About 13 years ago in South Africa, a very popular fast food chicken chain did a fantastic advertising campaign. One of their best selling products was and always has been their ‘hot wings’. If you come visit SA you have to try them because they really are that good. So what they did was a campaign where the compulsion for the protagonist to get a ‘fix’ of hot wings started off as a little niggle, but eventually just became so all-consuming that if he didn’t feed his craving, it quite literally took over his life and became too heavy to bear.
How did they bring the idea of this craving to life? Through the age-old idea of having a monkey on one’s back. A beautifully puppeteered orang-utang became the starring character as it clung onto the back of its hot wing-crazed victim and grew and grew. It was an incredibly cute advert, gave viewers a lot of chuckles and became a full on campaign with OOH billboards, more adverts etc. etc. Why? Because it resonated. That hot wings craving really does have the power to become all-consuming – and the nation agreed.
As a young writer in PR it resonated for me in a very different way though. I knew all too well that feeling of a weight on your back that grows and grows, but my cheeky passenger was hungry for something completely different – and he knew a terrible secret about me. I was an imposter.
I was lonely, I didn’t belong, I definitely didn’t have the skill for the environment, and I was completely convinced that any moment someone was going to expose me for the total fraud I was. I was quite lucky that I had managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, but my monkey wasn’t fooled.
So I fed him. Daily. On my anxiety, my fear, my doubt. And eventually my monkey started to take massive bites out of my work performance and my job satisfaction. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t meeting deadlines, I was crippled by procrastination and as a young mom with 2 tiny kids, my home life was also taking a knock.
Impostor syndrome can affect anyone—from professionals to students to highly accomplished and successful people. Even Michelle Obama, Neil Gaiman, and Tom Hanks – yes, Forrest Gump himself – have come out and admitted to having bouts of impostor syndrome. It stems from feelings of self-doubt and incompetence, which are almost always completely unfounded. But when you work in a high performance industry such as PR, these feelings are rife. In fact, 90% of those in PR have experienced mental health issues to some extent in the past year, four in five (83.3%) have experienced imposter syndrome within the workplace and nearly two-thirds (60%) of marketing/pr professionals attribute being promoted to a new role as their biggest cause for self-doubt. 61% of those taking time off due to mental health have deep feelings of guilt – let that sink in. We are feeling guilty for putting our mental wellbeing first. Something has to change.
Deadlines, demanding clients, 24-hour news cycles, social media’s speed and feeds, ethical dilemmas, misinformation, global humanitarian crises. We are drowning in information overload and the anxiety and effects our daily lives are very real. More often than not, we are told to fake it until we make it. But I think it’s time to flip that narrative completely.
Instead of faking it and hiding our most fearful moments in the hopes that we may someday make it, shouldn’t we instead be encouraging our younger professionals to face it until they make it?
As a PR professional you must understand that you can’t take the away the stress that comes with our industry, but this doesn’t mean you should leave it at that. Speak up, seek help, let go of the guilt of taking time for yourself and be vulnerable in your power. Yes, you must learn to set boundaries, but also learn to face the tasks that scare you the most. Because here is a wonderful secret – you don’t need to fake anything. You’re already where you are meant to be, you just need to face up to the incredible impact you have the potential to make in this crazy world we call PR. My mentor tells me all the time that it’s PR, not ER, and he couldn’t be more right.
Our collective mental health is incredibly important and should never be taken lightly. We must see the people around us and if we truly look we will be able to see if they’re carrying a weight. And those of us who are carrying that weight need to know that it’s ok, we don’t have to carry it alone. What we do need to do though is speak up – loudly and urgently.
And my monkey? All these years down the line, he still demands to be fed. Every. Single. Day. The difference is, I now know that I can feed him what I choose to and he will eventually settle down. Of course he loves it when he gets that taste of anxiety, a double helping of self-doubt, to snack on a sleepless night every now and then. But days like that are much fewer and much more far between. If we can teach our young professionals that they also have a choice about what to hold on to and what to let go of, we may start to see some of the cracks disappear and the light of their potential, not their fear, leading the way.
If anything you’ve read resonates with you, please don’t feel like you’re alone. The PRCA has an extensive mental health toolkit which contains some fantastic resources, case studies and advice. Together we can break down the walls of mental stigma to make the PR industry a beacon for healthy working.
Check out the advert that started this all here: