A booming PR job market, but...

The federal government's industry employment numbers only tell part of the story.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

The Labor Department’s employment figures for December, released on Friday morning, paint a strong jobs picture for the past decade. Employers have created jobs for a record 10 years, the longest stretch in eight decades, although the 145,000 jobs added in December was lower than what economists had predicted. Unemployment remains at a 50-year low of 3.5%. 

The statistics show a similarly rosy situation for the PR industry. November numbers show PR agency employment dipped to 64,000 from an all-time high in October of 64,300 people. (The Labor Department releases sector-specific statistics a month after its general employment report). However, that is up 32% compared to 10 years ago, when the country was coming out of the Great Recession and 48,100 people worked at PR firms, according to the Labor Department. Growth year-over-year since 2009 has been steady, save for 2017 when employment at PR agencies retracted by 2%. 

The most robust growth came in 2018 when employment recovered from that dip with a 9% uptick. 

Any industry would be ecstatic with more than 30% growth over a 10-year period, and for marcomms agencies, it is especially good news. Ad agencies, while employing many more people than PR firms, had more modest growth during this same time period, according to statistics cited by AdAge. 

And experts note that the PR industry could actually be outperforming the Labor Department numbers in one way. Both recruiters and agency executives contend that communications shops in the U.S. employ more people than the 64,000 cited by the feds. The downside is that the industry’s growth is being hampered by the difficulty of finding talent. 

Experts say that the definition of "PR agency" used by the federal government is too narrow to be truly representative of the industry. The Labor Department uses employment codes to define a "PR agency" that include lobbying services; lobbyists’ offices; political consulting services; and PR agencies, PR consulting services and PR services.

Left out are firms that consider themselves social media or digital shops, which are categorized as ad agencies even if they play mostly in influencer relations and earned media. The same goes for consultancies that lean toward earned media expertise.   

Jim Delulio, president of recruitment firm PR Talent, notes that the "gig economy" is also not included in PR agency employment numbers. 

"My gut tells me you have many more freelancers out there doing PR work, but freelancers wouldn’t be classified as an agency," Delulio says. 

Definitions aside, executives note it is difficult to find the right talent. 

"Our scope in communications has continually expanded as an industry, as our capabilities have expanded digitally, socially, strategically, creatively and analytically," says Jim Joseph, global president at BCW. "We need not only more people and headcount, but different kinds of skills working differently together." 

Growing pains

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data at least gives the industry a general baseline of growth, and one that is being driven by smaller agencies. 

"The lion’s share of the growth over the past 10 years has been from boutique and smaller agencies," asserts Karen Bloom, principal at recruitment firm Bloom, Gross & Associates. "I used to pride myself years ago in thinking I knew all the names of the agencies out there, but even in my home city of Chicago, there are so many new agencies on the scene and a lot of diversity in their approach to PR." 

Yet she adds that these firms aren’t able to expand headcount as quickly as they’d like, despite client demand and an economy that is firing on all cylinders. "There just isn’t enough talent to go around," Bloom says.  

That’s one explanation for why PR agency employment has only grown this year through November by 2%. Meanwhile, agencies aren’t just competing with each other for talent, but also with in-house departments.

Scott Allison, chairman and CEO at Allison+Partners, says his firm had a strong year in 2019, but "we could have grown even more had we been able to find enough qualified people," noting that competing with in-house departments is "very, very difficult." 

"[There is] a massive expansion in the numbers within internal comms teams. For some of these large in-house teams, PR agencies are their hunting grounds to fill positions," he says. "You could argue that in some cases we’ve become like a farm system for clients." 

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