It happens every day: a young PR professional at a small, tech-oriented firm bolts for a better salary at a larger firm or, more often, a hi-tech startup. Another agency is forced to turn down potential hi-tech clients because it lacks the qualified manpower to handle the account. It's a seller's market for hi-tech PR pros and there are no signs of slackening demand.
Hi-tech is America's fastest-growing industry, luring legions of bright young talent with substantial salaries and stock options. In the past five years, the industry has expanded from its nucleus in California.
And wherever hi-tech firms go, so goes their culture, which places quite a low premium on employee loyalty.
Burgeoning tech hot beds include the Route 128 strip outside of Boston; Austin; the 'Silicon Alley' niche in Lower Manhattan; and even Washington DC, where executive search firm Travaille last week reported a 15% to 20% unfilled demand for hi-tech PR professionals. But the shortage remains most acute in Silicon Valley, according to agency executives polled by PRWeek.
Larry Eiler, president and CEO of Eiler Communications, which has doubled its hi-tech client roster in the past two years said: 'Young people just move from job to job. If they can make five or ten grand more, they have no compunction about moving.'
But money is not the only force at work here. According to Carol Corcoran, senior VP of Human Resources at Weber Worldwide, the shortage is also because 'most bright young publicists find the hi-tech world kind of dull.' Industry veteran Jay Clark, who recently left Manning, Selvage & Lee to join Eiler's practice as executive VP, remembers seeing young PR pros at MS&L who deserted hi-tech work once they got a taste for consumer marketing. 'Hi-tech is not the most glamorous application,' he said.
The dearth of talent sometimes means that agencies have to turn away potential clients. While insisting that the 'critical thing is to serve our existing clients,' Copithorne & Bellows (C&B) partner Gary Stockman admitted that he has turned down accounts due to a lack of manpower.
Weber's Corcoran claimed the firm hasn't turned down clients, but admitted the tight market has forced the firm to be 'judicious with our growth.'
It is clear that PR firms are faced with a daunting challenge if they are to recruit and retain experienced hi-tech specialists.
At many firms, a dedicated in-house recruitment staff is supported by outside recruiters who know the firm well. At C&B, the in-house staff includes two senior-level members who focus exclusively on the West Coast, Stockman said. Despite this two-pronged attack, Stockman found that one of the best recruiting tools is to offer cash incentives to employees who bring in candidates.
Recruitment is key
Although firms are getting more creative in their attempts to find quality talent, one of the most effective recruitment tools remains good old-fashioned networking. And while PR agencies continue to employ search firms, they are not always efficient.
Some firms even look outside the discipline. 'We cast the net more broadly,' Ampolsk said. 'We're looking for people who think about business strategy and corporate positioning.'
But what if they have those skills but think that Java is a coffee you get at Starbucks? Fleishman-Hillard has programs in place that provide an introduction to the hi-tech world.
Recruitment on college campuses is also heating up. Stockman said C&B has instituted an internship program in the Cambridge area.
Once candidates are on the hook, firms use competitive salaries and extensive staff development programs to reel them in and ensure that they stay content.
Hi-tech PR professionals with three years experience can expect salaries to range from the mid-$30s to mid-$40s. For pros with five years in the business, the bar is set at the low-$50s and can go as high as the mid-$70s.
In addition to high salaries, firms offer mentoring and other staff development programs to create an environment conducive to learning and growth. Like other firms, Weber PR has recently hired a full-time learning and development professional, Carolyn Regan, who is based in Cambridge but supports all the firm's offices.
But with the hi-tech industry showing no signs of slowing down it's entirely possible that demand hasn't reached its apex yet.
Getting better slowly
Opinions vary over whether the situation has reached crisis level. 'We're seeing more candidates, specifically on the West Coast,' Stockman said.
'It's getting a bit better, but the key element there is 'a bit."
Whatever the future holds for the world economy, the high-tech sector of the PR industry must step up its recruitment efforts and come up with more creative ways to attract bright young people to its ranks and keep them there.
Instead of just targeting schools that have established PR and communications curricula, PR firms should be courting undergrads at the top liberal arts schools, where management consulting firms, banks and technology companies fish for talent.
But bringing people into PR alone is not enough. Indeed, hi-tech PR must deal with its own PR problem first before it takes on the bigger challenge of losing talented pros to high-tech startups.