Salary Survey 2013: Building momentum

Compensation increases are a leading indicator of a fast-evolving and much more respected communications profession.

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From compensation to staffing, the numbers tell the story of a confident workforce seizing opportunities in an advancing industry, finds the PRWeek/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey. 


If last year had PR pros feeling a bit more secure in their career prospects – “cautiously optimistic” was the prevailing sentiment described in our 2012 feature – they are feeling downright confident in 2013.

In the past 12 months, fewer PR pros felt their job was under threat due to economic conditions. Fewer still said they would be willing to accept a salary freeze or pay cut to ensure job security.

These are two indications among many of a growing confidence among the PR workforce, judging from the results of the 2013 PRWeek/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey, which polled 1,071 communications professionals across the US.

That assuredness coincides with an increase in salaries – up across the board and at all levels of experience, including entry – and the ever-rising demand for talent. Hiring is up at in-house PR departments, 31% of which expect to add to their headcounts, up 5% from 2012.

The percentage of nonprofits expected to increase their headcount dropped from 29% to 25%, which is countered by the fact that 38% of them anticipate hiring additional agency support, versus just 14% in the 2012 survey.

“That figure is striking,” says Patricia McLaughlin, assistant VP of communications at Legacy, a nonprofit dedicated to curbing teen smoking. “It shows people are seeking out expert knowledge and budgets have loosened enough to allow for that.”

On the agency side, hiring is expected to almost match last year's activity – with 72% expecting to increase headcount.

Karen Bloom, principal at Bloom, Gross & Associates, a Chicago-based recruitment firm in its 25th year of business, says, “How you look at the whole year was really corrected by the fourth quarter. That's when we saw a lot of companies make hiring decisions and fill positions that had been open for some time.” And with the US presidential election in the rear view and the fiscal cliff having been avoided, “that momentum continued into the start of 2013,” she adds.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents say they were approached by a headhunter in the past 12 months, up from 64% in the 2012 survey. And those calls may start coming more often, not only from recruitment firms, but directly from the employers themselves. “They have become much more aggressive in their own internal staffing and recruiting processes,” observes Bloom. “Employers are putting time and effort into making talent acquisition a more proactive function.”

The Respondents

1,071 PR professionals, representing various industries and experience levels, completed our Salary Survey. The information collected included details on their compensation, education levels, career objectives, and more. Here's what they look like:

Gender: 63% female; 37% male

Median age: 38 (43 for men; 33 for women)

Ethnicity: 85% white; 15% non-Caucasian (5% black; 4% Hispanic; 3% Asian; 3% other)

Work setting: 38% work for a PR agency; 31% at a corporation; 8% at a nonprofit; 4% are self-employed/freelance; 3% each work in education, for a trade group, or in PR for a marketing/ad agency; 2% each work in public affairs or for the government

Education: 69% have an undergraduate degree; 27% have a master's/graduate degree; 2% have a doctorate/law degree; 1% have some college

Experience: Respondents average 13 years of working in PR

Talent in demand
That is certainly the case at corporations such as Ford and PR agencies such as MSLGroup, which tell PRWeek they have significantly ramped up their recruitment and retention efforts, as competition for top talent heats up.

In 2012, MSLGroup “made investments in strong mid- and senior-level hires,” reports Tara Lilien, SVP of HR, MSLGroup North America. “I'm sure other agencies have as well, as firms figure out what the next generation of agency looks like and continue to build their teams accordingly.”

MSLGroup is recruiting talent who can contribute in a leadership capacity or offer a specific skill set. “We are making deliberate hires,” she adds. “We seek people who can go above and beyond traditional capabilities.”

Although the firm increasingly considers candidates from outside traditional pathways, Lilien says “one of our main sources of talent will always be people at our competitors who rise to the top.”

Jennifer Akoma, HR manager at Airfoil, a tech PR firm with offices in Southfield, MI, and Sunnyvale, CA, says, “We really need non-traditional skill sets, including social, digital, advertising, analytics, and video design – all necessary to provide the full range of marcomms strategies and services to our clients.”

While hiring occurred at all levels last year, in 2013 one focus will be on recruiting junior staff from outside traditional education tracks to bring unique insights to the firm's strategic thinking. Airfoil recently hired a graduate with degrees in economics and political science, for example. “At the junior level, we can teach them the PR piece and have them apply their unique thinking,” adds Akoma. “We want to prevent that groupthink phenomenon that happens when you pull in candidates from the same school with the same degree.”

To attract students from varied fields of learning, Akoma has undertaken targeted university recruiting through partnerships with student organizations. A global internship program is also in development.

Within in-house PR departments, Bloom says demand for talent has been driven by internal changes at all levels, the value placed on corporate communications, the creation of new departments, and shifts in operating structure. “Our searches for clients have been less about staffing up [after years of cutbacks] than an increase in new positions caused by what is happening with the company's business goals,” she notes.

Last June, Sara Lee split into two companies: Hillshire Brands, which includes its meat and frozen baked goods, and DE Master Blenders 1753, a coffee and tea business headquartered overseas.

“It was a unique year for us,” says Jon Harris, SVP and CCO at Hillshire Brands. “In addition to splitting the communications function, we had to take the remnants of a big bureaucratic company and become a fast-paced, entrepreneurial-minded, lean publicly traded organization that is now Hillshire Brands.”

After evaluating both the short- and long-term needs of the company, Harris made two significant hires: senior manager of communications to handle external corporate communications – a role that now encompasses corporate charitable contributions – and manager of internal communications, bringing the number of Hillshire's communications team to nine.

Given that staff on his team are often called to work cross-discipline, from crisis and sustainability communications to speechwriting and traditional media relations, “candidates I interview or even recommend to other companies need to be well-rounded,” he says. “That caters to the ever-changing needs of an organization.”

A perfect blend
Following a company-wide restructure in the mid-2000s that resulted in deep cuts to its communications department, Ford adopted a marcomms model that blended its internal staff with talent from its various WPP agencies, including Burson-Marsteller and Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “That shifted us from a communications team that historically played defense to one playing offense,” says Ray Day, group VP of communications for the Dearborn, MI-based automaker.

The approach has been credited internally for helping turn around the company and the communications department has in turn been awarded with an increased budget. The unit now has three strategic objectives: improve Ford's reputation among all stakeholders; work hand in hand with marketing to improve purchase consideration; and expand Ford's communications ability and expertise through staffing.

“We know we can't achieve objectives one and two without being serious about number three,” asserts Day.

Ford has partnered with New York-based executive search firm Heyman Associates on a global basis to help tap new hires for the communications department, as well as develop existing team members.

“Ford is not wed to the notion that people have to come in with previous automotive experience because the company already has an incredible depth of people who know the business,” says Bill Heyman, president of his eponymous recruitment company. “One of the people we placed there, for example, has strong consumer experience in the toy business.”

Day says there is a commonality in new hires: they possess strong strategic thinking skills, an aggressive mindset, and the proven ability to forge well-connected relationships. New staff have come in at all levels and areas, including on the product and corporate side.

Ford also takes a serious look at internal candidates, which bodes well for retention. In fact, a third of all positions Heyman has worked on with Ford have ended up being filled by existing employees. 

“We try to give Ford a strong basis of comparison with the external job market,” explains Heyman. “After surveying talent from outside, we sometimes find people inside are better suited to the position. Maybe it was somebody they were planning on promoting in a year, but end up doing so now because of their own internal evaluation.”

The search for satisfaction
Compensation continues a steady ascent that first began in 2009, reaching its highest levels since the 2006 survey. The median salary in 2012 was $95,000, up from $90,000 in 2011, $87,000 in 2010, and $82,000 in 2009. 

Nevertheless, recruiters, along with agency and in-house hiring decision-makers, say the retention and attraction of top talent has less to do with compensation than in other boom times.

“I would say salary demands have been reasonable compared to a couple of years ago when I was on the agency side,” says Paul Taaffe, who joined Groupon as global
head of communications last February, 13 months after resigning as global chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton, as it was then known.

In his current role at the daily deals company, he is helping build the communications function, which currently has about 20 employees. Taaffe has seen what he calls an “amazingly rich talent pool from which to draw,” and notes PR and communications practitioners have adopted “a new realism” to their job search.

“People are looking for the kind of place that will give them the most interesting experience and learning,” he explains. “They also want to be able to enjoy the people with whom they are working.”

When Legacy posts an open position, McLaughlin says she is always impressed by the pool of applicants “who run the gamut of background and experience levels.” She worked on the agency side and was a journalist before joining the nonprofit in 2002.

“Many people who want to get involved in nonprofit work have a personal stake, and that is true of many of the staff here,” adds McLaughlin, who notes salaries in the nonprofit PR arena tend to cover all ranges depending largely on an organization's scale and operating budget.

Lucrative offers
Of survey respondents who willingly left their previous employer in the past 12 months, only 9% of them did so for more money or a better package, down from 14% in the 2012 survey. In fact, 53% of PR pros say they would consider a reduced or equal salary at a different company to ensure job satisfaction.

That is not to say compensation is not important. However, survey results clearly indicate candidates wish to make moves that align with their career objectives, as opposed to doing so strictly for financial reasons.

“During the dot-com era, when people changed jobs every six months, people were going after titles and money,” recalls Heyman. “After the financial meltdown, people became risk-averse when it came to changing jobs.”

“Human beings are still going to be focused on compensation,” he notes, “but in terms of making sure the job is secure and something they can count on. [Job change] is now about building your career.”

After seven years with Discover Financial Services, where she was VP of corporate communications, Kathryn Beiser made a move in December to Hilton Worldwide. While she enjoyed her role at Discover and was not looking to depart, she accepted Hilton's offer in large part because
PR is highly valued as a strategic management function.

As EVP of corporate communications for Hilton – a new position at the executive level – Beiser is responsible for external and internal communications and CSR globally. She reports directly to Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta and is on the executive committee.

“In this industry, we have learned how to lead without titles or technical power, but compensation and title is a terrific signal Hilton places on our function,” says Beiser. “I'll be able to achieve more here because of that stated value that says to the organization, ‘PR is important.'”

In meeting with members of the senior team, she found her professional goals aligned with the company vision. “They are all about winning,” she notes. “That vision stuck with me in terms of what I wanted to do in my own career. I like to get on board with a really compelling vision and be part of making it happen.”

Being social
For the first time, this year's survey asked respondents about social media and 74% rate their social media skills as good or outstanding. Of those, 40% feel their social media skills have had a tangible impact on their pay.

Groupon is a tech company, yet it doesn't require potential hires to have previous tech experience, Taaffe says, adding, “You can't operate here, however, without having in-depth experience in social media.”

He notes that while some candidates he has met have positioned themselves on paper as having considerable social media skills, “sometimes it comes out pretty quickly in conversation that they really don't.”

MSLGroup's Lilien echoes his words, “Social media is now table stakes in the same way media relations and strong writing skills are.”

She says compensation can sometimes be higher when hiring a strong social media strategist versus comparable roles of experience. That's because many of the top candidates work at social media agencies and typically their “salary demands are higher” than candidates sourced from other channels. “Their salaries are very competitive because they are, in many cases, at smaller firms where they have advanced very quickly,” explains Lilien. 

Britt Zarling, director of global strategic communications and thought-leadership strategy for workforce solutions provider ManpowerGroup, says, “The more you can bring in terms of skills and capabilities the more valuable of an asset you become. There's no doubt social media expertise can increase compensation.

“However, I would not say go out and become solely an expert in social media just because of compensation,” she notes, explaining that a lot of companies will decide they don't need someone full-time dedicated to social media, but rather someone who has it as part of their toolbox.

In addition to social media acuity, candidates with an MBA may increasingly find they have the upper hand in career advancement, believes Phil Carpenter, senior partner and GM, San Francisco at Allison+Partners, who in addition to San Francisco manages the San Diego, Seattle, and Los Angeles offices.

“In our industry, it's the exception rather than the rule to find people with formal business training,” notes Carpenter, who has an MBA in marketing from Harvard. “As the sector grows, though, it will become advantageous to have that kind of education. Those candidates can come in and say, ‘Look, not only do I know how to do PR well, but I am interested in helping build client business and have the skills to do it.'

“People who have graduate training in business can speak the client language,” he adds. “You have a further advantage if you also worked on the client side because they feel you have walked in their shoes, know the pressure they are under, and understand them.”

Of those with any type of master's degree 26% have an MBA, the survey found. Of that, 72% feel it has had a tangible impact on their compensation.

Leveraging education
Still, as advantageous as it can be, Bloom doubts it will become an industry requirement.

“People with an advanced degree have been able to leverage what they've learned in moving up and around,” she explains. “However, when companies come to us and say, ‘We want very bright people,' they don't usually require them to have a graduate degree. Companies will look at their SAT scores and college GPA.”

In its almost dozen interviews with recruiters and hiring decision-makers, PRWeek also asked what qualities, if any, are lacking in candidates in the job market.

At press time, ManpowerGroup had a position open for a global communications manager. Part of the reason it had yet to be filled, says Zarling, is because candidates she has considered so far lack two critical skills.

One is a demonstrated rigor and “pure thrill of the hunt” in landing editorial coverage. The other is the ability to make relevant connections between what a company does and the external world from an economic perspective.

“There is this mindset that goes, ‘I am a PR person, I can sell anything.' The reality, though, is journalists have become so squeezed that the only way a PR person can relate a story to them is by starting with an external view and then explaining how this view connects to the company,” says Zarling. “You need to be a follower of
what is going on in the world.”

Hilton's Beiser worries that great writing skills are being lost as work has become so wired.

“No matter how we change as a discipline, we can't forget there are some communication skills in which we must excel,” she advises. “We must set the standard of writing clearly, persuasively, and appropriately for whatever stakeholder group.”

Retaining talent
A confident employee expects compensation beyond base salary. And offerings such as medical coverage, 401Ks, and performance-related bonuses – which 95%, 92%, and 86% of survey respondents, respectively, deem most important to them – remain crucial to any such package.

However, firms realize today's PR pro expects additional incentives – and they are obliging in an effort to attract and retain top performers.

At Allison+Partners, for instance, staff receive a one-month paid sabbatical after five years of employment. This past summer, Carpenter spent his time off in Australia and New Zealand caving and scuba diving with his wife and teenage children. One staffer worked on a screenplay, another at a lion rehabilitation preserve in Africa.

“It's a benefit that used to be more common at places such as Apple and Intel, but has gone by the wayside,” he notes. “These are the kind of benefits that keep people here long term and rejuvenated.”

Career path
In addition to perks like flexible hours and telecommuting, Hillshire Brands' Harris makes it a priority to show a career path to his staff. In addition to providing training and mentorship, he brings in outside experts from various other sectors and industries to share their strategies.

“In an era where the job market is opening up, you must keep things competitive,” he asserts. “One way to do that is through external education. I hope my staffers never leave. If they do, my goal is to have them leave better equipped than when they came in.”

The good news for recruiters and hiring decision-makers is that they are not at any great risk of losing talent to other fields of work. Seventy-five percent of respondents say they are fully committed to a career in PR and communications. Even so, the survey found only 34% feel the profession is highly respected.

Sources interviewed for this feature agree that sentiment may have more to do with long-held insecurities of the profession rather than the new reality. As Bloom says, “There may be a bit of an internal identity issue that as a profession we need to address because I see the respect. In my 25 years of recruiting in this profession, there has been an overwhelming improvement in the role, value, and status of PR and corporate communications.”

And that should only continue to fuel the confidence among PR pros – not to mention their job prospects.

The PRWeek/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey was conducted by Bovitz. Email notification was sent to approximately 50,115 PR professionals and a survey link was posted to PRWeek's website and various social media channels. A total of 1,071 PR professionals completed the online survey between November 27 and December 18, 2012.

Results are not weighted and are statistically tested at confidence levels of 90% and 95%. This article offers a summary of findings. Additional charts and findings are available for purchase in the premium edition of the Salary Survey, which will be available at prweekus.com/salarysurvey.

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