The power of introverts in public relations
It’s a common misconception that you must be extroverted to succeed in PR.
Tina: Mark, I’m really excited to talk about this month’s column because I think we can clear up a common misperception in our industry. Do you have to be an extravert to be successful in the public relations industry? And are most leaders and conference presenters in our industry extraverts? And if so, are we missing hearing from those powerful introverted voices in leadership?
Mark: Good question. As an extrovert myself, I’m just too busy talking to think much about it. The Latin roots of “extravert” are revealing: The prefix extra means “outside,” and the Latin vertere means “to turn.” As such, extraverts turn outward and introverts turn inward.
Tina: I do think as an industry we favor extraversion, when both traits have important benefits, depending on the circumstances. Believing extraversion is superior to introversion, though, is disadvantageous when we think about inclusion. I also suspect that we may believe that those who are more extraverted, more outspoken and who appear to be more confident with their presence are more competent leaders, which I think is a fallacy.
Mark: There’s no question in my mind that public relations favors extraversion. Job postings emphasize extraversive traits. Descriptions of public relations on Monster.com promote verbal communication skills, pitching the media and making presentations. Extraversion perpetuates this perception of our industry from the outside and within. But the stereotype of a communicator as a glad-handing, happy-talking extrovert is obsolete. At its core, effective public relations is more a matter of mutual trust and respect.
Tina: Having taught in universities, I see that some students are unsure whether to major in public relations because they think they must be extraverted. I tell them that is absolutely not the case. I’m not sure if you had a chance to read Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introvert in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” but I highly recommend it. I read the book because my son is an introvert and I think he perceived it as a disadvantage rather than a gift that should be celebrated. Cain points out the importance of understanding and balancing the benefits of both extraversion and introversion.
Mark: Yes. One isn’t better than the other. Plus, people typically fall on a continuum of extraversion/introversion rather than being a 100% extravert or 100% introvert. Consider the introvertive qualities that contribute to success in public relations:
- Introverts are uncomfortable putting forward any sort of false front or show. They are trustworthy.
- Introverts are calm and self-composed. They put others at ease.
- Introverts tend to be good listeners, an essential skill in our profession
- Introverts tend to have the ability to build relationships. This may seem counterintuitive, but introverts tend to cultivate long-term relationships because, as good listeners, they pick up on explicit as well as unstated themes (from internal and external stakeholders, including journalists)
Certain cultures are more likely to be introverted vs. extraverted. Western cultures, like ours, are more likely to reflect the latter. Still, our profession seems to favor extraversion when we should be better at embracing our differences.
Tina: As you can probably guess, I lean toward extraversion but do take advantage of times when I skew more introverted. As a researcher, I thought it would be beneficial to talk about some research on introversion. I think people assume that introverts are shy. Cain said this is not necessarily the case — introverts just react differently than extraverts to stimulus. One study by Andrew Spark and Peter J. O’Connor found that when you ask extraverts and introverts to act as extraverts, they are more likely to be perceived as leaders. Another study by Farrell said organizations may fail to recognize the leadership strengths of introverts, missing out on the potential for effective management. She concludes that because these personality traits fall on a continuum, strong leaders should flex and adapt to support their colleagues, regardless of this personality trait.
Mark: I also think leaders must be intentional about inclusivity, especially as some employees return to the office. How can physical space be optimized so it’s best suited for a range of individuals?
Tina: Absolutely. That’s an important piece of the “I” in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Today’s office environment where people don’t have a stake in the ground like with hoteling, or even that dreaded open-office concept, does not necessarily benefit those who are introverted.
Mark: Yes, “diversity” must include personality groups as well as others. In public relations as in every business sector, it’s not easy to challenge the conventional wisdom. At the same time, there’s a price to pay for not confronting our existing biases about personality types. Complementary balance should be a factor in our hiring and talent-development decision-making.
Tina: Well said, Mark. I think the employee life cycle is such an important piece of this. Thanks for your partnership, Mark. Until next time.
Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D. is the President and CEO of The Institute for Public Relations, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to fostering greater use of research in public relations practice.
Mark Weiner is the Chief Insights Officer for PublicRelay, an international research-based communications consultancy. He is also the author of “PR Technology, Data and Insights.”
As an introvert who was a journalist for more than 20 years and has worked in comms/PR for another 20, I appreciated your conversation, Tina and Mark. Everything you said rings true. In both my careers, I’ve had to step out of my introverted comfort zone to project qualities associated with extraversion. It takes a lot of work and drains my battery, but the communications role requires introverts to speak up more often and more forcefully than we otherwise would to meet the expectations of our organization’s leaders as well as our peers. Thank you for the article.