Here's the good news. Before the economy collapsed, the PR industry was already in the midst of a revolution. Digital communication began its exponential proliferation long before last year. In the process, PR gained more respect and leverage as a business driver. It clearly emerged as the discipline best equipped to drive and manage digital interaction.
So when the industry's revolution met the ongoing recession, adaptability and creative thinking increased in terms of both staffing and client service.
“Downturns in the past seemed to affect specific levels. This was an equal-opportunity downturn,” says Lisa Rosenberg, partner and MD of Porter Novelli's New York office. “It affected all levels within our industry, other industries, and sectors of society.
“Thinking has shifted away from advertising being the big behemoth,” she adds. “Ad planning and production cycles are at odds with real time in which information is needed and is relevant. We'll continue to see a flattening in terms of hierarchy.
Clients consistently ask for greater involvement by senior-level talent. It forces agencies to look at how to structure to best deliver where clients want to buy.”
Paul Hicks, regional CEO, Americas, for Ogilvy PR Worldwide, feels things have “stopped getting worse,” which has made it easier to operate.
“Now you can plan versus constantly react to bad news,” he says. “It feels better. That's important when clients are making business decisions. It's taking longer to close new business, but the closure rate has improved in the past three months.”
Hicks points out that digital communications has taught clients that they must engage, which he says is very good for the PR industry as a whole. He also thinks PR firms are “better run” and “more nimble” than in the past. “I agree with commentators that say this has been a reset button for the economy,” Hicks adds. “Agencies are capable and flexible enough to reset quickly. That is going to benefit us.”
A stronger talent pool
Judith Harrison, SVP of staffing, diversity, and inclusion at Constituency Management Group (CMG), says that blurring lines between marketing disciplines and digital communications' rise have created opportunities for firms to view client business in more expansive ways and to develop broader solutions.
“From a recruiting perspective, it means that we can afford to be and should be discipline-agnostic with regard to where we find talent,” she explains.
Certainly, business has slowed and forced many agencies and companies to reduce their communications staffs. While all levels have been impacted, the consensus is that senior talent has been more affected than in previous downturns. But job cuts have created an enormous talent pool, which many employers consider a great opportunity.
Ben Long, president of executive search firm Travaille, thinks the market has hit bottom and he sees demand for talent returning slowly, particularly in the digital realm. Nearly all of his clients want to hire social media talent in the next 18 months.
“Clients are hiring social media specialists and general candidates with that expertise,” Long adds. “They like candidates with strong strategic abilities who can incorporate social media into larger communications plans.” He also sees growth in biotech and energy, especially in green energy and renewables.
Rosenberg reports layoffs at PN in 2008 and 2009, but says the number wasn't significant compared with total headcount. Over the past year, the firm has also made “significant investments” in senior talent. She says the downturn has reinforced the importance of talent, specifically recruiting top pros.
Laura Smith, MD of US human resources at Edelman, reports five or six people total have been laid off. She attributes “every other exit” to performance issues or employees leaving of their own accord. Edelman currently has 35 openings – about one third of what Smith would expect in non-recession times.
“We've seen the greatest influx of candidates at the senior level,” she adds. “Great mid-level candidates continue to be difficult to find. We view this downturn as an opportunity to invite A-list players to visit us in a low-risk way because there are fewer opportunities. We teach recruitment staff to stay connected. The best people we've gotten are those with whom we've talked and reconnected.”
Steve Seeman, VP at Makovsky & Company, also regularly conducts informational interviews and cultivates relationships with all levels of talent, as he anticipates hiring “in the near future.” He's pleased that the agency has retained all staff and clients.
“We haven't let anybody go, even if that means lower profitability,” he reports. “Ultimately, our talent keeps clients happy and business coming.”
Harrison declines to comment about whether there have been layoffs at CMG. Its agencies are hiring as the need arises. They are also reaching out to people with nontraditional backgrounds, such as bloggers.
“Digital and social media are growing so quickly. We want to get to know a wide range of people with this expertise,” she notes. “After the downturn in 2000, everyone thought the talent shortage was a thing of the past, and it came back with a vengeance. We want to be prepared to meet demand when it comes back.”
About 4% of Ogilvy's overall staff was laid off this year. Hicks reports profits holding steady in 2009, though there's been a single-digit dip in revenue compared with 2008, which he says was the firm's best year ever. Ogilvy is hiring now. Digital is the priority, but the firm is seeking talent across all practices and levels.
“We learned during the last downturn that the more you cut people, the harder it is to recover,” Hicks says. “We've done everything we could to avoid that.”
Operational adjustments have helped save jobs. General administrative cost-cutting measures, including reducing real-estate costs, have helped at Ogilvy. Smith says an inter- and intra-office resource-sharing program at Edelman has saved jobs, increased efficiency, expanded employees' experience, and helped break down office silos. Edelman has also cut back on paid interns, using unpaid interns working for school credit. This requires more supervisory work for junior staff, Smith says, but it hones management skills.
Agencies report increasing use of social media for recruiting. Young candidates, in particular, keep in touch with Seeman on Twitter and Facebook. Edelman's in-house recruiters focus on social media outlets, which Smith says allow for more networking than traditional recruiting mediums – and they're free.
Smith notes that all candidates are more flexible in negotiating salaries. Edelman recruiters have also seen candidates considering positions for which they are overqualified, such as former VPs applying for account supervisor positions, though she notes that Edelman wouldn't make those types of hires.
Maintaining agency culture and honest, frequent internal communication has been paramount in the last year. Smith says, “Fear and lack of information can lead to anxiety and unhelpful speculation.” She adds that there's been more internal communication from the top at Edelman than she has ever seen.
Seeman notes that his agency has helped employees “direct nervousness in a positive way” by focusing on client service and professional development.
Though some staff perks have been cut, most training and development programs have been retained, and some have even been increased. Edelman recently launched a Web-based digital education program that's required for all employees. Makovsky has added social media education and training programs.
The next generation
While the large talent pool could present greater-than-usual challenges to entry-level candidates, Matthew Seeger, professor and chair of the department of communication at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit, says undergraduate enrollment hasn't dropped. In fact, he adds, students are showing increased motivation and entrepreneurial spirit.
“Students are redoubling efforts to have excellent résumés and internship experiences,” explains Seeger. “They're gravitating with great speed to social media because they view that as the next frontier.”
Students are also taking supplemental courses, such as business classes, or getting specialized certification, such as in health communication. Many are finding jobs in Chicago or the West – though Seeger adds they're often “more eclectic” positions or not necessarily the exact ones students wanted.
Recent WSU graduate Jared Bryan hasn't let the job shortage in Detroit stop him. He founded his own PR agency, JD Bryan & Associates, while also working a part-time retail job and an unpaid internship in the media and film relations department at The Henry Ford, an historical institution. He's landed “a few” small clients and is optimistic about his future.
“I wanted to own my own agency by the time I was 35,” Bryan says. “Why not start now? You have to start from the ground up anyway. I need the best experience I can get. I'm building relationships to get to the point where I own a full-service agency.”
Edelman's Smith thinks increased flexibility and creative problem-solving benefits everyone – agencies, clients, and talent. Travaille's Long is optimistic, expecting “significant growth” in the next 12 to 18 months. Ogilvy's Hicks is also “very optimistic” about next year, expecting both new business and new hires.
“Everyone knew 2009 would be tough,” PN's Rosenberg says. “All indicators are there that the industry and market are coming back. It'll be a different world – not exactly the same, but nothing ever is.”
Part of the group
From professional advice to networking possibilities, PR and public affairs associations offer opportunities to help all practitioners at any stage of their career.
The American Association of Political Consultants
Arthur W. Page Society
Association for Women in Communications
Canadian Public Relations Society
Council of Communication Management
Council of Public Relations Firms
Entertainment Publicists Professional Society
Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management
League of American Communications Professionals
National Association of Government Communicators
National Black Public Relations Society
National Council for Marketing & Public Relations
Society for New Communications Research
Women Executives in Public Relations
Young PR Pros