A PR Headhunter's Retrospective

Now celebrating our 40th year in PR executive recruiting, we're recalling the many changes we've witnessed in the biz.

Now celebrating our 40th year in PR executive recruiting, we're recalling the many changes we've witnessed in the biz.

Over the past four decades, the lowly PR person, once considered little more than a necessary evil within the boardrooms of a few American corporations, an apparatchik hired merely to keep the insistent, nosy media at bay, has gradually grown in power, influence, remuneration, and even paranoia to become a key player within the complex organizational machinery of most of today's major companies. They were regarded as dispensable staffers: “last to know, first to go”! But not today.
 
--Most PR people then were former print journalists and became PR people because it offered more money and a better career opportunity. Now, in contrast to the editorial field, many come from a myriad of backgrounds, be it broadcasting, teaching, law, politics, marketing, social services and community affairs.
 
--Most PR people then were men, dealing almost exclusively with male reporters and male dominated companies. Not now. PR has become an interesting and attractive field for aspiring career women, akin to human resources, law, and other key corporate functions. Industries initially seeking them were in the lifestyle, fashion, food, and other “soft” business areas, whereas now they are in virtually every industry, including healthcare, technology, financial services, and even hard-nosed engineering and manufacturing. Initially, women understudied men as the implementers of programs, but now have successfully moved into all areas.
 
--Formerly, in the “60’s and ‘70’s, most PR people were paid meagerly in the $25-$50K area, which was way down the totem pole from the pay of senior officers, even then. Nowadays, their compensation packages are on par with other members of corporate management, most often with mid and senior execs being in the $100-$400K area, and with some senior PR officers having packages exceeding several millions.
 
--On the agency side, most agency owners weren’t entrepreneurial and didn’t aspire to be agency builders. However, almost by default, many agency service staffers started their own small business practices, and some grew very quickly into major PR firms.
 
When I founded Marshall Consultants, based in New York City in 1967, we were the first executive search firm and management consulting firm (distinct from traditional personnel agencies) to specialize in the PR, corporate and marketing communications, and investor relations functions. Often, general executive search firms would ask us to assist their clients to recruit creative talent, which they didn’t want to be involved in. Nowadays there are several such independent, specialized search firms, as well as general search firms with PR practices. We have become the barometer of changing corporate America, our industry going up and down, depending upon the vagaries of the business climate.

PR and Corporate Communications Changing Roles:
 
Most PR people were buried within the organizational charts of major companies. Now PR people often report directly to the corporate CEO, right along with the CFO, the general counsel, heads of marketing and manufacturing, etc. Whereas, in years past, marketing communications and media relations was the primary activities of pr execs, now the corporate PR chief, who often is titled as the SVP of corporate communications or corporate relations, presides over an empire that includes specialists in media relations, marketing communications, brand management, employee communications, corporate speechwriters and crisis communications, and, as well as external agencies, on hand for idea generation, program implementation and SWAT team crisis management campaigns.
 
Why So?

What has taken place over the intervening decades that changed so dramatically the role and influence of today's PR people from that of their predecessors?

--Special interest groups, from environmentalists to corporate governance specialists, became more powerful and insistent.
 
--Business' own foibles and missteps created crisis after crisis that lowered public trust in business and made the proper handling of crises a singularly important activity within the corporation. The very survival of many companies was often at risk.
 
--Business' need to communicate effectively with more and more audiences in their own languages and frames of references grew by leaps and bounds.
 
--Business leaders came to realize that they needed more than customers and shareholders in the outside world. If they were to survive, they needed friends and supporters, as well. At the very least, they needed society to understand their problems and concerns, and that requires targeted communications.
 
--Finally, the financial stakes soared for everyone within the corporate suite, from CEO to corporate PR head. And, as the stakes soared, so did the competition for real PR talent, leading to exploding compensation packages.
 
Problems In Camelot or What Price Glory?
 
As a result, today's corporate PR head earns more, has more respect and influence, plays a far broader role in the corporate empire, has more power and staff, and larger budgets…and life should therefore be beautiful? Well, be careful what you ask for! Closer to the flame, means it's easier to get burned.

--PR people are often beset by conflicting priorities between the CEO and the audiences they are responsible for influencing.
 
--Many PR people feel constantly on the verge of being blindsided or betrayed by the media, special interest group members, government leaders, and even their own employees. The fine line they wind up walking between is the thirst for insight and data on the part of target audiences, and the potential betrayal of hidden agendas, timetables, and strategic data that worries management, generates a constant, high level of paranoia and concern among many top PR people and often forces them into a communications cat-and-mouse game with outsiders. But the stakes are high. Quite often, not only are the corporate King's life on the line, but the King maker's, as well... for major and even relatively minor, decisions.
 
Quo Vadis?
 
Where does PR go from here? What’s the future for the PR executive? From my perspective, reflecting two separate and successive careers as the major independent search firm in the PR business, some trends are evident:
 
--First, PR is here to stay. Why? Communications is an absolutely essential part of business today.
 
--The PR person's place in the boardroom of the future is secure.
 
--Corporate officers are going to have to understand better the risks and boundaries inherent in running today's more open corporation and, therefore, have more realistic expectations of what PR people can and cannot do. Goodbye smoke and mirrors! Communications starts at the top with a CEO and Board committed to open, consistent communications, and not just crisis management. The PR chief who understands the business of the business will be encouraged to become the future leaders of corporate management, with some of them rising to the C-Suite!

Carpe Diem!

Larry Marshall is founder and CEO of Marshall Consultants, www.MarshallConsultants.com in Ashland, Oregon

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