To the multiple men who made women feel small this weekend – you messed up.

This week, 13 Grand Valley State University PRSSA students had the chance to attend the PRSSA National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The speakers were amazing, the networking was beneficial, and the fun times were endless. Imagine our surprise, however, when we were taken off-guard several times by acts of “mansplaining,” sexism, and down right unprofessional-ism throughout the conference. What makes it worse? Most of these acts came from professionals that we are supposed to be looking up to. We are a group of strong, thriving, young professionals, we are women, and we are pissed.

​Below, are responses from a few of us that came to Indianapolis for professional development, and left with a need to stop the sexism that goes on in our career fields.

Ashley Bovin:
Theresa Payton, president and CEO of Fortalice Solutions and former White House Chief Information Officer, addressed PRSA and PRSSA members about cybersecurity at this morning’s PRSA general session. While following the #PRSAICON tweets quoting Theresa and audience members’ reactions to the presentation, I noticed one tweet that was not like the others: Pete Codella, APR, tweeted about what she was wearing – and how it was “distracting.”

​It didn’t take long for people – PRSA and PRSSA members, men and women – to call him out for it.
At GV PRSSA’s meeting last week, we had the honor of hearing about crisis communication from another strong female leader – Kelly Rossman-McKinney, APR, of TruscottRossman. She encouraged us to memorize and embrace a simple acronym for responding to a crisis: OAF. Own it. Apologize for it. Fix it.

Facing his own personal PR crisis because of his careless tweet, Pete did at least (eventually) apologize for it:

But he did not own the situation, and he did not fix it. He could have done this by acknowledging the many responses and criticisms his original tweet prompted, or by stating he would vow to avoid making similar statements in the future. He could have simply acknowledged that he has since realized it was a sexist statement, but we don’t know if that’s the case. He had previously defended himself by saying he was making a practical suggestion:

People were not buying it, challenging that he’d never make that kind of statement about a male presenter.

Mr. Codella has since deleted his original tweet.

I admire Heather Whaling’s thoughtful response of proposing real action to address sexism like this in the public relations industry.

Another instance of sexism I witnessed at the PRSSA conference took place during Sunday morning’s keynote address: Meet the Living Legends of Public Relations, featuring Bridget Coffing, former chief communications officer for McDonald’s, and Mike Fernandez, former corporate vice president of corporate affairs at Cargill. I wanted to hear more from Bridget, but Mike seemed to dominate the conversation from the get-go. During a time when Bridget did have the floor, she was about to begin explaining something, and Mike CUT HER OFF, mid-sentence, and began explaining it himself. I was shocked, as were my chapter colleagues. But I’m not sure many other people noticed it. There was no outrage from others live tweeting the event.

This might seem like a “small” instance of sexism, but a man talking over a woman in a professional setting has big implications. It immediately made me think of the article I recently read on female white house staffers’ amplification strategy and how valuable it is for women to adopt in the professional world. And this is why I stand with Heather Whaling and want to see PRSA and PRSSA include the issue of sexism in the industry in their future events.

Ashley Bovin is a senior majoring in Advertising and Public Relations. After struggling to find a fit in the professional world, she returned to GVSU in January 2016, determined to gain the skills and confidence needed to launch a career in communications. She looks forward to using her writing and editing skills in her future work. Besides learning and writing, Ashley enjoys drinking coffee, spending time in Grand Rapids, and hanging out with her cat, Stella. 

Kaela Grimard:
As a first-timer at PRSSA’s National Conference, I was so excited to sponge up any knowledge I could about the Public Relations world. Listening to so many inspiring speakers was an incredible experience. This morning, my PRSSA chapter had the chance to visit the PRSA General Session to hear Theresa Payton speak of her time working in the White House as CIO, the Internet of Things, and cybersecurity. I left feeling empowered that a woman was in such a high level of authority and was clearly paving the way for me and my friends.

On our car ride home, however, my heart sank. Once again, society has failed us. With the click of a button, Pete Codella, APR, tweeted, “Theresa Payton, former White House CIO, speaking at #PRSAicon (maybe don’t wear a shirt that keeps us distracted wondering what’s visible).”

I felt so sad. So defeated. He doesn’t even mention the content of which she spoke. He doesn’t mention that she was inspiring a room full of female students. He doesn’t congratulate her for being in a position to influence so many lives with her knowledge of security. He couldn’t mention these things, because society taught him to be distracted by her clothing.

I don’t want to fear I won’t be heard at a large conference someday because of what I put on that morning. It is not our fault that you can’t see past a shirt. We are not what we wear.

Kaela Grimmard is a junior Advertising and Public Relations major at Grand Valley State University. In her free time,she enjoys working on her photography skills and exploring new places.

Taylor Fleck:
I am a young public relations professional. I work endlessly in school, I put everything I have into work, and I will one day grow a damn human and bring it into the world. I can be whatever I want to be, and my opportunities are endless. But no matter how many accomplishments I have, no matter how successful I will be in life, I will never be as good as a man.

People such as Pete Codella, APR, are continuously igniting the flame to this stigma by tweeting ignorant things such as he did earlier this morning at a National PRSA keynote address. (You’d think with the APR title he’d be a little bit more thought-oriented about his tweets.)

As explained in a blog written on PRtini: Fighting Sexism in PR: A Need for PRSA Leadership, our profession is 70% women. With that being said, only 30% of agency leaders are female. What is preventing women to rise to the top? In addition to the sexist tweet, I witnessed multiple acts of “mansplaining” by another male speaker while Bridget Coffing, the first female CCO of Mcdonalds, was trying to speak on valuable topics.

I cannot begin to explain how disheartening it is to see a professional I am supposed to look up to act in such a manner. Sure, the tweet wasn’t absolutely horrifying, sure the man apologized…8 hours later… but the point is, it happened. We are in the business of building trust, relationships, and networks. I am not a feminist, I am simply a millennial who observes. And from what I have observed this weekend, something needs to change. I’m supposed to be inspired by professional words. If I wanted to listen to men degrade women, I would have walked down the street to The Tilted Kilt.

Taylor Fleck is a currently a senior at Grand Valley State University studying Advertising and Public Relations, with an emphasis in Public Relations. Taylor is a member of Grand Valley’s PRSSA chapter and serves as Vice President of Public Relations. She is also heavily active in her sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma. In her free time, you can find her eating ice cream while taking pictures of her dog. Follow her @Tayloraustin5 or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Ashley Mamula:
Dear Mr. Codella,

This progressive industry does not have any room for your innapropriate, sexist comments. As a PRSSA chapter president, I am embarrassed to have someone like you represent a professional society, such as PRSA, to all of the PRSSA members who were following the hashtag #PRSAICON.

Julia Backus
After spending a wonderful weekend in Indianapolis with twelve driven women in public relations, I was astounded when not only once but twice I witnessed blatant sexism. First when a “PR Living Legend” was mansplaining, one-upping, and trying to get the last word in with his female counterpart. This was so annoying that I wanted to leave the session altogether, but Bridget Coffing held her own and showed how a lady boss deals with this issue. Then today, Pete Codella, APR had the audacity to tweet that keynote presenter, Theresa Payton, former White House CIO shouldn’t wear such a distracting blouse to present in.

*aggressive eye roll* ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Maybe he should have listened to her message rather than stare at her top the entire time. This accomplished woman spoke to the PRSA/PRSSA general assembly for 45 minutes on cyber security as well as many other important topics and all he got out of it was that her blouse was distracting…


Hey there, I am Julia Backus, a senior at Gra
nd Valley studying Marketing and Public Relations. I am the VP of Chapter Development for our GV PRSSA Chapter. When I am not living it up at National Conference in Indianapolis, I am working for the Grand Rapids Griffins as a PR Intern, assisting women at the LOFT, or hanging out with my ladies. I love a good gin and tonic which mixes well with good conversation, so let’s grab one sometime!

Gabby Guglielmetti
As someone who has always loved fashion and the ability to experiment with different “looks” via clothing, I was deeply saddened to see Pete Codella’s offensive tweet about an amazing speaker at the PRSA National Conference today. As a witness to the wonderful speech made by Theresa Payton, I feel it was terrible that the only takeaway for Codella was her (in his opinion) poor choice in clothing. Women feel enough pressure in the workplace as it is, we always feel the need to prove ourselves worthy of the position we are in and work extra hard in demonstrating that we are just as knowledgeable and capable as men. Now we have to worry about the male fashion police accusing us of inappropriately picking outfits to wear? Outfits that make us feel powerful and confident–clothing that lets us express ourselves in a nonverbal way?


Men do not get to have the power to comment or state their opinions on what we women can and cannot wear. Not only was Codella wrong in stating his opinion inappropriately on such a public social media platform, he was also wrong for stating his opinion about Payton’s clothing choice in general. Who gave him the power to determine what can and cannot be worn by a female during a presentation? No one. If he felt he was being so “distracted” wondering what was going on under Payton’s shirt, he could have 1) left or 2) stayed for the presentation and kept his thoughts to himself. There was no need to bring Payton’s attire into a negative light via social media. To me this seems very unprofessional and unjustified. On another note, I give Theresa Payton’s presentation and outfit a 10/10 and hope she is in no way ashamed about her performance at the PRSA National Conference this morning.

Gabi Guglielmetti is currently a sophomore at Grand Valley State University studying public relations with a minor is pyschology. Gaby is an active member of PRSSA and enjoys watching movies, shopping, and being an avid coffee enthusiast.

Nicole Clark:
Dear Future PR Queens,

If you’re feeling a little discouraged by some of the things you’ve heard or seen this weekend, don’t be. Be angry. Be defiant. Be loud.

Most of all: Be unified.

If I’ve learned anything from the displays of sexism (both subtle and otherwise) I’ve witnessed at this conference and throughout my life, it’s that we work better when we work together. While these events continue to anger me, I’ve relief in seeing students and professionals speak out together.

Protecting each other in the world we live in goes beyond sticking together in strange cities at night. It’s about acknowledging and battling the dismissals and disrespect that can come from people who are supposed to support us.

Make sure that you’re the voice acknowledging the accomplishments of not just your peers, but your mentors and your idols. When someone tries to push them down, hold them up. When someone has a brilliant idea stolen from them by a man with a louder voice, don’t stay silent. Advocate for each other. When a female presenter is interrupted by her male counterpart, use Q&A to let her speak. Mention her brilliance on Twitter.

Is it possible that, someday, there won’t be a man in this world who thinks (consciously or otherwise) that his life and ideas are more important than ours? Probably not.

It is possible to build a support network to help you respond to sexism when it happens. You can educate yourself and others in your life about the reality of sexism, even in PR, where the majority of the workforce is female.

It will only get better if you make it better. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone.

Nicole Clark

Nicole Clark is a senior at GVSU majoring in writing and minoring in advertising and public relations. She is the Firm Editor for GrandPR, an intern at Rogo Marketing and Communications, and a feminist. In her free time, she enjoys learning new skills, listening to podcasts, and reading anything she can get her hands on.

***Disclaimer: we understand that sexism is in no means just men against women. This blog post is in regards to the acts we witnessed over our time at the PRSSA/PRSA National Conference.***