However, there has been a price to pay for this stability. Workers have found themselves having to put in extra hours, and their sense of wellbeing has suffered as a result.
The PRWeek Salary Survey 2006 reveals that while remuneration and benefits have continued their march towards pre-downturn levels – with few practitioners reporting salary cuts – many PROs are getting more and more stressed.
Consultancy chairmen, managing directors and CEOs have enjoyed much better pay rises this year. In last year's report, 47 per cent of workers in this category said they earned £60,000 or more a year – the figure for 2006 is 63 per cent.
Account directors, too, have seen a marginal improvement, with six per cent earning £60,000 or more per annum, compared with five per cent in our report last year.
The public sector is also enjoying a positive period, with evidence of growth in some salary bands. Forty-two per cent of practitioners in this sector said their salaries had increased, while only 13 per cent saw a decrease.
To see who we polled and their fields of practice, see the boxes on page 31 and 33.
One of the clearest indications of a more stable market is the fact that many fewer people reported a salary cut this year.
Last year, five per cent of practitioners had seen their salary cut in the previous six months. This year the figure is just one per cent.
'Last year was more stable in salary terms than we had expected; confidence hit a plateau more easily than we had hoped and 2006 is looking very encouraging,' says Libby Trace, deputy managing director at recruitment specialist Price Trace Hawkes.
But the survey goes into greater detail than just remuneration cuts and increases. Issues surrounding working conditions feature prominently this year.
For example, while pay is back on the up, it is certainly not coming without a cost. Our poll shows an interesting trend – that the UK's long-hours working culture is writ large in the PR industry.
For the second successive year, a significant proportion of respondents claimed to be committed to longer working weeks. This year, more than a third of those polled (35 per cent) reported an increase in hours – in 2004 the figure was 43 per cent. Just nine per cent of respondents said they worked fewer hours, which is no improvement on the situation a year ago. Predictably, consultancy was the sector with the greatest rise in hours worked, with 41 per cent of consultancy practitioners saying they were working more hours. Only six per cent said they were working fewer. In 2004, 11 per cent of consultancy staff said their hours had fallen.
Nor do the in-house departments get away lightly. One third of respondents in both public and private sectors said they were working longer hours than they did a year ago.
Pushed too far?
According to Justin Kent, managing director of PR recruitment specialist PRJS, these results mirror his experience. 'People are seriously weighing up the hours they are being expected to work with how much they are being paid to do them,' he says.
'Historically some PROs left the industry in their thirties to pursue
other, better-paid careers, but this age appears to be lowering to 25. People are far more aware of what is out there and what they are worth.'
The survey also reveals the PR working day to be intense, with few
opportunities for breaks (see charts on this page). Across the industry, an astonishing 72 per cent of respondents claimed they did not take a lunch break every day. This does not seem to be
restricted to junior roles either. More consultancy MDs and in-house directors of comms this year said they did not have time to take a break: 63 per cent of consultancy MDs said they skipped regular breaks in last year's poll, with 79 per cent this year reporting lack of off-time; the figure for in-house directors rose from 80 per cent to 82 per cent).
'Fewer people are doing more work as companies keep labour costs down,' explains Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster Management School.
'Directors are now into "performance management"; mix this with job insecurity and you have the seeds of a long-hours culture.'
Cooper says the long-term effect of this trend on individuals can only be damaging: 'Long hours mean more illnesses and damaged relationships, and research is increasingly pointing to lower productivity.
'But this long-hours culture shows no sign of decline in the UK, especially for industries such as PR, which are a part of the all-pervasive 24/7 media environment.'
This argument is borne out by the numbers of respondents who indicated high levels of stress at work. Eighty-eight per cent said their job was either 'fairly' or 'very' stressful (one per
cent higher than a year ago), while 44 per cent said the amount of stress they experienced had increased in the past 12 months. Fewer people this year said their stress had lessened (see above).
The most stressed practitioners were consultancy account managers and those in more junior roles – every respondent in both categories indicated an increase in stress. It is worth noting, however, that such high percentages could be a reflection of the lower number of junior respondents this year.
So are these rises in hours and stress really being offset by greater reward? This year it is a difficult question to answer because the make-up of respondents, in terms of areas of practice, has varied from last year – details of perks for specific job titles are therefore hard to compare.
It is worth examining broader sector changes. Although public sector salaries are generally on the up, this may be slightly deceptive as only six per cent of PROs in this area received a pay rise of more than £5,000. The largest chunk of respondents (28 per cent) were in the second smallest pay-rise bracket – between £500 and £1,000. This contrasts with the consultancy side, where the majority (again 28 per cent) were in the highest pay-rise bracket of more than £5,000 (see p31).
In the highest earning bracket in public sector departments, a slight fall on last year is recorded, with only four per cent of respondents reporting wages of £80,000 or more, compared with five per cent previously.
Headcounts across all three sectors – consultancy, public sector and private sector – were at healthy levels, although each sector performed differently for different reasons. Staffing in the in-house private sector was up in only a third of departments – significantly lower than in consultancies (48 per cent) and the in-house public sector (42 per cent).
Former RAC communications director Neil Lovell explains that the business environment of 2005 forced many PR departments to pare down their resources.
'The days of the very large in-house function are in the past. It is seen as a luxury,' he says. 'The business environment last year was very tough and people were expected to do a lot more with a lot less. In recruitment terms it meant getting the right people for the right job.'
'This means you are paying more for better skills to build a more effective team than you had previously. You also need to incentivise teams a lot more,' he adds.
'Health cover and good pensions are seen as entry-level perks. But candidates are looking more for a combination of short-term benefits, such as an annual bonus, and long-term benefits, such as share options, as well as bonuses that reward continued commitment.'
Donal McCabe, head of financial media relations at Boots, agrees that in-house private sector staff are now expected to handle more responsibilities than previously, and that this trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
'In the past five or six years, in-house PR has become a tightly run ship. There is a generation of people coming up who are used to it, and that's how they will take things forward,' McCabe argues.
By contrast, the public sector's more youthful, growing relationship with PR has kept the recruitment market comparatively strong.
Essex County Council head of media Chris Palmer says: 'Communications has moved up the agenda in local government as the link between performance and comms is better understood. I suspect this is particularly the case in smaller councils, such as some of the district councils, where comms may have been seen as a luxury in the past.'
He claims the trend is likely to continue: 'I can see this becoming
more pronounced in the next three or four years as the Audit Commission emphasises the importance of public perception in its new model of performance assessment.'
Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council head of marketing and communications Ian Ratcliffe attributes the increase in staffing levels to the vast changes taking place in the sector. 'Public sector organisations have needed to tell people internally about how and when these assessment changes will affect them, and staff need to be informed at every stage of change,' he says.
Salary reviews have also begun to creep back into the picture. In the last PRWeek Salary Survey, ten per cent of respondents said salary reviews had been frozen. This year the figure is seven per cent, a further sign of the gradual stabilisation happening in the industry.
Although consultancies were the worst hit by salary review freezes (11 per cent), in some high-growth sectors such as technology, salaries have risen. Kristin Syltevik, MD of technology PR agency Hotwire, says: 'This sector is very competitive in terms of people
because there is a lack of high-quality, qualified people in the industry, and so salaries are continuing to increase.'
Hotwire announced in February last year that it would offer its graduate recruits a starting salary of £20,000, claiming this would break the ceiling of graduate salaries in the consultancy sector. 'Because candidates know the recruitment market is so competitive they are playing off each other for the best offer,' Syltevik reveals.
Kent, meanwhile, believes more agencies are having to follow suit,
creating a virtuous circle of attracting better people: 'It's no coincidence that PR agencies offering the most attractive pay perform the best. They get good people, and then good people
attract other good people. More people need to realise this and follow suit.'
Across consultancy and in-house positions, expectations of large or moderate pay rises this year are fairly high. For example, an average of 21 per cent of PROs across all sectors polled expected a pay rise of between £1,000 and £1,499, while ten per cent overall anticipated between £2,000 and £2,499. Bullishness is particularly high in the private sector, where 14 per cent of respondents expected rises of between £2,500 and £2,999. But Boots' McCabe warns that such high expectations should be tempered with a dose of market realism.
He says the high expectations in the private sector were most likely
being driven by the high level of corporate activity in 2005, particularly the mergers and takeovers which made it 'a bumper year'. But he adds: 'You should never take salary increases for granted.
'Most companies are operating in competitive markets and, although PR is important, it is not always seen as front line and we often have to fight to explain the value of what we are doing.'
With salaries only gradually moving upwards, employers have to improve the range of benefits they offer in order to recruit and retain staff. Flexible working was requested by 25 per cent of respondents in the survey, and is a matter of increasing concern for employers.
But Price Trace Hawkes' Trace says that while many employers have recognised the need to offer improved benefits in order to attract and retain the right staff, many are proving reluctant to meet all requests for flexible working.
A bit of give and take
'Flexibility is an increasingly prominent topic in the PR job market. But it is a topic, not necessarily an option,' she says. 'The market is divided between people who want to work flexibly and think it will become more part of the working culture, and employers who think the opposite. These employers believe staff should stay in the workplace because flexible working can be disruptive to team work and time-consuming.'
For those companies that have embraced flexibility, it has meant a change in company culture. Syltevik says: 'At Hotwire we offer flexibility and it is very popular. In order to attract the right people you have to take their lives into consideration.
'We offer variable hours, working from home, four-day weeks. It is entirely appropriate for our industry. If you do "management by objectives" it doesn't really matter where staff are working.'
Although benefits are becoming an important competitive differentiator for employers, each sector is reacting to the challenge in its own way.
For example, only 20 per cent of public sector respondents said they had received a performance bonus – considered an important benefit beyond normal remuneration – compared with 60 per cent in the private sector. However, it is worth noting that both the public sector and in-house private sector figures for bonuses are up five per cent on the previous year's survey.
When it comes to meeting demand for requests for flexible working, the public sector performs better than its private sector counterpart (see charts above). All of the respondents who had made a request for flexible working last year were successful. In the private sector, only 60 per cent of practitioners said they had their request for flexible hours accommodated.
Kent argues that one of the causes of public sector growth has been its willingness to offer flexible benefits. While private sector workers may get paid more, their public sector counterparts are more likely to enjoy other perks. 'Flexible working ought to be more widely embraced though. If you manage objectives, it doesn't matter where people are,' Kent says, echoing Syltevik.
However, as the survey shows, the situation is reversed when it comes to granting part-time work. Only 17 per cent of respondents in the public sector had their requests to go part time granted, while every private sector worker who requested it subsequently went part-time.
But as Essex County Council's Palmer points out, the public sector
remains one of the few areas in PR where final salary schemes are a strong incentive to potential and existing employees.
'An excellent pension scheme and genuine commitment to a good work/life balance seem to be moving up on the list of perceived benefits,' he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, only a small percentage of the respondents requesting flexible working had children under the age of six, suggesting that PROs are not necessarily attracted to flexible working because of family.
Yet the experience of Hugh Birley, chief executive of consultancy Lexis PR, is different.
'Without exception all requests for flexible working at Lexis have been from people with young children,' he reveals.
Holiday allowances are broadly comparable with the results of last year's survey. However, on this count consultancy staff fared worst.
A significant minority – 16 per cent – of consultancy staff had fewer than 20 days a year in holiday allowance.
Only five per cent of private sector PR practitioners had fewer than 20 days' holiday, according to the survey. The figure for public sector PROs was two per cent.
Overall, the PRWeek Salary Survey 2006 should make encouraging reading for the majority of employees in the industry in terms of pay. Trace argues that the general performance of the job and salary market in the past 12 months has been encouraging.
'Companies are still able to offer long-term careers and the last-in, first-out syndrome has disappeared. The PR industry is becoming far more recognised as a profession,' she says. 'More in-house PR chief roles are now reporting to the CEO and more PR postholders are operating at board level than they were a year ago.'
It is also worth noting that focusing purely on salary will never reveal the true picture of any industry. It is heartening, for instance, to see that while salary does feature as the second-most important factor for motivating people at work (see p33), it is virtually on a par with the desire for 'career prospects' and challenging work.
Changing jobs to get a higher salary was cited as the main reason for leaving a job by only 14 per cent of private sector PR professionals and six per cent of consultancy PROs. Career progression is still the most popular reason for changing jobs – 50 per cent of all our respondents put this first.
However, whether the desire for 'challenging' work means acceptance of more stress will continue to be a moot point. For example, stress can be alleviated by regular training, which equips staff to be able to better handle increased work pressures.
Training came just fractionally behind career prospects as the most important element for our respondents. Yet a worrying 20 per cent of those from the public sector said their organisation had cut back on training in the past six months. This compares with ten per cent reporting training cuts in both the private sector and consultancy arena. Currently, 39 per cent of public sector PROs receive just one to two days of training annually. Only five per cent said they receive more than one week's worth of training per year.
The picture, then, is of an increasingly well remunerated and respected industry. And the workers are becoming ever more aware of the flipside of these qualities – more stress. Whether PROs will be satisfied with this equation is another question entirely – maybe one that will only be answered in next year's survey.
However, there has been a price to pay for this stability. Workers have found themselves having to put in extra hours, and their sense of wellbeing has suffered as a result.