As the economy goes, so goes the fate of financial communications practices. And lately, the economy is doing well, at least from Wall Street's perspective.
In what some say is the most robust business climate for financial PR and IR since the late '90s, the ability to attract talent has become that much more crucial for keeping accounts serviced and attracting new clients.
Bob Leahy, EVP and GM at the Weber Shandwick-affiliated Financial Relations Board, says that some of Wall Street's internal machinations have added more people with financial acumen to the talent pool.
"You're seeing some revamping of the research departments of investment banks. And as a consequence, for certain portions of what might be the spectrum of functionality needed in those practices, there is some really remarkable talent coming out of The Street."
Leahy says that the competition for the former investment bankers tends to vary according to their skill set. "We're looking for someone, certainly, that has the PR skills per se," he says, "but we're also looking for someone that has the financial literacy, acumen, and research capabilities. The average PR talent doesn't have that skill scope. So what I'm looking for are hybrids."
Those "hybrid" talents, who can comfortably navigate the bridge between the world of numbers and the world of counseling and communication, are in high demand for the value they bring. So where do firms get them today?
"They come from other agencies, from the corporate side, or from other professions that are related to that, like law or investment banking," says Montieth Illingworth, the head of Gavin Anderson's New York office. Most new hires are referred by someone already at the firm who believes in their talent.
He admits a slight bias against candidates with a past solely in journalism (although he is a past journalist), simply because the dual financial and personal nature of the job is sometimes not well developed in the ranks of reporters. "If you don't have experience counseling clients on complex issues," he says, "then you're missing half the party."
Illingworth adds that the relatively small pool of qualified talent for specialist agencies like his has remained static lately, although he is seeing more people who want to switch careers into financial communications.
Entry-level slots in the business are rare, but they are available for extraordinary people; Gavin Anderson is currently considering a multilingual university valedictorian.
A better way to break into financial communications, Illingworth says, is to train for a short time in the corporate world, and then make the jump. But he notes, "If you stay too long [in a corporate post], you get a bias against you."
Gregory Pettit, an SVP and director of financial communications for Hill & Knowlton, says the economic upswing is pushing hiring upward. "We're seeing foreign issuers begin to come back, we're seeing more M&A activity, we're seeing higher levels of IPOs," he says. "I'd say it's certainly steady and healthy."
As corporate and financial communications converge in an active global market, Pettit says more corporate PR pros are entering his practice to learn the ropes.
Financial comms practices grow or contract at the same pace as Wall Street
Talent comes mainly from the corporate side, other firms, and investment bankers switching careers
Corporate comms pros must establish strong financial acumen before moving to a financial specialist shop or practice