MARKET FOCUS: Scaling the resume mountain

The biggest challenge for both job seekers and recruiters is the sheer volume of applications to overcome.

The biggest challenge for both job seekers and recruiters is the sheer volume of applications to overcome.

Michael Olguin, president of boutique agency Formula PR, is among the more fortunate PR executives in this current market. While many agencies are cutting staff, Formula has been hiring recently, adding a VP to open a New York office and head up a new lifestyle division. The company opted to handle both searches internally, and Olguin was staggered by the amount of responses he received for this one job. "We were at over 1,200 when we stopped looking at resumes," Olguin marvels. He adds that the company received hundreds of additional resumes for an assistant account executive position in Los Angeles - including some from senior-level people with 15 years or more of experience. If the late 1990s were a halcyon age for the PR job market, the last few years have been a winter of discontent. Not only has the tech slump and overall economic malaise severely impacted many firms, but even once-solid corporate communications jobs have become endangered as companies opt to retrench until they see significant signs of recovery. "PR people are usually hired when a company is in a growth mode," explains Robert Woodrum, MD at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry. "But now, even with the triple-A companies of 10 years ago, the question is, 'Will they survive?'" As bad as the PR employment market is now, job hunters can take solace in one thing: It's better than last year. "The first quarter of 2003 was definitely an improvement," says Gary Platt, president of SRI/Strategic Recruiting. "The market was so bad for a while that even this moderate amount of activity is better." Jean Allen, MD with executive recruiter Whitehead Mann, agrees. "This market has a very different pace, but it is improving," she says. "There are pockets of activity in every industry, and the trick is being there when the opportunity pops up." Among the areas showing some growth are healthcare, insurance, government affairs, and consumer electronics, as well as some specialties such as bankruptcy and litigation PR. The caveat, of course, is that many of these are fairly narrow fields, and as Platt notes, "Other PR experience doesn't really translate that easily." In terms of geographic regions, Marie Raperto, president of The Cantor Concern, says, "We've been very active in the New York tri-state area, DC is coming back, and we're doing a lot of work in the Midwest. The only areas where we haven't seen a comeback yet are California and Boston." Despite these glimmers of hope, no one on the corporate or agency recruiting side is kidding themselves. This remains a very tough market, with recruiters privately talking about business being off 40% or more from the peak of several years ago. "In the 1980s and 1990s, we saw a lot of mergers and acquisitions, but there was also a lot of new business, so people could move from more standard corporate jobs into entrepreneurial roles," says Woodrum. "But in the past two years, there's been nothing to substitute for people who are losing their jobs in mergers or restructuring. There's no next big thing." This economic slowdown has, in many ways, turned PR recruiting on its head. A few years ago, the complaints from companies looking for help were not only of skyrocketing salaries, but that people were moving up too fast, often interviewing for - and getting - high-level jobs despite having only a few years experience. But any problems these days are far more likely to stem from sorting through the huge pool of over-qualified talent. While no one blames an out-of-work executive for trying for any communications job that will help pay the mortgage, most companies are reluctant to hire senior-level people for a mid-management or lower-level jobs. "There's a fear that these people are compromising right now, and then as soon as the market improves, they'll go away," explains Susan Flesher, president of Bay Area recruiter Flesher & Associates. Stick with what you have The current market has not only left many without work, but also frozen in place many PR people unhappy in their current roles. The PRWeek Salary Survey 2003 found that 41% of those working in the PR industry are currently looking for new work. While it's OK to look around discreetly for new opportunities, this is not the time for any dramatic changes, recruiters stress. "Right now, you have to have really solid experience in whatever field you want to interview for," says Flesher. "You need to figure out what your resume shouts that you're strong at - and if that's enterprise software and international, then stick with that, and play to those strengths." And unless the situation is unbearable, this is especially not the time to quit in hopes of quickly finding another job. "In this economy, unless you're a trust-fund kid, that kind of displays bad judgment," says Peter Bell, president of New York-based Peter Bell & Associates. Indeed, as the ranks of the PR unemployed continue to swell, recruiters are having to do a lot more than counsel candidates on their resumes and interviewing skills. "This job market has definitely taken its toll on people emotionally," says Platt. "I try to tell them to stay positive, but that's not easy to do because it's a hard market, and rejection is a tough part of the job search." Bell says he advises people to stay busy. "Volunteer to do PR for a nonprofit, or at your father's business - anything to stay in the game," he says. "It helps prevent people from lapsing into depression." The problem for PR people out of work is that getting back in the game is getting hard. "There's a lot of capable top-gun talent that was caught in restructures and layoffs, and companies understand that," says Flesher. "But there is just a little bit of an edge to being employed. If a company has had four rounds of layoffs and a person is still employed, it sends a message that that person is a keeper." Some who Olguin interviewed for Formula's New York job had been downsized. "I'd like to say it didn't matter, but it definitely weighed on [my] mind," he admits. "Because any agency is going to keep top-flight talent through thick and thin. "However, there is good news on the salary front, as the current job market hasn't really triggered significant erosion. "I don't see the salaries going down for people that companies really need," says Jean Cardwell of Chicago-based Cardwell Enterprises, which specializes in high-level corporate communications placements for Fortune 200 companies. "I've even been contacted by a lot of clients who are willing to go beyond the salary range if somebody has extraordinary skills and experience." While some have been forced to take lower-paying jobs out of necessity, for many others, it's been a lifestyle choice. "What I think is happening - and some of this may have to do with September 11 - is that people are not so wrapped up in salary anymore," says Lisa Hanock-Jasie, a New York PR person doing project work for several clients, including the Museum of Sex. "Now they're looking more at what the job is, and are wanting to be happy in what they do." Don't rely on reputation alone As far as finding a job in this new PR world, it seems the keys remain networking and preparation. "Leave absolutely nothing to chance," advises Rene Siegel, president of HighTech Connect, a PR/marketing placement firm for freelancers. "You can't go in and assume, 'My reputation speaks for itself,' because you've got 500 people in line behind you. You need to knock their socks off." Flesher recommends highlighting any business-development skills you have, especially on the agency side. "Two or three years ago, when agencies couldn't process business fast enough, they were looking for people who could manage the business. Now we've seen those positions morph into business-development jobs, so if you can go in and say how you won and grew and sustained a business, you stand a better chance." As for the PR job market in the future, it is eventually going to get better. "There are a lot of companies out there that want to retain quality PR help, but because of the business environment, the war, and a lot of other factors, they've been putting it off," says Bell. "So there is a built-up demand, and when the clouds clear a little bit, firms are going to take on more people, and agencies are going to start hiring again. But I just can't say when that's going to happen." Hanock-Jasie, for one, feels that when this PR recovery does occur, the industry may be better off for having endured these years of hardship. "It will never go back to the era of the dot-bombers, but I think when the market bounces back, it may end up being the best of times because it will lead to a reawakening on both the PR and client side," she says. "People are going to know exactly what they want and who they want to get it for them." ----- 10 Tips for job hunters 1. Stay positive "Today, you cannot take it personally. There are a lot of good people out there, and it's about the market, not the person." Jean Allen, Whitehead Mann 2. Mass-market yourself "You can't leave your fate in the hands of others, and that includes recruiters. So be aggressive, and get your resume out there everywhere. Like with direct mail, you're lucky if you get a 1% return, but that's what you hope for." Lisa Hanock-Jasie, Freelance PR consultant 3. Keep your pitch to the point "Never send a resume longer than two pages, or a cover letter longer than one page, because it requires too much work and too much time to decipher." Peter Bell, Peter Bell & Associates 4. Discretion is the better part of valor "Don't use your corporate e-mail to respond to a job. It creates a trail that can be linked directly back to you." Bob Woodrum, Korn/Ferry 5. Stay busy and the phone will ring "Get a consulting assignment, even if it only pays a little bit. It will give you a reason to talk to people and show that you're in action." Jean Allen, Whitehead Mann 6. During interviews, don't answer a question that wasn't asked "More people who would get the job otherwise talk them themselves out of the position. If you're asked what time it is, just tell them. Don't tell them how to build a watch." Peter Bell, Peter Bell & Associates 7. Don't take your frustration out on search people "If you're calling a recruiter once a week to find out if there's anything going on, that's not going to help you nearly as much as shooting off a brief e-mail that doesn't ask for a response, but keeps you on the recruiter's radar screen." Jean Allen, Whitehead Mann 8. Network, network, network "Work those relationships, then find out who knows who, and then work through those relationships as well." Susan Flesher, Flesher & Associates 9. Leave no stone unturned "I tell people that they should contact every recruiter and work with every other source. Look into every possible opportunity, and do as much as you can on the internet." Gary Platt, Strategic Recruiting 10. Maintain perspective "Remember what's really important and look at what's going on in the world, and count your blessings." Lisa Hanock-Jasie, Freelance PR consultant ----- Freelance pool deepens Whether it's due to economic necessity or is simply a lifestyle choice, many PR people are considering stepping out of the agency and corporate world, and striking out on their own as freelancers. But in this economy, such a move is not for the faint of heart. The pool of freelance PR talent is arguably the largest it's ever been, which means competition for every job will be fierce. "Our number of active consultants is up 25%, to 1,300," says Rene Siegel, president of freelancer placement firm HighTech Connect. "The past 12 to 18 months has seen a nice big spike, and most of that is displaced corporate workers." That's great news for many companies that still want a PR program, yet lack the budget for either an agency retainer or more internal staff. "There's a lot of great value in terms of the talent currently on the market," says Jim Delulio, president of PR Talent. "There are freelancers who are former White House speechwriters, there are PowerPoint specialists, and there are language specialists who can provide translation services. And companies can work with these freelancers for about 40% of the cost of working with an agency." But while the thought of being one's own boss has its allure, Delulio cautions that the key to being a successful freelancer goes beyond just doing great work. "There's marketing that needs to be done, there are contacts that need to be exploited, and some serious networking," he says. "You need a bit of a golden Rolodex, and you need to be able to sell." Tracey Winikoff, who's been a Los Angeles-area freelancer for both agencies and traditional companies over the past eight years, tends to agree. "It's certainly not for everyone," she says. "You need to be able to make cold calls and market yourself." Freelance PR rates tend to vary between $50 and $150 per hour, depending on the job and the freelancer. But Siegel says many freelancers are now taking work at the lower end of that scale in order to keep busy. "Some people who normally get $100 per hour are willing to take $70," she says. "You've got to put the ego aside and do some work, and get some visibility." And contrary to the popular myth of the freelancer toiling through their workday alone in their bunny slippers, there's a lot of freelance work that involves getting out of the house and working with others. "I've got a lot of clients who need media relations, crisis communications - all the typical agency functions," says Delulio. "So oftentimes, you put a team of two or three together."

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