Wednesday, 15 February 2012
PR, Prejudice and Competent Men Named Steve
It’s been six months since I began work at Merit Contractors Association. For those of you who don’t know it, Merit is an association that represents some 1,300 construction companies across Alberta. Merit provides employee benefit packages for non-union construction firms as well as construction training and industry advocacy.
One of my current priorities has been promoting apprenticeship programs in the trades. Those of you who follow Alberta business news may have heard the dire predictions about looming labour shortages in the construction industry, due primarily to a forthcoming mass exodus of the boomer generation from the labour force. As such, construction training and apprenticeship programs are going to be absolutely vital in keeping the industry going.
As communications guy with Merit, I am tasked with helping promote careers in the trades and combatting stereotypes about them, namely that they’re where people go who aren’t smart enough to get into university. The irony of this, of course, is that I fit just about every stereotype of the egghead types who tend to hold prejudicial views of this industry. With an MA in Japanese History and a serious language study addiction, I might at first glance seem like the worst person in the world to be tasked with promoting careers in the construction trades.
The truth is that I’ve long had an inferiority complex when it comes to people – especially men – who are adept at fixing and building thing, as opposed to me who barely knows which end of a hammer to hold. Humourist Dave Barry famously referred to these types as “competent men named Steve” in Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys, in which he admits his own crippling insecurities vis-à-vis plumbers, electricians and other burly, big-bicepped blue-collar dudes who come into the house and save the day. I do not feel even remotely superior to a pipefitter or a sheet metal worker. Say what you like about crisis communication - if civilization really were to collapse in ruin tomorrow, it's people like me with zero manual skills who would be the most screwed.
Nevertheless, in my professional life I’ve been drawn to one job after another that have pushed me outside my cultural comfort zone. Ironically, my teaching and copy editing jobs in Japan were probably the “safest” jobs I’ve ever had in this respect. At Native Counselling Services of Alberta, where I worked for two and a half years, I grappled with topics like intergenerational trauma, racial and cultural stereotyping and Aboriginal over-representation in the correctional system – from the standpoint of a person of privilege. And now I’m an egghead in the construction industry, a world that's always been foreign and somewhat intimidating.
What does this mean for me as a PR professional? If nothing else, in both my current and previous jobs I brought a certain amount of outside perspective, which is conducive to crafting messages that resonate among external publics. It’s also forced me to do my homework. After six months in the construction biz, I now know a great deal more about the industry than I did before (which admittedly isn't saying much) and I continue to learn more every day. And it’s also forced me to confront my own preconceptions, and in doing so I would to think it’s helped me combat stereotypes and prejudice out in the world.
In PR, much is said about ‘publics’ and ‘stakeholders’. You’ve got your news media, social media publics, external and internal publics, lawyers, regulators, investors and government. But as a PR professional, the first public you have to convince is invariably yourself. Getting to the root of the truth and getting that truth out through all the ‘noise’ of society is the essence of public relations. And if you can’t cut through your own ‘noise’, you’re not going to disseminate anything worthwhile.
It also doesn't hurt to align yourself with the Steves of this world. If and when civilization does collapse, no amount of good PR will put a shelter over your head or protect you from roving predators. But these guys might.