Help wanted at all levels

As more and more corporations step up their PR functions, the industry remains a job-seeker's market. Michael Bush discovers what employers are doing to seek and retain creative and diverse talent

As more and more corporations step up their PR functions, the industry remains a job-seeker's market. Michael Bush discovers what employers are doing to seek and retain creative and diverse talent

With the growing importance of corporate social responsibility, digital influence, blogs, and the 24/7 news cycle, the need and regard for effective and creative communicators on both the agency and corporate side are as great as they've ever been. And as a result, salaries and packages are, generally speaking, increasing. The 2007 PRWeek/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey shows that the momentum the industry has been generating over the past two years has shown little sign of slowing down.

"I am definitely seeing [salaries] go up," says Karen Bloom, principal at executive search firm Bloom, Gross & Associates. "There's a real respect for communications right now, and PR pros are viewed as strategic business partners by their clients. They're at the table, impacting the C-suite, the bottom line, and everything that's crucial to the success of their clients."

Barby Siegel, MD of global consumer marketing at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, says that as the need for every corporation to establish credibility and a connection with its customers grows, so, too, does the role PR plays in the marketing mix and, therefore, the level of talent attracted to the profession.

"It has become a much more exciting place to work, and PR is not just media relations," Siegel says. "We're in meetings a lot where clients say they want a PR-led initiative."
All of these factors make it a job- seeker's market, says Bloom. "There's a war for talent," she says. "There's no doubt about it."

Jim Delulio, president of recruitment firm PR Talent, agrees. "I'm seeing prices go up, especially for mid-level people like senior account executives and account supervisors," he says. "It's hard finding qualified people to fill those specific roles right now. And those who are very well- qualified, those [with] four to eight years of agency experience, are going to be in the driver's seat and very sought-after."

According to this year's Salary Survey, the median annual base salary for all PR pros is $80,930. While that number is actually down from $92,150 last year, it should be noted that respondents to this year's survey had, on average, fewer years' experience than last year's; had more junior job titles; had taken more career breaks (measured by number of months spent in a temporary absence from the profession); and were, on average, five years younger than last year's respondents.

Despite encouraging trends, though, not everyone agrees that salaries are at the level they should be in the wider context of the business universe. On digesting the survey finding that the median EVP salary is $192,650, Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, argues that PR pros, especially on the corporate side, are paid conspicuously less than other corporate-level officers.

"If you look at the top tier of management, at the CFO- and CMO-level salaries you can find on any random proxy statement," says Argenti, "you will see them getting between $500,000 and $1 million. From my perspective, that's a clear indication of how corporations don't take the communications function as seriously as they should."

And on the agency side, he continues, "the typical hours someone in a PR firm works are similar to the hours that someone at a consulting firm puts in - but at one-tenth of the pay. To raise the standards of the profession, you must hold out for more money."

Of the 1,500 PR pros who responded to the survey, 43.1% work at a PR agency, 26.9% work in a corporate PR department, and 8.3% work for a nonprofit. Smaller groups work in education, government, and trade associations.

More than one-tenth of respondents (11.9%) report having 16 to 20 years of experience in the industry, 18.1% have worked in PR between 11 to 15 years, and 19.2% have 7 to 10 years of experience under their belts. Among the less experienced, 9.1% have 1-2 years, 10.3% report 3 to 4 years' experience, and 10.2% have been in the industry for 5 to 6 years.

Increasing numbers

Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, says that along with salaries, staffing has increased in the past couple of years. In its 2006 survey of 83 firms, the Council found the net growth of staffs was 10%, compared with a 19% drop in 2004. She says the turnover rate significantly decreased by 14% from 2004, as well. It also showed a modest increase in salaries at all levels compared with 2004.

"These numbers validate the support for the business being up and for the firms hiring to match the needs of their clients," Cripps says. "Bonus-based or merit increases are also up. Firms are looking at the contributions individuals are making and rewarding them based on performance and by providing management incentive plans."

Just under one-third of this year's respondents (31.6%) report making $100,000 to $249,999; 23.3% are making $50,000 to $74,999; and 18.5% are in the $75,000 to $99,999 range. At the lower end of the spectrum, 15.2% make $35,000 to $49,999, and 6.5% are bringing in less than $35,000.

Tara Lilien, HR director for Manning Selvage & Lee, New York, says the salary band at the SVP level has increased due to a vastly competitive hiring environment and some firms almost pricing others out of the market.

"We've discussed this at HR roundtables," she says. "Perhaps agencies that are not public companies have more bandwidth to go with. At times I think that salaries are disproportionate, but I think that for strong people, agencies are going to match that to keep them."

Dan Lewis, the new global chief public affairs officer at Molson Coors, says compensation packages for C-level communications executives have gotten better at the same time as the communications executive has moved into the C-suite.

"Whether that's in base salary, bonus, or long-term incentives, I think in all three categories [packages have] improved," he says.

The highest median salaries can be found among the EVPs ($192,650), SVPs ($170,710), and CEOs ($168,480). Predictably, account coordinators ($30,290) and account executives ($42,190) report having the lowest salaries.

The survey also revealed that men (with $105,450) still have a higher median income than women ($70,800). The average male respondent reports working in the industry for 13.6 years, while the average female has only been in the industry for 8.9 years.

Quite often, the disparity can be explained by such factors as women leaving the workplace for a time to have a family. For women with more than five years' experience, the median salary is $85,470; for men, it is $124,220. Yet the disparity is there even in the first five years of pros' experience. At this level, men have a median salary of $48,000, while women only make $43,810.

In such a female-dominated business, why the difference? "It's an age-old issue, but women tend not to negotiate very well on their own behalf," suggests Bloom. "I also think employers, whether they're male or female, are always going to be happy when someone takes a little less. [A female boss'] agenda is not about making sure that women act in their own best interests and negotiate for the best salary possible; her objective is to run a profitable business."

Finding talent

Pay and compensation are often afterthoughts to the key challenge of finding talent.

Lilien says it's getting even more competitive to bring in talent. She says MS&L is investing more into recruitment in terms of time, networking, and developing relationships with the talent.

"Unfortunately, you can't just post a job, get 20 amazing responses, and have the pick of the litter," she adds. "It's become much more challenging to find the right peg that goes into the right hole."

Says Bloom: "Obviously, we are trying to get to the passive job seeker, the one who isn't really looking, but may be intrigued enough to listen. Relationship building is critical then because you have to get them to return your call and hear about this special opportunity. There is no magic bullet - it is a lot of hard work and many conversations with people over an extended period of time."

Paul Taaffe, chairman and CEO at Hill & Knowlton, who says his firm increased its workforce by 10% in the past year, says a buoyant market is the reason for all the hiring.

"There is a war for talent right now, and it's been pretty hot for the past nine months," he says. "It hasn't changed, and it will probably get worse."

Taaffe adds that he's seen salaries go up across the board quite substantially, except at entry level. "Particularly in hot markets and geographies or sectors like healthcare and tech, all the salaries have gone up, as have bonus expectations," he reports.

Survey findings in part bear this out. Respondents working in the telecomms sector report the highest median salary ($105,770), followed by food and beverage ($102,680), healthcare ($95,110), and tech ($89,240).

The task of finding talent isn't any easier for corporations. Brad Shaw, SVP of corporate communications and external affairs at The Home Depot, says because his company's corporate team handles such a large part of its communications efforts, it puts a premium on the traditional skills of writing and media relations.

"Those skills are increasingly harder to come by," explains Shaw. "We look for people who are great writers and are subject-matter experts on media relations, and unfortunately, those are skills that are dwindling across the market in terms of the applicant pool. So we do a lot to help grow and nurture it, but we clearly put a premium on that, and it's harder to find."

Shaw says there has been a steady increase in salaries on the corporate side, as well.

"I don't know if I've seen a dramatic increase so much as one commensurate with overall inflation increases and general marketplace demand," he says. "The increase in salaries is proportionate to the importance companies are placing on communications, both external and internal."

The Home Depot, like many other corporations and agencies, has had to alter how it goes about finding and holding on to talent.

"We tend to look more at schools and folks fresh into the industry, as well as people with a retail background when we can," Shaw says. "Retail is key. We're putting an even bigger level of importance on that."

Molson Coors' Lewis says that despite spending his entire career in corporations, he has started to give special attention to candidates with an agency background.

"It's because they bring the kind of skills that a corporation wants inside - highly responsive and very adaptable people that learn quickly, listen extremely well, and are very much in tune with what's happening in the marketplace," Lewis says. "That's not to say a corporate candidate doesn't bring that. But they tend to bring a tremendous amount of very deep vertical expertise in a particular area. So when you're out looking for new talent, if [their experience is] not in that particular area, a lot of times an agency person has a leg up."

Taaffe says agencies have to get more creative in the ways they find people. He says H&K is trying to avoid the common practice of recycling talent.

"Agencies have tended to hire from other agencies for the longest time, and that just recycles people," he says. "They do it because it's safe and reduces risk. We're overcoming that by taking on people who don't have an agency background and teaching them the agency and consultancy business. That means no longer recruiting from the traditional pool of talent."

Multicultural talent

Another enormous challenge for the industry is building a diverse workforce. As brands put more focus on minority markets, agencies and corporations alike find themselves trying to assemble a staff that's reflective of the country's population.

"We're seeing much more of an effort from the recruitment folks to go out there and recruit from historically black colleges and universities, as well as colleges and universities in heavy Hispanic states where there's a large potential to grab Hispanics," says Armando Azarloza, president of Axis. "This doesn't mean that we're there yet. I think there's a lot more we need to [do to] get to where we need."

While the survey shows a very small increase over last year in ethnic diversity (4.3% African American, 4.5% Hispanic, and 2.8% Asian American), the numbers overall are still starkly low.

"For a long time, we have had a two-pronged system: the general PR agencies, and the special-market ones [for multicultural work]," says Bloom. "For a long time, I would say [to a general agency], 'We've got someone for you from a special-market agency,' and the large, general agencies would say, 'They've only worked in special markets, not the general market, so we're not interested in hiring them.'"

However, Bloom says this pattern has started to break down.

"Agencies have widely realized that they need to be concerned with having a diverse workplace, and their clients are forcing the diversity issue a lot," she continues.
"Agencies must work on not just hiring for specific attributes, but on training people. Maybe someone hasn't worked in the general market, but if they have the core skills, the fact they have not worked in such an agency does not preclude them from doing so."

Azarloza, who says he doesn't see a disparity in pay between ethnic and white communications professionals, says agencies nonetheless have to ensure they are competitive in terms of compensation and the assignments they give to ethnic employees.

"You have to put them on exciting business and things that keep them interested," he explains.

Azarloza would like to see more mentoring of ethnic employees to help them climb the corporate ladder. "You [need] to have them in management. That will really show diversity, once you have minorities in management positions," Azarloza says.

Ron Childs, media relations director at Flowers Communications Group, says the multicultural talent pool is deep among the senior ranks, but rather shallow at the entry level.

"We're not seeing a lot of expertise or knowledge of multicultural media and consumer outreach at the entry level," he says.

Childs says money is not the driving force for prospective staffers. The reputation of the agency and work environment are at the top of their lists. And when it comes to competing against big agencies for ethnic talent, he says multicultural agencies need to stress that they can offer junior-level employees a spot working for a big client, more responsibility, and access to senior-level employees.

Holding on to talent

Nearly one-third (30.9%) of corporate respondents, and 19% of agency staffers, are job-hunting. And well over two-thirds of all survey respondents have been approached by a headhunter in the past 12 months.

But believe it or not, most people in the industry say money isn't the biggest factor in holding on to an employee "unless they're at the junior level where every thousand dollars counts," says MS&L's Lilien. "Once people get into the SAE and account supervisor levels, it becomes much more about the opportunity and long-term career growth."

Indeed, Bloom confirms, "I still see people switching from agency to agency for a $2,000 to $3,000 pay increase... You can tell it's generally not about money for the people making those moves."

That said, the survey does reveal that 83.2% of respondents say a higher salary motivates them a lot more than stock in their company (8.6%). (Of course, stock is not an option for a large number of pros.) Of those surveyed, 26.4% are expecting a 2% to 3.9% raise at their next review, 22.5% expect a 4% to 5.9% raise, and 11.9% are expecting a 6% to 9.9% raise.

Many say that identifying a career path for someone and helping them map it out can be just as important as salary. Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5W PR, says doing that, however, is the biggest challenge he faces in heading a smaller agency.

"I think another challenge is losing employees to bigger agencies because people have this perception that they want to work on very big brands," he explains. "[Smaller firms are] not always able to win or work with all the big brands."

Torossian, who says his company has a low staff turnover rate of just 6% to 8%, combats these challenges by making sure his staffers don't feel stifled and have the ability to grow within the company.

Ogilvy's Siegel says a simple fact of the business is that people are always going to come and go. "But I think the more we can career path these people and make them see that one size does not necessarily fit all and there are different ways to go, there's a better chance of holding on to talent," she says. "There are more career paths available today than there were before, and it's incumbent upon us to help talent see what those possibilities are."

Siegel says offering a flexible work environment, particularly for mid- and senior-level employees, also helps.

"Something I feel strongly about is to show people who may be getting married or having children that it's possible to have a fulfilling career and a fulfilling family life," she adds.

"Because this tends to be a predominantly female-oriented profession," Bloom says, "we are naturally going to lose people who choose to be moms and stay home, or freelance."

Valerie O'Neil, APR, director of corporate and issues management, global brand strategy, and communications at Starbucks, says her company encourages a cross-pollination of jobs in order to keep things fresh.

"With us, there's always great opportunity to grow within the company because of our opportunities internally and internationally," she says. "People [here] are encouraged to try other sectors of the business so that they get a multi-faceted experience base that can help them move up."

While money may not be the primary issue for some, that does not mean management will not have to deal with aggressive and ambitious employees seeking raises or a chance to climb the corporate ladder.

More than one-fifth of respondents (21.7%) agree or strongly agree with the statement that they are very aggressive when it comes to negotiating their salary with their current or future employer. And nearly two-thirds (63.9%) agree or strongly agree with the statement that they are ambitious in terms of achieving a high professional rank over the course of their career.

More than one-third of respondents (36.3%) agree or strongly agree with the statement that they are satisfied with the career opportunities offered by their current employer, and a majority (59.1%) agree or strongly agree with the statement "I am committed to a career in PR/communications." For the latter question, the mean score was 5.5 out of 7, in terms of level of agreement. Argenti says this is positive, but it also indicates a self-deprecation he sees in a lot of PR pros who are not aggressive enough in asking for more money and more credibility in their organizations.

"People who have chosen this line of work, they look at the other options available to them - journalist, writer - and they don't see themselves as potentially doing other things in business," he says. "If they saw themselves not only as PR people, but as business people, it would be different. They're committed to the profession, which is positive, and they're prepared to work outrageous hours for not very much money, they are willing to commit themselves at any cost, and that's not a good thing."

Argenti also thinks that those inside the PR profession have a somewhat optimistic view of how well regarded the profession is by outsiders. On the 7-point scale, agreement for "I believe the PR profession is highly respected" was at the 3.9 level.

"That assessment is optimistic," he says. "It's probably one of the least-respected professions out there. Part of that is because of our own undoing, as a result of our own behavior. It's also a lack of understanding about what the power of corporate communication can really be. Both are disturbing. [Respondents] are being realistic for them, but it's worse than that, from my perspective.

"PR is respected as a tactical, operational, grocery clerk-level profession, rather than the strategic critical function that it is," adds Argenti. "If people do respect it, they tend to because of the tactical things PR people can do in a crisis, rather than for their strategic counsel."

A change of scenery

There are still lots of PR pros, though, who genuinely feel companies are elevating the status of their function. For these companies, as they grow their communications, the lure of jumping from a firm to a corporate post has become more enticing to many.

Chad Harp, marketing communications spokesman at Toyota, was at GolinHarris up until last November. He says there "definitely" was an increase in pay, albeit not huge. Harp expects to see more people start crossing over as corporations will have a greater need for people with agency experience.

"Companies will start seeing the benefits of bringing agency people over," he says. "When you bring someone from the agency side, they bring a wealth of knowledge because they work on so many different things. A lot of times the alternative is using someone from inside the company with no experience, and they have to be trained."

Respondents who identified themselves as working in a corporate setting reported a median salary of $94,190, while those working for an agency are making a median salary of $77,750.

Kelly Heisler, VP of the corporate practice at Ketchum, made the jump in the other direction. She joined Ketchum in January from the Boston Market Corp., and says there were a number of things that made agency life more appealing.

"In a lot of corporations, the internal staff is small, and room for advancement is really limited," says Heisler, who was originally on the agency side before joining a corporate team. "[On the] agency side, you can step into a mid-level role like me, and there's still room for advancement."

The job market is a highly fluid one right now, and no employer can be confident that his or her staff are in it for the long term. With 60.9% of respondents saying they have been approached by a headhunter in the past 12 months, no one is safe.

Bloom says when she contacts agency people with job opportunities at other firms, they'll often ask her to only contact them if the job is a corporate one. But she says there are advantages agencies can play up to attract and keep talent from leaving.

"Agencies in general can never compete when it comes to benefits with a corporation that can offer better benefits and compensation," Bloom says. "But small to midsize firms can offer some areas of flexibility, telecommuting for working moms, and more flexible working hours. Sometimes they can just offer better access to senior leadership and [a chance to] work more directly with clients and give more responsibility. Sometimes, that's what they're using to attract people."

Like any other industry, PR has its ebb and flow. But Bloom says that's changed over the past few years, and she has seen more positive movement.

"It's been on much more of a steady upward trajectory as opposed to that roller coaster I used to see," Bloom notes. "I feel the profession has come into its own more in the past 10 years, and I don't see that changing, diminishing, or going away. I see it becoming more ingrained and more built into the fabric of what a lot of companies are doing."

Additional reporting by Eleanor Trickett.

The PRWeek/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey was conducted by PRWeek and Millward Brown. The survey was open to all PRWeek readers.

Respondents were invited via e-mail and were also allowed to enter the survey through prweek.com. A total of 1,500 executives in the PR industry completed the survey online between January 4 and January 22, 2007.

Results aren't weighted. Based on the sample size, the results are statistically tested at a confidence level of 90%.

This report offers selected highlights only. More complete survey results - with raw data - are available in Excel format for $150. Please contact Irene Chang at irene.chang@prweek.com.

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