This past November, amid a very tight U.S. labor market, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.1% nationally and to historic lows in some states.
However, that hasn’t translated into sizable wage increases for the 1,053 comms pros that took the 2018 PRWeek/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey.
While the median annual salary in PR did rise from $89,000 to $95,000, year over year, increases were notably down — 6.7% this year versus 10.3% in the 2017 survey.
In addition, more respondents reported their salary as flat or down year over year (29% in 2018 versus 23% in 2017).
This development does not surprise Karen Bloom, principal at recruitment firm Bloom, Gross & Associates.
"People keep pointing to the drop in the unemployment level as a reason raises should be higher, but a big reason for the dip is that Baby Boomers are retiring and leaving the workforce," she explains. "Numerous dynamics are plaguing the labor force, including in comms."
Another factor is the percentage increase in labor costs outstripping that of revenue. A number of companies have made public their concern about this shift.
With corporate spending under the microscope, the PR industry is responding by looking to boost and prove productivity, while keeping the compensation cost center in check.
Making us smarter
PR agencies and in-house comms departments are doubling down on new tech and methodologies to help staffers better analyze programs and demonstrate the discipline’s bottom-line impact.
"We have invested heavily over the past year in data, research, and analytics," says Golin co-CEO Gary Rudnick.
A head of data was among several hires the firm made this past year. Golin also funded its first relevance survey.
"It’s about making us smarter, nailing the right insights for clients, and proving the value of our efforts," says Rudnick, noting he’s seen other firms investing significantly in their research and analytics capabilities.
Clients, meanwhile, are increasingly looking to improve productivity with department restructuring that brings together comms, marketing, digital, and sales.
A lot of corporations are moving to a content marketing structure because a content marketing structure is good for PR people as storytellersLaura Kane, PRSA
Laura Kane, SVP and CCO for the PRSA, notes interest is higher than ever in reorganizations among its members. "A lot of corporations are moving to a content marketing structure," she adds.
Kane sees this as a potential boon for comms "because a content marketing structure is good for PR people as storytellers."
Still, she continues, generous salary hikes for existing staff were likely stemmed to ensure "doers" such as writers, editors, and video producers had the resources to execute their content marcomms strategies.
"A lot of those jobs are going to freelancers," Kane reports, "and that is having an impact on how clients fund and envision their departments."
Bloom certainly sees PR’s pursuit of greater efficiency, in part with a rethinking of staff makeup.
She notes a clear increase in the amount of companies asking questions such as "How can we combine some roles," "How can we run leaner," and "Can we hire more junior people and doers and skim off some of the more expensive senior people and strategic thinkers?"
While letting senior people go could create a leadership void, Bloom suspects some clients "had too many people with big salaries who were allowed to stay in positions longer than they should have."
Once that shakeup plays out, Bloom says younger and mid-level people should start seeing larger salary increases.
"They are producing good work," she observes. "Companies know the importance of giving this talent opportunity and not slowing down their progress."
Median year-on-year salary increases were down across the board, except in-house, where they rose — albeit marginally — to 10%, from 9.1% last year.
"We didn’t see a dramatic change one way or the other in terms of our merit pool," reports Pete Marino, chief public affairs and comms officer at MillerCoors.
However, the brand did evaluate and restructure its comms function in 2017, largely due to going from a joint venture between Molson Coors and SABMiller to a wholly owned subsidiary of the former.
"We looked at what skill sets the combined organization would have, figured out where the gaps were, and how we could fill them," he explains.
Kim Marotta and Natalia Lau moved from sustainability roles at MillerCoors to become the global sustainability team for Molson Coors.
Meanwhile, MillerCoors beefed up its content creation chops with a new role: comms manager, editorial, responsible for the brand’s blog efforts. The role is currently filled by former Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Peter Frost, who joined in July.
Marino hasn’t budgeted for additional people in 2018. "This will be a year of status quo and optimizing what we have and how we do it," he says.
In terms of optimization, Marino says the company will train PR staffers beyond their functional skills and get them working with other departments.
"It is important our people get different experiences and lend a hand in parts of the marketing world they’re not necessarily comfortable in, such as working with our brand team," he advises.
Of course, budget tightening in the client world ripples down to agency partners.
"Firms have always been asked to do more with less," says Rudnick. And when clients squeeze budgets, agency people can feel stressed.
This is why "recognizing and celebrating exceptional work is important, regardless of budgets or pullbacks," he adds. "People notice and appreciate that."
That’s also why investment in PR measurement is so crucial now. "The more and better the data to support us," says Rudnick, "the stronger the work."
And if that is the result, there is reason to be confident salaries will increase at greater rates.
Minding the gap
Legislation across the U.S. aims to address gender pay inequality with bans on salary-history questions. The jury is out, however, on how effective this will be.
Employers pay heed: ask potential hires about their current or previous compensation packages and you could be breaking the law.
A ban on compensation-history inquiries is already in effect in New York City, California, and Delaware. Legislation in Massachusetts and Oregon will also prohibit employers from this line of questioning starting July 1, 2018 and January 1, 2019, respectively.
Like-minded legislation is pending in other states and cities. It could sweep the U.S. as a measure toward helping to right gender pay inequity, says Karen Bloom.
Tackling an historic challenge
"It’s one of the biggest challenges we’ve had in the employment market in a long time," she notes.
Even in a female-dominated industry such as communications, the pay gap is wide.
According to the 2018 Salary Survey, the median salary for a female was $88,000; for men it was $123,000. Females with five-plus years’ experience also reported much lower compensation than their male counterparts: $100,000 versus $135,000.
Recruitment firms such as Bloom’s have historically helped clients with salary offers based on what the candidate’s currently earning, what they’re looking to earn, and what the job will bear.
Now some companies are proactively taking the first factor out of the equation.
Take Wells Fargo. When New York City implemented its ban on October 31, 2017, the financial institution complied by instituting a companywide, nationwide ban.
"Wells Fargo will not request an external job candidate’s current or historical compensation, regardless of specific state legislation," says Michael McCoy, Wells Fargo’s VP/mid-Atlantic corporate comms manager. "The legislation supports our commitment to diversity and inclusion and fair and equitable compensation practices."
Other major corporations are fighting the ban. Comcast is among the companies behind a legal challenge against a salary history ban in Philadelphia led by the city’s Chamber of Commerce. The law had been scheduled to take effect in May 2017 and would have been the first in the U.S.
Bloom confirms there is also the worry that new male hires could end up making more under this ban, since they wouldn’t have to share their salary histories either. In that respect, the legislation could fail in its actual mission of closing the pay gap.
"The law isn’t just don’t ask the women, but you can’t ask anybody," she points out. "The impact will be fascinating to watch."
Manage your career
Forty-four percent of respondents cite management skills as the top attribute for career advancement in PR. How can hirers identify that ability in potential candidates? Two senior leaders share their insights with PRWeek.
In the search for that one key skill that would be most helpful to advancement in the PR world, you might expect digital acumen, content creation ability, or some other "modern" talent would be the most important criteria.
While those attributes surely factor, nearly half (44%) of the respondents to the Salary Survey cited management skills as the top attribute that leads to career advancement. (And the importance of that skill in the eyes of respondents is amplified by the fact that the next highest-rated attribute was written communications at 25%.)
Top agency and in-house executives agree that management skills are huge factors when they consider potential promotions or new hires, even at junior levels.
"Sure, you’re looking to see someone meets the technical qualifications, but after that it’s about management and leadership skills, without a doubt," says Jim Joseph, global CEO at Citizen Relations.
Those in leadership positions set the overall vision, he adds, but it is managers who help execute on that vision, by providing direction, course correction, and review to account and creative teams.
"The really good folks have both managerial and leadership skills, and can go back and forth depending on the situation," explains Joseph. "The key for any organization is to have the right mix, between leaders, managers, and subject-matter experts."
Joseph says it’s not easy to suss out that potential with unfamiliar candidates.
"It is hard. Definitely an art, not a science, in PR, because it is also about strategy, ideation, client service, managing process, and asset management, rather than something tangible," he adds.
Questions can offer answers
Jerilan Greene, global CCO at Yum Brands – which owns restaurant brands KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell – agrees that identifying people with the ability to manage is "very important. We recruit for leadership potential and demonstrated coaching ability, along with technical skills for the job."
"As with any skill or talent, some people are naturally better than others at managing," she says. "However, with self-awareness and clear intention to grow professionally and personally, every employee or manager has the potential to be a stronger developer and leader of people."
When it comes to determining the skill for new hires, Yum Brands also has candidates interview with a diverse slate of people.
Candidates should also know – it pays to not be shy, so ask questions. One sign of management acuity that can be evident during the job-interview process is a candidate that asks strong questions and inquires a lot, explains Greene. In addition, you look for "clear evidence of setting and executing strategies, avid learning, and influencing business outcomes in a tangible way."