Salary Survey 2009: Adjusting to a new reality

The recession has drastically affected the job market and forced employees to reevaluate both their priorities and their expectations for moving forward, according to the 2009 PRWeek Salary Survey.

The recession has drastically affected the job market and forced employees to reevaluate both their priorities and their expectations for moving forward, according to the 2009 PRWeek Salary Survey.

With the recession in full force, there are many PR professionals out in the job market due to redundancies and budget reductions. While job offers are still available, the current economic situation has made moving forward into 2009 a cautious endeavor.

The 2009 PRWeek Salary Survey polled 1,160 PR professionals, across various work settings and disciplines. Of the respondents, 41% work for a PR/IR firm; 26% work for a corporation; 8% work for a nonprofit; 8% are self-employed/freelance; 5% work in education; and 3% work in government.

While the survey findings confirm that salaries are remaining steady, they also reveal that expectations have begun to align with the economic uncertainty.

This year's survey found that 22% of respondents "strongly agree" that their job in under threat due to economic conditions, compared to just 8.6% in 2008. Additionally, 25% of respondents said compared to last year, they are more willing to relocate for a job this year – and with good reason.

Of the 238 respondents who have changed employers within the past year, 23% were laid off. As these PR professionals flood the job market, consulting jobs and freelance work have become ways for these job candidates to utilize their contacts and experience, says Jim Delulio, president of recruitment firm PR Talent.

"There are fewer of those kinds of senior jobs available on the market anytime, and even fewer during a recession," he adds. "So I'm seeing a lot of those people exploring opening their own consultancy, going out and doing freelance work, or starting their own agency."

Also, as firms continue to acquire projects, they may lack manpower from layoffs, and will, in turn, raise the number of freelancers they use. This change contributes to a greater dependence on the flex staffing model, according to Delulio.

Other senior executives who are struggling in the present job market have been taking lower-paying jobs than their previous positions or potentially changing industries and aspirations, he adds.

In fact, 24% of respondents to this year's survey state they would consider pursuing non-PR work due to the current economic climate.

Dealing with layoffs
Layoffs have become an unfortunate reality – from global firms to boutique agencies.

Tyler Barnett, co-founder and owner of Barnett Ellman, says that as his client base has switched in the past six months, he's had to lay off junior- and senior-level staffers who were excellent employees, but whose expertise no longer matched the client roster.

"There are a lot of people who have been laid off," he explains. "Because of that competition, there's been a real increase in seeing talented people not previously available. My job as a business owner is to make sure we have the best staff possible."

Text 100 has laid off staffers across its North American offices in recent months. Presently, the company is evaluating all expenditures and tightening cost structures.

"Certainly, like most agencies, we're being cautious with all of our expenditures. Our clients are in the same situation," notes Aedhmar Hynes, CEO of Text 100. "It's not clear where the bottom is yet... We're doing everything in our power to shore up the business and make sure it's healthy."

Few in the industry do not know of a skilled colleague or friend of a friend who has lost a job. And, more and more, professionals are reevaluating how these changes will affect day-to-day business and their ability to remain a part of this industry.

Mandy Murphy recently found herself back on the job market after more than two years at Reebok International, where she was global PR manager.

"[Much of] our marketing department just happened to be one of the casualties," says Murphy, who had heard "rumblings" and was laid off in January with approximately 300 other employees overall.

"One of the good things, if there is a good thing about being laid off, is I've had a chance to catch up with contacts that I haven't had the time to talk to," she adds.

Murphy has also been impressed with how helpful contacts, some of whom are also in the job market, have been to pass on job leads.

"I've honestly considered free-lancing for a while," she explains. "I've had several people call me up and ask... Now, that I have the time to do it, it's [looking] appealing."

Judith Lederman, a laid-off PR manager at Lord & Taylor and industry veteran, has taken up freelance PR opportunities.

"I've taken [this time] to sharpen my social media skills and use them for the clients I've gotten [freelancing]," she says. "It's a little scary. I'm a single mom, working really hard to keep it together, and I'm a senior person, so I'm not going to be taking a job doing [PR] 101."

Lederman has also found a variety of opportunities to market her skill set through Twitter.

"[From Twitter], I've had a couple of people ask for CVs and a few others guide me to headhunters and other jobs," she says. "It's hard to find the right situation because I'm so senior."

Making sacrifices
Some employees have had to take a pay cut or salary freeze to ensure job security for the next year, something 63% of survey respondents say they would be willing to do.

Comparing 2009 to 2008 shows that salary medians have dropped for most experience levels. In 2008, the median salary for someone with less than two years of experience was $40,300. This year, it's $36,000. Only those in the seven to 10 years of experience range saw a median salary increase in 2009.

Phil Greenough, president of Greenough Communications, says he and upper-level staffers have taken pay cuts for the upcoming year to ensure that entry-level applicants would not be laid off.

"They're just starting their careers," he says. "We had to make some difficult decisions. Because we're a private company, we could make decisions that an [organization overseen] by a holding company might not."

According to the survey, salaries have also reflected this increased caution, though they've remained largely steady.

The results show that the median annual salary base for corporate employees is $103,000, while respondents in PR/IR firms report a median base of $90,000 annually.

Though salaries have held steady, employees today are under more pressure than ever before. According to the survey, 46% strongly agree that they feel under more pressure to perform than 12 months ago, compared to 38.7% last year.

Yet, Lynne Doll, president and partner at the Rogers Group, says salary requests have been more reasonable than they had been the year before.

"People are still expecting to be paid competitive salaries, but we're not getting the ridiculous demands [we] were a year ago," she explains. "I think people are much more appreciative and more respectful of what we need as employers."

In the current environment, keeping up morale and communicating internally has become increasingly important. This trend aligns with why Text 100's Hynes is noticing an uptick in clients' requesting employee communications.

Doll notes that at the end of Q3, when the economy took a turn for the worse, her firm made changes to its workspace and company culture to ease anxiety. It also converted a conference room into a creative lounge, with Wii tennis and cappuccino, and instituted other changes, such as more casual dress.

The purpose was to "keep people motivated and encouraged to be creative," despite the current recession, says Doll.

"We did things [that were] not highly expensive, but [strategically] designed to get people talking in informal ways," she adds. "We're in a creative industry and continue [to inspire] that."

To lessen concerns about the economy, Edelman is currently "over-communicating" so that there's no ambiguity with its employees, according to Derek Creevey, chief of staff at the agency.

"[As a firm], you need to guard against the notion that there are no jobs and people won't leave," he says, "Employees are very anxious. [You] need to engage and inform employees of exactly where you are."

These tactics match the concerns reflected in the salary survey. This year, fewer respondents find their job more fulfilling than they did 12 months ago, with only 31% strongly agreeing in 2009, in contrast to 38.5% in 2008.

Growth opportunities
In spite of the seemingly bad news about the job market, there are some areas of the industry that are expanding, according to George Jamison, principal at search firm Spencer Stuart. These include the broad categories of healthcare, industrial, and professional-ser-vices companies.

"Healthcare will always be vital, economically, emotionally, and every other way. It's right at the heart of life," says Tom Noland, SVP of corporate communications for Humana, who adds that budgets have remained consistent, without a cut to staff.

For top-level executives, the "most in-demand" skills include crisis communications and reputation management, according to Jamison, who adds that digital and social media skills are also key.

"[Digital] is an area where we're seeing a lot of recognition by clients," notes Jamison. "[It is] still an evolving, growing area and one where people [who are] not savvy or highly skilled... ought to take a good look at that."

David Shane, who joined Hewlett-Packard in July of 2008 as VP of external communications, agrees.

Currently, Shane says that he's seeking out digital expertise because "it's such a competitive space. We're looking for people with a blend of social media and traditional corporate communications who can take traditional media relations and infuse it with digital prowess, stretch a one-day news story into 20."

Ray Jordan, VP of public affairs and corporate communications at Johnson & Johnson, notes an expansion of the role of digital for the company's internal communications, but with a redirection of his present staff's time, which might have been focused previously on internal newsletters or external events.

"It's challenging [to find] a spokesperson who knows what's allowable from a regulatory and legal point of view, but who also has a personal voice to reach out to a community," says Jordan.

Currently, two J&J corporate media relations staffers touch on social media every day, in "spare time and with additional effort," aligning with current budgetary structures. Also, the company's video producer has begun to focus more on the brand's YouTube channel, as that's where more and more visitors are appearing.

Gary Sheffer, General Electric's executive director of corporate communications and public affairs, says there are a "handful" of positions currently available in reputation management and new media. However, he adds, on the whole, the corporate communications function is not hiring.

"You have to react to the environment you're in," explains Sheffer. "[It's] more fast-paced and disaggregated, and [there are] a lot more channels to respond to. [As a company], we have to be faster and more nimble."

Also, the expectation for social media expertise from entry-level candidates all the way up to VP-level hires has increased, according to Edelman's Creevey.

Digital is a definite avenue for career advancement, and survey respondents are still motivated to do well. According to the survey, 66% strongly agree that they are ambitious in terms of achieving a high professional rank over the course of their career.

"Knowledge about social media [is key]. We love seeing [candidates'] innovative ways of promoting [themselves]," notes Creevey. "We're looking for people comfortable blogging or participating [in online conversations] because of the work we do for our clients."

During the last recession, Edelman made a number of senior hires in new media, which resulted in being ideally placed moving forward, according to Creevey, who adds that the agency continues to hire in that area.

"Irrespective of the current economic climate, we have changed how we recruit. People who join the firm are expected to be far more comfortable in social media," says Creevey, who notes that the interview process has been more rigorous in validating this proficiency.

Holding steady
Another avenue noted for growth is public affairs, with different contracts being funneled through the new presidential administration. Government budgets and salaries are remaining constant.

PR is continuing to play a respected role in moving forward the business objectives of these organizations, which shows now, more than ever, the industry is continuing to have increasing cachet.

"The recession is not really affecting [PR budgets]," says Jeff Carter, chief of public affairs at the United States Marshals' Service. "Our budget is worked out a couple of years in advance... We're pretty straightforward in our communications, but we're seeking out ways to broaden our messages."

Carter, who was hired about six months ago, will seek to "institute a more aggressive public affairs posture for the agency," alongside greater online outreach, including Web site redesign, and through the support of new hires, such as a videographer/photographer and public affairs specialist.

Lt. Col. Mike Paoli, chief of media, opinion leader engagement, and secretary of the Air Force office of public affairs at the Pentagon, adds, "The military tends to be somewhat recession-proof." However, it has also faced a pullback in PR budgets and staffing since 2006, when the resources necessary to communicate to key stakeholders post-9/11 were no longer as exigent.

"We're affected by the same kinds of problems, perhaps, out of sync, as the rest of the country," he says.

The US auto industry's PR function has also become closely tied to the government. Auto PR has been a lynchpin in many key markets, and its changes have impacted the broader agency landscape.

"As [we] cut overall budgets, agencies can't help but be impacted," says Steve Harris, chief of communications at GM. "There's obviously some reduction in work as we have fewer projects and [staff]."

GM will seek to further reduce budgets and personnel in 2009, including communications, he adds.

"Things are quite hectic in the US auto industry in general," explains Harris. "There's a lot going on around our loan from the government and preparation for our viability plan. So, we have a number of work streams [attending to] the viability plan and each of those work streams have communications elements to it."

Moving into 2009, digital and social media will also play a prominent role for GM, and the carmaker is "putting ever-increasing resources and activity in that area," says Harris.

Hiring new agencies or corporate staffers is becoming increasingly limited in the auto industry, due to hesitant consumers.

"At this point, we're seeing people only buying when they absolutely have to," says Jeff Kuhlman, chief communications officer at Audi of America. "Clearly, the economy is tough on everyone."

Audi has not currently tightened its PR budgets, but it is also not seeking to hire in communications.

"At this point, we're fully staffed given the current situation and not looking to grow, but maintain," explains Kuhlman, who made manager-level hires in 2008.

HP also recently added senior-level hires to its communications team, but will continue to consider "outstanding candidates," according to Shane.

While some nonprofits are on the decline in terms of funding, PETA is hiring across its communications functions and seeking to expand programs, says Michael McGraw, director of media relations. He adds that its budgets remain robust.

Financial services is an area that is somewhat static due to the market collapse and floundering consumer confidence during the credit crunch. So much so, even banks not involved in the subprime mortgage market have had to watch costs.

Rebecca Acevedo, PR manager for TD Bank, which was not a part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, says business is steady, but the PR budget was "reduced slightly to be more fiscally responsible."

Acevedo says after the merger with Commerce Bank, the two entities' PR departments were brought together without layoffs.

Jeep Bryant, EVP of corporate affairs at the Bank of New York Mellon, notes via e-mail, "Since the merger [between Bank of New York and Mellon Financial], we haven't experienced much turnover. We also haven't added any new PR positions in recent months due to the overall economic environment."

The adjustments and unemployment that has taken place within the banking industry have increased the "supply-side number of candidates," says Cindy Leggett-Flynn, partner at the Brunswick Group. "People [are] either contemplating a move or have been notified that they need to find another job."

Leggett-Flynn says she's seen candidates from both banking and, increasingly, from other agencies cross her desk.

Stephanie Howley, VP of HR at Cohn & Wolfe, has seen "more and more non-traditional folks," such as professionals looking outside financial industries and media.

Adjusting expectations

According to this year's survey, the increased salary percentage expected at the next review has markedly changed; 24% of this year's respondents have no expectation of a salary increase at their next review, a statistic that has almost tripled from 8.8% in 2008. In fact, 74% of respondents expect an increase of less than 5.9% or none at all.

David Miller, HR and talent acquisition manager at Hill & Knowlton, notes that salaries at his firm are as dependant as ever on salary cycles. He says, "The opportunity for a promotion by level and in terms of salary hasn't stopped due to the economy."

Doug Spong, president of Carmichael Lynch Spong, says his agency is not making changes to salaries, but is cautiously considering increases.

"We're still giving merit increases for promotions," he says. "We're [just] looking [to defer] merit in-creases by a few months. It's not ‘no,' it's just ‘not now.'"

Moving forward, Spong likens the current climate to driving in a thunderstorm. "You have both hands on the wheel," he explains, "and are trying to see as far into the future as possible."

The PRWeek Salary Survey was conducted by CA Walker. E-mail notification was sent to approximately 30,463 PR pros. A link to the survey was also distributed to members of PRWeek's Facebook.com group and included on PRWeek's Web site. A total of 1,160 respondents completed the survey online between December 4-23, 2008.

The results are not weighted and are statistically tested at a confidence level of 90%. At this sample size, results are associated with a +/-2.5 margin of error.

This article offers selected highlights only. More complete results – with raw data – are available to purchase for $150. Please contact Beth Krietsch at beth.krietsch@prweek.com.

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