fun. So, if you are truly flirting at work, that would be unprofessional and could cause some problems.

    But I know that’s not what’s going on. To be friendly and playful is part of your nature. Some of my best friends are that way, I’m that way. It’s not a sexual thing, it’s a outlook on life.

    Unfortunately, some people don’t understand this. They equate “friendly” with a come-on. Men and women. This is a perfect example of someone else’s uptight ways becoming your problem instead of the other way around.

    I’m curious how your supervisor approached the situation. Did he/she categorize it as “unprofessional?”

    This reminds of the time I was told that one of the reasons I was being passed up for promotion (in my early agency years) was because I drank my beer out of a bottle [that was handed to me by a client who was drinking his beer out of a bottle) at an event once.

    I’m not kidding.

    Don’t ever hold back your personality. Keep your language and sexuality in check (you know when this is), but you are you. Energy is infectious, and in a positive way. If you feel comfortable with how you’re handling it, you’re doing it right.

  24. lolakwrites permalink
    July 16, 2009 5:14 pm

    I recall discussing this very topic with you over beers and cheese fries (very ladylike of us!).

    A few comments and questions for you and the group:
    1) As PR professionals, we tailor our client’s message based on the audience. We determine, either by research, previous experience, or perception, how to pitch our story, and while the main message stays the same, how we say it may vary. I approach every single one of my relationships the same way. I can’t help it; being perceptive is both a blessing and a curse. I don’t walk into a meeting and say to myself, this client likes friendly, so BE FRIENDLY! I feed off of the energy I get from the person I’m talking to and subconsciously tailor my approach for success — gaining a new client, colleague or friend; pitching a story to a writer, getting to know a client better so I can help him/her achieve his/her goals, etc. And I would guess that most of the people reading this blog are wired similarly. To Jennifer Wilbur’s point about the definition of “flirt”, if you’re not being genuine, then you have bigger problems than being thought of as a flirt.

    2) Re: social media, this is a very interesting question. As I mentioned in 1), we tailor our one-on-one conversations based on the other party involved (because, of course, if we’re good little PR kids, we’re great LISTENERS in addition to being writers and talkers, which means that without listening, the conversation is not a conversation, but a soliloquy). But with the advent of Twitter and Facebook, while I may be saying something just to @cubanalaf or writing something on your Wall, our followers (voyeurs) are a part of that conversation, and as such, these social media tools demand one voice – yours. If you introduce another voice to speak to another fan, friend, follower, you’ll be outed as false in mere seconds. So you either have to be transparent or stick to the act you’ve concocted for yourself.

    WOW, that was a tangential response that doesn’t really even address the question. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: I have a few clients who have sought me out on Facebook. I can’t deny them; that’s rude. I just follow my mama’s rules: don’t write it/post a picture of it if you don’t want it on the front page of the paper in the morning. If you don’t want your clients to see what you were up to Friday night, why are you talking about it in a place that is truly not private no matter how many controls you clamp down on your account? If you’re friends with a client on Facebook, don’t write a wall message or send an e-mail you wouldn’t send to their work account, and if you receive something inappropriate, you need to talk to him/her.

    3) Finally, here’s a question perhaps for a future blog post, Lauren (if you’ve already covered it, my bad…): what about the opposite of this post’s topic? I’ve never been admonished for being too friendly, but I HAVE been called a b*tch when I WASN’T the friendly bubble-head someone expected. For me, this is the sexist issue I come up against; no one has a problem with the friendly version of me, but when some people are introduced to the firm, confident, no-BS and all business version, well, that’s when I start getting called names (to my face, at least). In my experience, men can be stern and it’s all gravy, but when a woman isn’t up for some friendly banter, she’s a b*tch. And I LOATHE myself when my knee-jerk reaction is to think these unflattering thoughts about other women executives. Well, I’ll stop hijacking this post and save the rest for when we meet for drinks next week : )

    Lauren Kwedar
    @lolakwrites

  25. July 27, 2009 1:09 pm

    Lauren, many apologies for the delay on commenting! You bring up a touchy subject that has haunted me for years.

    I am really friendly in the office and with vendors. To me, if you aren’t friendly back I just can’t trust you. And by friendly, I don’t mean unprofessional. But there are some folks in offices who are just cold as ice or downright rude in the name of being professional. Unfortunately, depending on the type of person I’ve worked for, I can tell you that being friendly isn’t always a plus.

    Recently I picked up a book called “Pitch Like A Girl” by Ronna Lichtenberg that discusses how people think, act, etc. in the office. Some people just don’t want a relationship, they want to keep it all business and others don’t. The book has a lot of insights into working within that environment and being able to tell who prefers which and how to work best with them to get what you need. I highly recommend it!

    In the past, I’ve asked for different account reps or to select a different agency because I felt I couldn’t have a trusting relationship with them. It’s not that they weren’t good at what they did, it’s just that I don’t like working with robots. I want to know what makes my vendors tick…what do they care about (even if it’s business!). I don’t want vendors that feel like they need to play a chess game with me (and to me that chess game is exactly what Lauren Kwedar
    describes up above – Sorry Lauren!). Don’t change for me. Be yourself, be smart. Have the guts to tell me that you think I am wrong OR that you were wrong. But then again, that’s just me. 😉

    I think companies considering social media might be better off with employees who tend to fall into the friendly, casual, relationship-building spectrum. Doing the opposite might cause some difficulties. Mack Collier has a great post today on the Daily Fix about this…one of the things he cautions is watching language. Why do I mention this? Because tone has never become so important as it has on-line. People can tell a “friendly” tone from a “professional, all business” tone a mile away.

    Thanks Lauren! Wish I could be there to discuss this over beers with my favorite Texan ladies!! 🙂

    Beth Harte
    Community Manager, MarketingProfs
    @bethharte

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