How does a £40,000 salary, health insurance, gym membership, a generous pension, occasional jollies and a complimentary weekly massage sound to you?
Surprisingly, this attractive package was recently offered to a junior account manager. PR agencies – and their in-house counterparts – are desperate to attract and retain proven talent. Has the PR industry’s shortage of staff reached a new crisis point?
Some industry commentators will tell you that the PR industry has always had a staffing problem – it is simply more noticeable when the industry is flourishing.
That may be true, but the current shortage of account managers and directors can be traced back to an industry-wide lack of investment in graduates following the economic downturn of 2001.
Range of benefits packages
Another perennial problem is consumer PR’s inability to shed the ‘fluffy’ image. Agency bosses grumble about new joiners who expect an Ab Fab lifestyle of long lunches and glamorous parties, but disappear not long after they discover the realities of working at the coalface as a junior account exec.
The Ab Fab factor is not the only stereotype comms bosses believe is damaging the industry.
Jacki Vause, MD of Peppercom UK, argues PR ‘needs to stop having Max Clifford and publicists of his ilk as its figureheads.
‘Only then will enough gold-standard recruits be attracted to the industry and public relations will finally be taken seriously as an industry and career choice,’ she cautions.
But in many ways it seems odd that the industry is facing a recruitment crisis, especially when so many graduates are interested in PR.
According to The Guardian’s Grad Facts survey of more than 2,000 final-year students in 2006, 16 per cent said they would like to work in PR/marketing – the third most popular career choice overall.
But while those just starting their careers may be easy to attract, what about PROs with experience? What can individual agencies and in-house departments do to first lure them in, and then, crucially, keep them?
When it comes to the more senior positions, PR agencies are upping the financial rewards on offer. PR recruitment specialist Sarah Leembruggen – managing partner at The Works – says: ‘Staff know when they are being underpaid, and PR agencies that were paying below market rates have been forced to address this. Some are now paying well over the odds.’
As well as increased salaries, benefits have improved, with 25-days holiday, private healthcare, life insurance, interest-free season-ticket loans and subsidised gym membership now more or less par for the course, Leembruggen adds.
‘Softer’ benefits such as extra days off and free massages are also becoming increasingly common.
At celebrity and B2B shop EdenCancan, director Nick Fulford admits staff turnover was a problem during 2006. ‘We ramped up staff benefits for 2007 and we have had zero turnover so far,’ he says. Perks now include an annual loyalty bonus, new business bonuses, trips abroad, internal mentoring and ‘fish-and-chips Fridays’.
Publicasity head of operations Julie Doyle claims a third of her staff have worked there for five years or more.
The agency offers long-serving staff paid sabbaticals and on ‘Publicasity birthdays’ staff receive a gift for every year of service. It also rewards staff who keep sick leave to a minimum –
offering an extra day’s holiday for every absence-free quarter.
Another initiative aimed at keeping staff happy is a quarterly ‘exec forum’, where junior staff can air their views in confidence.
The PR Office claims to have tackled recruitment and retention problems by offering bonuses, healthcare, mobile phones, a fridge full of diet coke and fruit, and summer and winter days out.
Benefits at Ranier PR include an annual Christmas party, normally involving a weekend trip abroad. Recent destinations have included Florence, Seville and – this year – Krakow.
Another staff-pleasing scheme is to give employees time off for charity work. Smith & Smith PR MD Jane Smith says: ‘We all do out-of-office PR and media training one day a month for a charity of our choice.’
Similarly, Metia marketing director Catriona Oldershaw says the company has had ‘great results in terms of keeping our teams happy and motivated’ through involvement in a pro-bono PR project for male cancer charity Orchid.
Although moving away from the ‘big smoke’ is often a draw in itself, agencies that fall within London’s sphere of influence but are based outside the M25 face their own set of recruitment problems. Berkshire-based Eclat Marketing has had difficulty attracting experienced tech PROs.
Director Dianne Canham says the agency has solved the problem by ‘seeking out’ experienced comms staff returning to work after a break to bring up children.
‘They have the skills we need and sometimes work harder than full-time staff, but we make it clear when recruiting that we will be very flexible, offering part-time jobs and positions based mainly from home,’ says Canham.
Ranieri Communications – based in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire – has had to wrestle with the problem of staff being poached by London agencies with headquarters within the capital’s central transport networks, admits director Pietro Ranieri. It tries to counterbalance the location issue by investing extra time and money in training graduates.
In-house departments have their fair share of problems too, although most in-house managers say problems tend to be with recruiting staff, rather than retaining them.
PricewaterhouseCoopers comms director Brian Bannister (right) oversees a communications team of 35 across the UK, and believes a very competitive market has come about after ‘the growth of the City sucked up a lot of talented people’.
Long-term career development
Companies have woken up to this, Bannister believes, and now strive to retain good people. In some companies, he says, ‘the focus used to be on the career development of the fee-earning staff. Now companies have realised that the professional support staff, including communications departments, also need career progression.’
Many in-house teams are notoriously difficult to progress within, given their lack of manpower. Bannister says that career development could mean secondments abroad, or being given a range of different projects to work on, rather than continually changing job titles.
Barclays head of media relations Alistair Smith believes it is the opportunity to progress and work in a variety of guises for a global company that keeps comms staff working for the bank.
But Malcolm Padley, head of corporate comms at Rentokil Initial, says the way agencies are managed can also be counter-productive for career progression.
‘There should be better training for agency managers,’ he explains. ‘Often good execs are promoted on the basis of good client work, but they are not necessarily good people managers.
Some are naturals, but for others, it is much tougher, and a focus on developing their skills in this area would help them – and have a drip-down effect on their teams.’
Resolute joint-CEO Paul Blackburn claims the philosophy of his company is built around putting people first. ‘It may seem soft, but it delivers hard benefits,’ he says.
Blackburn judges personal development as the most important aspect, with staff receiving an individually tailored development programme that is reviewed every six months. This ensures they get the experience they want, whether that means working on different accounts, or working on global rather than UK-only clients.
‘In 2006, we were short on account directors, and had just two. But our development scheme has enabled us to promote seven more from within the ranks, rather than having to go on a hiring spree.’
Commitment to training
In a similar vein, internal comms agency CHA operates a mentoring scheme for staff.
Firefly Communications research and strategy consultant Sam Bevans has worked at her agency for five years. She is regularly offered ‘over-the-top salaries’ by headhunters seeking her talents, but says ‘agency salaries and benefits packages are much of a muchness’.
‘More importantly, I need to work for a company that sees me as an individual and treats everyone’s career according to their individual strengths and ambitions.’
But while well-thought-out ‘softer’ benefits are undoubtedly good for recruitment and can encourage teams to bond, The Works’ Leembruggen points out that ‘no one is going to switch jobs because of free food’. More important are salaries, bonuses and – more rarely – a share of equity in the company you are working for.
But a demonstrable commitment to training and personal development may well turn out to be the ‘golden ticket’ for recruitment and retention.
Savvy PROs realise that the market will not always be so heavily stacked in their favour. When the wheel turns, as it is sure to do at some point, and staffing is not so much of an issue, qualifications gained and the ability to rise through the ranks may well be the key bargaining chips used by some comms professionals fighting for the top salaries.
But until then, the rank and file of the comms industry will be out to milk their current and potential employers for all they are worth through bonuses, benefits and the odd massage.
WHY DO STAFF LEAVE?
Some of the reasons PROs cite for leaving their job serve to highlight the problems that the industry needs to address.
One, now freelance, complains that management ‘unwittingly perpetuates staff churn by hiring very junior staff and promoting them through the ranks at an unusually fast rate’.
Another says: ‘I wish my former company had done more to give me training and possibilities to grow.’
Long hours are also a concern. ‘There was a total lack of work/life balance,’ says one.
Others say that they dislike working for an industry that receives a bad press, particularly objecting to what they perceive as agencies ‘constantly fobbing off the client about the amount of work we were – or weren’t – doing.
One PRO says she left a small agency for a larger one not because of salary or benefits, but because she wanted to be part of a ‘well-known, serious, well-established agency’. She says: ‘Being part of an award-winning team can make all the difference.’
Glenn Manoff (left) communications director, O2: ‘Recruitment is a real problem at the moment, perhaps because there is a lot more competition from other ‘sexier’ areas, such as digital.
It is easy to find mediocre people, but the truly good and the truly experienced are few and far between – this is particularly true in internal comms and CSR.
Traditionally, good people have been trained by PR agencies and later snapped up in-house. At the moment though, agencies seem to be at a crossroads. PR is now concerned with building trust, protecting reputations and demonstrating a company’s ethical behaviour. In the era of blogs and social media, this is more complex than ever. But most agencies have yet to work out how to offer this wider service, which must happen to attract the best and the brightest.
While recruitment is tough, we don’t have a difficulty retaining people, as we have made sure that there are plenty of reasons for them to stay at O2 – this year we came fifth in The Sunday Times’ ‘Best Big Companies to Work For’ poll.
We pay well, but our focus is on the culture, environment and benefits. Our research has shown that what really matters to employees is being thanked, feeling valued, feeling empowered, being given the opportunity to realise their potential. Employees also care about the values and the ethos of the company they work for, and we want staff to feel proud of the company and the brand.
The night before the public opening of The O2 arena, we invited all of our employees to the venue to enjoy music from Basement Jaxx, Tom Jones and The Kaiser Chiefs. It gave us a chance to thank and inspire them.’
Catherine Shuttlewood (right) senior consultant/associate director, Trimedia Harrison Cowley: ‘I’ve worked at the same agency for seven and a half years - starting out at MacLaurin Media, which became part of the Hatch Group, then Trimedia and most recently, Trimedia Harrison Cowley (THC).
‘The mergers, acquisitions and management changes haven’t been a problem - in fact the change has kept things fresh, ensuring there are plenty of newchallenges and I have never felt stuck in the same stagnant entity. But it is the flexible that have really set the agency apart.
‘I moved out of London four years ago, after three-and-a-half years in the job, and I was looking for a job in Birmingham. Shuttlewood explains. When my manager suggested
I could work on a more flexible basis, I jumped at the chance. Now my laptop can access all of the same files and emails as the rest of the office, and when I need to come to London, I simply plug it into the dock at work.
‘As well as flexible working, THC has a range of other benefits that encourage staff to stay, including childcare vouchers and gym membership.
I have chosen to have £75-worth of Marks & Spencer vouchers each quarter.
‘We also finish at 4pm on Fridays in August and we have other treats, such as our recent pampering day.
‘A social committee organises picnics and parties, and teams have brainstorming sessions that are often followed by dinner or drinks. Our Soho office has a bar where staff can socialise.’