Exclusive: Corporate comms salary growth falls and women bear the brunt of cuts

Corporate comms salary growth fell during 2020, and agency staff were nearly twice as likely as those in-house to have taken a pay cut. Women in the sector have borne the financial brunt, according to an authoritative study shown exclusively to PRWeek.

(pic credit: Getty)
(pic credit: Getty)

The annual ‘Salary Guide’, by specialist recruitment firm The Works Search, gathered data on 2,000 corporate comms professionals and surveyed 400 people to provide a picture of salaries, bonuses and benefits for staff working in-house or in agencies.

The data and survey cover the turbulent 12-month period of January to December 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

Demographics

Of those who were surveyed, 62 per cent were female and 38 per cent were male. Nearly 90 per cent of all survey respondents were white, while those from Asian backgrounds made up approximately 5 per cent of those surveyed and one per cent were black.

Women in their 30s and men aged between 40 and 55 made up the vast majority of those surveyed, and about 80 per cent were in full-time employment and worked in London.

Salaries down

The report found that average salary increases across the board were down from 5.5 per cent in 2019 to three per cent in 2020. The effect of the pandemic was that companies were forced to pare back salaries, The Works Search said, and the average salary increased by £1,500.

Across the board, 63 per cent of those surveyed said they were happy with their pay, down two percentage points on the previous year.

In-house salaries

In several ways, in-house corporate comms teams fared better than their agency counterparts during 2020, with only five per cent reporting a drop in salary compared to nine per cent of the latter group.

Average salary increases for in-house staff were down from 5.5 per cent in the previous study to three per cent, with an average increase across the board of £1,500.

However, some in-house grades bucked the trend, with those at the top receiving five per cent and those near the bottom receiving eight per cent salary hikes.

The average salary for a comms director was £145,000, up from £136,000 last year, while a PR officer’s average salary rose from £35,000 to £38,000.

Agency salaries

Salaries for corporate comms professionals in agencies increased by an average of more than £4,000 across the board, compared with 2019, but when salaries for the most senior people in agencies was stripped out, the average salary decreased by £1,600.

Although chief executive respondents to the survey reported a salary drop of six per cent, the report authors' data showed that the average salary in 2020 for that level was £200,000, up from £182,000 the previous year.

It was a similar story for those at board director level, with people at this level telling the survey their salary had increased by only one per cent. However, the average salary for board directors rose from £121,000 in 2019 to £158,000 in 2020.

Mid-level client-handlers, such as associate directors and senior account directors, were hardest hit. The former's average salary shrank from £62,000 to £56,000 in 2020, while the latter dropped from an average of £54,000 to £51,000 over the same period.

Salary changes

The survey of corporate comms professionals revealed the differences in how agencies and in-house teams had fared during 2020.

Only 60 per cent of those working in-house reported an increase in salary, compared to 77 per cent the year before.

However, in-house still fared better than agency staff, with only 53 per cent of respondents telling the survey they received a salary increase, compared to 71 per cent the year before.

A slightly higher percentage of those working in agencies reported that their salary remained static, but nine per cent of agency professionals told the survey their salary fell in 2020, while only five per cent of in-house staff said the same.

Pay cuts

Many working in the PR and comms industry were asked to take temporary pay cuts last year as employers struggled to balance the books during the worst of the pandemic restrictions, and corporate comms professionals were no exception.

While 10 per cent of in-house respondents were asked to take a pay cut, nearly a quarter of all those working in agencies were asked to do the same.

The report authors said the finding reflected The Works Search's knowledge of the sector, as corporate comms agencies lost client revenue in the wake of the economic turbulence caused by the pandemic, with some reporting drops of up to 30 per cent.

In response to the uncertainty; employers rushed to reduce costs, freelancers were let go, and employees were asked to take significant pay cuts.

Of those who reported taking a temporary pay cut, nearly 60 per cent across the board had seen their original salaries restored up to six months later, while 20 per cent not only had their full salary restored, the shortfall was also paid back to them.

However, 22 per cent of those who took pay cuts said they were still earning a reduced salary and the report authors said this was causing people to consider moving job.

Of the respondents who did move jobs last year, 54 per cent of those from agency backgrounds did so because their job was made redundant, compared to 20 per cent of those working in-house.

Women hardest hit

By every metric in the report, women in corporate comms fared worse than their male counterparts during 2020.

While 12 per cent of men were asked to take temporary pay cuts, 16 per cent of women were asked to do the same.

The report authors suggested this was because women had taken a disproportionate share of childcare and home-schooling duties while schools were closed and were forced to request reduced working hours.

In addition, women returning from maternity leave during the pandemic may have felt that a salary reduction was preferable to being made redundant.

The authors stated that a lack of childcare support during the pandemic may have set women’s career prospects back more than those of men.

Female respondents were almost twice as likely to be made redundant as the men, with 6.5 per cent telling the survey this happened to them compared to 3.5 per cent of male respondents.

For those who did receive a salary increase in 2020, the average for men was 3.26 per cent, while the average for women was 2.96 per cent. This is equivalent to £360 a year more for men, based on a salary of £120,000.

On bonuses, 68 per cent of men received one in 2020 compared to 54 per cent of women, while more than twice the percentage of women than men reported that their bonus was cancelled last year.

Commenting on the disparity, Sarah Leembruggen, managing director of The Works Search, said: “It’s disheartening to see just how badly women have fared, just when we had started to tiptoe towards closing the gender pay gap. Now it looks as though we have taken quite a few steps back.”

She added: “Employers needs to rethink their approach, especially towards their female employees, as the market starts to settle and move forward more confidently again. It’s disgruntled employees who move jobs, which is far most costly than looking after your people in the first place.”

Bonuses

Nearly two-thirds of in-house professionals received a bonus in 2020, compared to 58 per cent of those working in agencies.

In the top rank for in-house, just over two-thirds of comms directors received a bonus, nearly 30 per cent did not and four per cent saw their bonus cancelled.

But for those comms directors who did receive a bonus, the average was a quarter of their annual salary.

In the lower ranks, a quarter of PR officers told the survey their 2020 bonus was cancelled, while 20 per cent did receive a bonus.

Agency-side, fewer bonuses were paid at every level of seniority than in 2019.

Managing directors and senior account executives fared best, with 80 per cent of these grades telling the survey they received a bonus.

Although less than half of all board directors received a bonus, they received an average of 44 per cent of their annual salary, which was higher than those of either greater or lesser seniority.

Benefits

For in-house teams, the proportion receiving benefits aimed at supporting their mental health and wellbeing increased, compared to 2019; a reflection of the stressful conditions imposed by working through the pandemic.

The provision of private health insurance provision, enhanced sick pay and cycle schemes were up, while annual season ticket loans, fresh fruit and free breakfasts were, understandably, down

For agency staff, mental health and wellbeing benefits were also up compared to 2019, as were time-off-in-lieu and sabbatical policies.

But the provision of private dental insurance to agency staff plummeted, and private health insurance for employees was also down.

Sarah Leembruggen
Sarah Leembruggen

Leembruggen (above) concluded: “It’s been a turbulent time for corporate comms professionals. Salaries, bonuses and benefits have been affected across the board. Agency professionals have borne the brunt of the impact of the pandemic, and the lost revenue and uncertainty. In-house comms professionals have been affected, too, but nowhere near the extent of their agency counterparts, making it feel like a ‘safer’ place to be.”

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