Strong position: Career Guide 2011

Optimism abounds in the PR job market. That opportunity for employees, however, presents interesting recruitment and retention challenges for agencies and in-house departments alike.

In his eight years at American Airlines, Roger Frizzell, VP of corporate communications, says he's never “seen this many opportunities to look into the marketplace for candidates. We've suddenly had a number of mid-level and director positions become available.”

Already this year, the communications function within the airline has hired eight new staffers, including a full-time director of social media and a director of customer communications, both newly created positions. American has also made recent hires as a result of new airline alliances. Other additions reflect staff turnover.

The Fort Worth, TX-based air carrier isn't alone in its sudden demand for PR talent. Nokia, for instance, is on the hunt for a new director of communications. Laurie Armstrong quit the post after more than 12 years with the company, because, as she tells PRWeek, “I feel it is the right time for my own personal and professional renewal.”

On the agency side, APCO Worldwide has hired roughly 80 new employees in the past six months. CEO Margery Kraus attributes the majority of the hires to new client work and increased spending by existing clients.

Between January 1 and June 21 of this year, Edelman made 274 full-time hires, reports Julie Biber, the firm's EVP, director of US recruitment. In total, its US head count has reached 2,072, up from 1,813 in 2010.

In fact, she says, Edelman has had about 125 openings at any given time over the last six months. “The good thing about those openings is that 80% of them, on average, are due to growth, rather than replacement,” she explains.

That new spending has helped create a job market for PR pros that has gone from bleak to cautiously optimistic to positively robust in three years.

For example, APCO had its worst year in 2009, the first time in its 26-year history it didn't report a year-over-year revenue increase. But 2010 was its best year ever. Still, like many companies that experienced encouraging growth last year, it didn't go hiring on all cylinders.

“Last year, we were still very conservative because we didn't want to overstaff long-term,” says Kraus. “Coming off 2009, we didn't know what the new ‘normal' was. Was it 2009 or the growth we were seeing in 2010? As we see the growth has become more sustained, we don't want to burn people out by not staffing for the work we have.”

That is not to say there isn't nervousness on the corporate side about the fluctuating markets, because there is, notes Maryanne Rainone, SVP and MD for executive recruitment firm Heyman Associates. However, she says, companies recognize they need to return to staffing levels that make sense.

“Companies still have the same communication demands they had before, but because of the sheer amount and variety of media outlets today, those PR functions inside companies said, ‘We need to staff up,'” adds Rainone. “We've seen lots of activity on the director level for external relations, media relations, internal relations, and social media people.”

Poaching problems
The increased demand for talent has prompted many companies to become very aggressive in their recruitment strategies. In some cases, both on the agency and corporate side, that attitude has manifested itself in efforts to cherry-pick their rivals' key talent.

That has created a challenge on the retention side, Kraus says, adding that one company recently solicited all of APCO's senior people worldwide.

“Depending on the person, the offer can then be used to say, ‘Pay me more to stay,' even though he or she may have no intention of going,” she notes. “It is irritating, but it's the nature of the business.”

Rainone has seen an increase in the number of candidates who have been made an offer and then turn around and accept a counteroffer from their current employer.

“Companies are realizing that rather than replacing someone, training them, and bringing them up to speed, it is a lot easier to counteroffer and see what happens,” she says.

Still, Rainone finds many who do that end up leaving the current employer in short order anyway.

“People realize six months down the line that money was not the reason they were looking. Usually, they are seeking something new and different,” she explains. “But when people you know and have worked with for a long time convince you to stay, it can be hard to say no.”

Still, the biggest threat from poaching is, and has always been, losing your best people, says Gillian Edick, US MD for human resources at Burson-Marsteller. “It is a necessary evil because there is not much we can do to stop other agencies – and we wouldn't want to. But we can make sure our employees are as happy as they possibly can be, so when they do get that call, they don't entertain it.”

Like most agencies, Burson works to keep staff happy by offering ongoing professional development and new client opportunities, including the chance to work at international offices.

“You try to provide everyone the best experience you can and also have managers anticipate the staffers' needs,” says Kraus. “But we all have ups and downs in our jobs. If someone comes to you when you are feeling most vulnerable at work and offers something that sounds really exciting, it can be hard as a company to combat that.”

Poaching sometimes happens on the corporate side, as well. “I've had some of my team move to other airlines,” says Frizzell. “You expect it and try to do the best you can to keep your staff happy, but you can spend needless hours worrying about it.”

Plus, with the right attitude, Frizzell says staff changes can be a time to reenergize. “It gives me a chance to refresh,” he notes. “You obviously want to keep your best talent because it is costly to invest in new people. But there is so much talent out there, if people on your team decide they want another option, in many cases they probably need to go.”

Hiring across borders
Agency leaders say they are being asked to be strategic advisors on a range of complex issues, from globalization to digital. That is why firms are seeking candidates, particularly at the senior level, with backgrounds that differentiate them to clients.

“Burson is looking for people with non-traditional backgrounds more than ever – people who haven't spent their entire careers in the agency world,” says Edick. “We consider people with corporate backgrounds, with administration backgrounds, or those who have worked in health policy. Diversity brings a new outlook, a new perspective, and we need that to think outside the box for clients.”

Kraus says bringing on senior leaders from various backgrounds also helps at the junior levels.

“If you're at the more junior level and you're working on something and need help, you can walk down the hall and talk to, for example, the person who wrote the legislation you need to know about or the former media person who hired the journalist you're wanting to reach,” she explains. “It gives your more junior staff an understanding and an ability to learn that goes beyond orientation or a training course.”

It could be argued that the shift toward non-traditional PR candidates started with digital media specialists, given the industry had no choice but to look outside their competitive set for leaders.

Today, a quarter of Edelman's job openings are digital-related. Biber says the firm hunts for those communicators with digital savvy outside the traditional channels.

“We have to be creative because we're not looking for them at our competitors,” she adds. “We're going into digital agencies and giving people an opportunity to bring their digital talents over to a PR firm. These people are very specialized and not plentiful, but we're getting them.”

Biber says it's a strategy the agency now applies across the board.

“By nature, PR agencies have always wanted the individual at the competitor agency and I'm not saying we don't hire those people,” she notes. “But our clients want us to be different and to be creative, to have research, to have digital, to have pure PR capabilities, and to be able to offer that sort of one-stop shop. So we need the background in the individuals we hire.”

Frizzell also recently made hires in the media department and says he was more concerned with actual skill set than industry experience.

“Social media is becoming one of the most important things we do every day,” he says. “It is changing our business. Social media and customer communications – I don't know where one starts and the other begins. So I really wanted people who had been engaged in media and social media strategy, as well as issues management. The airline industry experience wasn't as important.”

Still, the opposite was true in the more recent hires he's made. Frizzell wanted to ensure the PR pros he hired brought airline experience with them.

“In my business, you need a balance,” he says. “In some industries, particularly ours, it is good to also have some people with institutional knowledge.”

Heyman Associates' Rainone concurs that corporations are more willing to hire from different backgrounds. “For a role like director of external communications and public affairs,” she notes, “they won't say, ‘Just bring me corporate people,' because they will look at agency people.”

But at the very senior ranks, such as VP and SVP of communications, “they are still only looking for true corporate people,” adds Rainone. “They need someone who has been at a publicly held company, who has gone through the up-and-down cycle, or has dealt with an M&A. They are not looking necessarily for people in the same industry, but they do need familiar backgrounds.”

Importance of culture
As the industry casts a wider net for senior talent, hiring managers are paying even more attention to intangibles such as cultural fit.

“When we meet people who have been in a position highly focused on ego, we have to make sure that is not the reason they love their job,” says APCO's Kraus. “We try to get a sense of how team-oriented they are. We can get an idea about that by how much time they spend listening versus talking.”

Edelman's Biber is also cautious about candidates who seem overly occupied with compensation.

“The biggest mistake, bar none, good candidates can make is if their only focus is salary,” she warns. “It can be a red flag that they are just looking for a counteroffer. We want someone who will truly look at this as an opportunistic move for them.”

And at the end of the day, opportunity is what it's all about for PR pros in today's job market.

“A lot of communications people want a challenge, a different set of circumstances, to feel like there is something they can contribute,” says Rainone. “In that respect, it's a very good time to be in PR.”

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