From Working Class to PR and Working in an Elite Profession

Deb Sharratt Blogs
Feb 14, 2019 · 8 min read
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Today the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK has published its State of the PR Profession for 2019. Although there are some improvements in a slightly decreased gender pay gap and the professionalisation of the industry there is also some stats that are far more worrying. Mental health and well-being is still an major issue and the report also finds that 1 in 4 PR professionals were educated in fee paying schools, when across society the figure is 1 in 12. The full report by the CIPR (of which I am a council member) is well worth a read and follow #stateofPR on twitter.

Original blog …

Nearly thirty years ago I started my undergraduate degree in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Birmingham, in the department that had been known as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Then, via the probation service and a children’s charity I eventually ended up in a career in public relations — it wasn’t a career I planned but an industry I’ve now worked in for over 25 years, and that I’m really passionate about.

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I spent three amazing years at university, growing-up and developing, meeting lifelong friends, becoming an adult and learning how to be self-sufficient. I also studied the impact of race, gender and class on society, their representation in the media, as well as the analysis and evaluation of sub-cultures and the norms and behaviours expected by society.

I was also the first person from my extended family to go to University. But I’m pleased to say, not the last.

It was always rumoured when I was a student that the University of Birmingham had a greater percentage of public-school students than Oxbridge — I have no idea whether this was true or but I can well believe it if it was.

But the University of Birmingham would also be the place where I Iearnt about hegemony — a cultural theory from Antonio Gramsci about the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class who manipulate the culture of that society — the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores — so that their imposed, ruling-class worldview becomes the accepted cultural norm. This fascinated me then and still does today. It also still explains so much today, all be it as a Marxist concept.

Have things improved — it appears not.

Now years later I am sat reading about why it still pays to be privileged in our society. Extensive research by sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, has resulted in the publication of a book called The Class Ceiling — about why it pays to be privileged.

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The studies look not only at how accessible elite professions are but also the different career progressions of people from different backgrounds. There is lots more information on The Class Ceiling here and I really recommend that anyone who believes in equality and a fairer, just society should read this book, listen to the lecture on the LSE podcast and study the stats. And then look to see what you can do to change things.

As an aside I also worked as the PR person to promote the show Mobile when it was at Live Theatre in Newcastle — an award-winning show set in a caravan by theatre company The Paper Birds which drew upon their research to write ‘Mobile’, a play that probes how people experience upward social mobility — the world can be a very small place at times! The Paper Birds education pack for Mobile has lots of interesting debate about representation of working class people.

Publication of the book is well-timed as PRCA have published their 2018 census which shows that 31% of PR practitioners went to fee-paying schools as opposed to just under 7% of the general population. Add to that grammar schools and being fortunate to attend the best state schools because you live in an affluent area, and the picture, I imagine would look even worse.

Working Class Origins at 14

I went to a comprehensive school in one of the most deprived areas of the country in north-west County Durham. At different times in my life my social class would have been classified differently, but at the age of 14 my social class would have been classified as working class — I qualified for free school meals, my dad worked in a factory before becoming one of the 1980s long term unemployed under Thatcher’s politics, and my mum worked in a shop. I was by no means unique, it was just after the closure of the steelworks and that area had been hit hard by unemployment. I then had the luxury of a full grant at university too.

However, both of my parents retrained and became teachers in adult education later in their lives. So where that leaves my class status I don’t know, and I’m not also that bothered personally — I am who I am now — but we do, I believe, all need to develop a better understanding of class and the very different impact and influence it has on our lives and career paths, especially in what can be called elite professions, and then the added impact of gender and race.

Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies — University of Birmingham (1964–2002)

In 1964 Richard Hoggart founded the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the institutional origin of what has become the global field of cultural studies — a place where literary critical analysis would be applied to various forms of ‘mass’ culture: comic books, girls’ magazines and Hollywood cinema.

Richard had published The Uses of Literacy in 1957 — a survey of the impact that new forms of mass culture were having on traditional working-class values and attitudes in the post-war period, and then acted a key witness for the defence by Penguin against charges of obscenity that had been brought against the publisher following its decision to bring out an unedited version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. An act that led to the funding of the new department and its ability to employ Stuart Hall, another pioneer in the field of cultural studies.

Some of this country’s great thinkers and academics have come from this Centre. Both Hoggart & Hall had left Birmingham by the time I studied but their legacy remained, Michael Green and Richard Johnson, however, were still key players in what had then become the Department of Cultural Studies, and I particularly remember the work of Jorge Lorrain, Angela McRobbie and being taught by Sadie Plant. I didn’t always appreciate the resource that was around me when I was at University but some of this groundbreaking work is now available online — I recommend reading it.

PR as an elite profession

As a PR professional, I now have a Degree and a Masters Degree. While 42% of the UK working population is now a university graduate (and 81% of PR Professionals according to the PRCA census), just over 10% of the UK population have a postgraduate degree, but in PR this figure rises to 23%.

But less than 10% of people working in elite professions and lower professional/managerial destinations come from working-class origins — so it appears I am one of the lucky few.

Since University, I have been part of many organisations, or in meetings or at events and conferences, where I have felt in the minority as someone who did not attend public school or have a privileged background, regardless of my education this does result in imposter syndrome from time to time. The chapters in The Class Ceiling on self-elimination and the norms and behavioural codes of the elite professions definitely ring true for me and are also things we need to be aware of and understand better if we are to change society. I’ve often been asked which ski resort I’ll be going to this season or if I’m attending a certain schools reunion, and there is nothing wrong with doing either, but those things are often assumed to be the norm.

Although there are no formal barriers to entry into the PR profession, such as exams and qualifications, PR would be classified as an elite profession — it is about providing counsel and advice, hard to evaluate in performance terms, and people working in PR have influence. It’s our job too!

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK has published its State of the PR Profession for 2019. Although there are some improvements in a slightly decreased gender pay gap and the professionalisation of the industry there is also some stats that are far more worrying. Mental health and well-being is still a major issue and the report also finds that 1 in 4 PR professionals were educated in a fee-paying school when across society the figure is 1 in 12. The full report by the CIPR (of which I am a council member) is well worth a read and follow #stateofPR on twitter.

The Class Ceiling though also shows us that there is a distinct pay gap in elite professions between people who have a privileged background and those from a working-class background. Yes, we all know that it’s harder to get there, but what this shows us is that even when we do we still have further barriers to break through — and that is if we can.

Then there is the double disadvantage for working-class women. According to The Class Ceiling research, as a female from a working-class background I can expect to earn up to £19,000 less than my male colleagues from a privileged background, that’s not over my lifetime but every year. The same goes for many racial-ethnic groups. If that doesn’t make you want to do something about the society we live in then I don’t know what will.

So what can we do?

Politicians continually tell us that anyone can get ahead. But is that really true?

We are PR people — if we can’t raise awareness of issues and change attitudes then who can?

The Class Ceiling has a chapter on what organisations can do to break the class ceiling — please read it and then develop further ways to narrow inequality in our society.

Check out the academic research being done at the London School of Economics, the pro-active work of organisations such as Centre for Labour & Social Studies.

Look at your organisation, do we understand the backgrounds of our employees? Are we representative of society in our PR teams? If not why not and what can we do about it. How can we tackle class inequality and social mobility in the workplace?

If you haven't seen it the BBC documentary ‘How to break into the elite’ from Amol Rajan is well worth a watch.

I applaud the CIPR for highlighting these issues and look forward to playing my part in making society and my profession more inclusive and diverse. However, we all need to do more.

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Deb Sharratt is an award-winning PR professional, CIPR Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Council Member and an independent practitioner based in North East England. Find out more here She also blogs about lifestyle, food and travel at

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