What a difference 12 months can make. In last year's Career Guide, headhunters and agency executives said demand for PR pros was enormous and showed no signs of slowing. In 2008, by contrast, many insiders are using adjectives like "sober," "cautious," and "turbulent."
Don Spetner, CMO at executive recruiting agency Korn/Ferry International, says his firm has close to 70 active searches, nearly all of them communications posts at corporations or large organizations. That is a lot of searches, he notes, but the signs he sees from companies and the economy in general indicate that the demand will start dropping off.
"I'd sum it up by saying the parade is over," says Spetner. "The past year was probably the peak for growth, demand for talent, and compensation. Last year was our record year [for searches]. It was up 50% over the previous year. [However,] I'm not optimistic going forward."
Experts tracking PR hiring trends note similarities between the real-estate investment "bubble" of the past few years and the Internet bubble of 2000-2001, which Spetner says was really more of an employment bubble that created a boom in jobs for both the tech and traditional brick-and-mortar corporations.
Current economic woes, such as the falling value of homes; households overburdened with debt; and rising prices for gas, food, and other essentials, bode ill for corporations and the PR agencies they hire. For PR pros, these macroeconomic problems will eventually require them to downsize their expectations about compensation. Salary increases will be small or nonexistent, as will bonuses.
"It hasn't hit yet; we're still seeing a lot of searches and demand for talent," Spetner reports. "But the storm clouds are out there. It always takes longer than we think before the layoffs and cost cutting hit."
On the bright side, the communications skills and market-sector expertise that have been in such high demand in recent years - knowledge of new media, experience in healthcare, environmental, financial, internal, and other hot PR fields - should protect some PR pros from the worst of the downturn.
Indeed, when companies face tough times, communications can be more important than ever, notes Heyman Associates president Bill Heyman.
"If there's one common theme we're seeing in corporate searches, it's clients looking for strong backgrounds in financial communications - knowing how to do earnings releases, put together an annual report, and work with investor relations people," he says. "The other theme is internal communications and change management: dealing with workforce engagement and loyalty. [Companies in trouble] are trying to avoid their workforce fleeing."
Opportunity amid the downturn
On the agency side, meanwhile, executives say that the softening of the economy and its effect on the job market means new opportunities to bring on board the right staff.
Racepoint Group CEO Marijean Lauzier says that while PR firms in general still seem to be doing "relatively well" - particularly in sectors such as healthcare, tech, energy, and even high-end consumer goods - she sees an increase in high-level PR pros from boutique firms looking to join larger agencies.
"What we see right now is that it's very challenging for those businesses to soldier through the economy," she says. "When the economy softens, they feel it first because the budgets are often smaller. We're seeing some wonderfully talented people considering a re-turn to a growing agency. That's awesome."
For those corporations or agencies looking to hire senior communications staff, the economy may be a mixed blessing. Prospective hires nervous about the status of their jobs may be more willing to listen to recruiters, but at the same time they also fear getting stuck in a new job that they can't easily jump out of again. They may also be reluctant to move to a new city because of the real-estate market.
"If someone is in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, or New York, they are thinking carefully about making a physical move because they may lose money on their house." notes Maryanne Rainone, SVP and MD of Heyman Associates. "Not every corporation is willing to be as generous with their relocation plans as they have been in the past."
Mark Raper, chairman and CEO of Richmond, VA-based CRT/tanaka, says that many more senior executives appear to be on the job hunt of late, allowing his firm to spend a little more time than it might have in the past deciding who it wants to hire. But he notes that, as with many other agencies, hiring mid-level staff appears to be as challenging as ever.
For one thing, the PR industry overall is about 66% female, according to the 2008 PRWeek/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey, and many women in the mid-career level often need, or choose, to go part-time or take a leave of absence while they have children, Raper notes. In addition, the pool of mid-level talent simply is not as high as it might be because of, again, the bursting of the Internet bubble at the beginning of the decade, which pushed a lot of entry-level communications professionals into other job fields, notes Racepoint's Lauzier.
The efforts by agencies to retain staff remain as vital as ever, whether at the mid, senior, or junior levels. Raper notes the daycare subsidies his company provides. Laura Smith, Edelman's MD of US HR, cites the management training her firm continues to offer and improve at all levels, to ensure that staff work fruitfully with managers and always get as much feedback and opportunities to improve as they can.
In reiterating her thoughts expressed in last year's Career Guide, Smith says, "People leave their managers far more than their companies." Whereas in the past, firms would tend to just let staffers leave if they didn't appear to be thriving, agencies now realize the importance of showing managers how what they do - and advising them on ways they might change - can improve employee retention and productivity.
Smith also notes that in addition to boosting retention, her agency has seen great success recruiting talent using social networking sites such as LinkedIn, which help recruiters and HR staff more easily research and connect with people. Referral bonuses for staff that help snag new hires are also increasingly used at Edelman to good effect, she adds.
Talent pool gets deeper
PR executives and recruiters say the hiring pool may not always be good, but it's increasingly deep. Entry-level posts are likely to see the slowest growth as firms tighten their belts, says Korn/Ferry's Spetner.
Levick Strategic Communications VP Jason Maloni, while stressing that finding quality mid-level staff is his biggest challenge, says he's seeing lots of communications people at all levels looking for work, at least in the DC market where Levick is based.
"Because the economy is down, people are looking for work," he reports, "And because of the upcoming change in the [White House], you're seeing a lot of people looking. The quantity of resumes is greater than I've seen in some time."
CRT/tanaka's Raper, who says his firm is hiring at about the same rate as usual, nevertheless agrees that agencies are typically bellwethers for downturns in the economy. But those firms with a reputation for holding onto staff have an advantage, he adds, often becoming magnets for the best talent the industry has to offer.
"We've never had a layoff, but we also understand the [economic] reason for alarm," he adds. "We've had two clients scale back their budgets and another postpone its product launch. If employees feel like their agency is historically quick to lay off, they'll be out there looking."
It helps if you're part of the group
Whether you're trying to climb ahead in your job or simply looking to get into the business, PR industry organizations can be a powerful resource.
Ranging from data to industry contacts to news about the field, these groups can provide a lot of valuable information.
While each organization differs, the main purpose of each is to keep the industry and those in it moving forward, says Matthew Shaw, VP of the Council of Public Relations Firms. His organization focuses on developing talent at every level.
"Talent is the most important asset," he says. "It's intellectual capital. It's training pros at all levels and giving them a sense of belonging. It's up to groups such as ours to build those things and raise the level."
Shaw says the PRSA also assists professionals by offering training courses for PR pros in every position, including an intern fest for college students and two-day programs for senior-level pros. It also provides opportunities for networking, PR data, and a common body of knowledge, which is standard for most of the sites.
The best way to utilize industry organizations is to stay up to date. With the vast amount of networking channels available, it's important to check their Web sites regularly, Shaw explains.
Council of Communication Management
Council of Public Relations Firms
Entertainment Publicists Professional Society
Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management
Intl. Assoc. of Business Communicators
International Public Relations Association
Issue Management Council
League of American Communications
National Assoc. of Govt. Communicators
National Black Public Relations Society
National Council for Marketing & Public Relations
National Investor Relations Institute
National School Public Relations Association
North American Association of Independent Public Relations Agencies
Public Affairs Council
Public Relations Society of America
Religion Communicators Council
Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development
Society for New Communications Research
Southern Public Relations Federation
Women Executives in Public Relations
Young PR Pros