With age, so the saying goes, comes experience. But in the eyes of the law, such an assertion could get you in a lot of trouble. Last October’s Employment Equality (Age) Regulations made it illegal to link age with ability when recruiting new staff.
Individuals can no longer be denied jobs for age-related reasons. Favourite recruitment clichés, such as ‘flexibility’, ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘dynamic’, are off limits because they suggest youth and vitality. At the other end of the scale, asking for, say, five years’ experience discriminates against the young. Intriguingly, asking for ‘gravitas’ also favours older candidates, according to guidelines from trade body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation.
Many people have complained that such stipulations go against common sense, but some PR commentators believe the laws could be far more damaging than that. They argue that restricting PR agencies from advertising for experience will cut the number of middle-aged candidates applying for posts – at a time when the industry is particularly in need of experienced talent.
According to the latest PRWeek Salary Survey, middle-management-level PROs – average age 35 and 41 for consultancy and in-house staff respectively – are those most likely to quit their jobs in the next two to three years (PRWeek, 26 January).
And with 44 per cent of consultancy and 55 per cent of private sector PROs saying they had been approached by a headhunter in the past 12 months, many are being lost from the industry altogether. According to the CIPR, just four per cent of PR professionals are over 60, compared with eight per cent of the UK workforce as a whole.
‘People can get burned out very easily in this youth-obsessed industry,’ says Weber Shandwick recruitment manager Gemma McCartney. ‘Middle-aged PR people look at their work/life balance and decide to go off and do something different. This new legislation could hinder efforts to alleviate this problem.’
Officially, the CIPR says the legislation will encourage older applicants – who may have discounted their chances in the past – to covet PR positions. But it concedes that the average PR person is likely to remain at the younger end of the age spectrum. ‘This is due to PR being a growth industry,’ says CIPR acting PR and marketing manager Ginny Reid. ‘Interest in PR as a career is continuing to rise, and there is greater availability of quality PR qualifications and courses.’
So, just how bad is the shortfall in middle-management? ‘Pretty bad,’ says Sarah Leembruggen, managing director of The Works Recruitment. ‘There is a huge gap in the market here, created by the previous downturn. Now, everyone is crying out for account managers.’
The challenge, adds Reid, is encouraging young talent to remain in PR after their first decade of service. ‘The PR industry attracts a high proportion of graduates,’ she says. ‘It has a much higher percentage of 25 to 44-year-olds than the workforce at large – 61 per cent compared with 47 per cent.’
According to Leembruggen and Claire Tuffin, director of recruitment consultancy VMA, middle-aged PROs are leaving the profession to retrain and seek more flexible work options (see ‘No regrets’ below). ‘The natural burn-out age combined with wanting greater control over working hours is causing PROs in their middle years to consider freelance or interim work,’ she says. ‘But we’re also seeing PR people leaving the profession to become teachers or enter the financial services and marketing industries. I’ve even known some to become florists.’
Reid adds that practitioners in the corporate and financial arenas often shift over to journalism, banking, accountancy and the legal profession.
Justin Kent, managing director of specialist PR recruitment firm PRJS, says: ‘By nature, PROs tend to be well- educated, self-confident individuals who are very much in charge of their own careers. They know their worth and will look at other professions. If they want to leave, they’ll leave.’
Kent claims employers can alleviate the problem in two ways: by giving existing staff extra training, advancement opportunities and rewards; or by recruiting candidates from outside the PR industry.
Last month, Midnight Communications founder Caraline Brown stepped down from her MD role to become chief talent officer. ‘The dot com boom meant lots of people got promoted beyond their competence on a flash of promise, and there are a lot of below-par account managers and directors still out there,’ she says. ‘The way we attract, retain and develop the best talent is to breed our own.’ To this end, the agency has set up the Midnight Academy, which offers formalised training that links in with the firm’s staff-appraisal system.
But because of the investment involved in schemes such as that by Midnight, the temptation is to turn to Kent’s second option and look beyond the PR industry to fill vacancies.
VMA’s Tuffin says: ‘The new law could shift the recruitment focus away from “years behind a desk” to looking for transferable skills. It may encourage middle-aged candidates outside of PR to apply for jobs in the industry.
Certainly, the new law means recruiters will have to take such people more seriously.’
Many agencies are already looking elsewhere, arguing that it pays to have a broader range of suitable candidates. Weber Shandwick’s McCartney reports that the agency is focusing less on graduate PR schemes and more on the direct targeting of school-leavers and those on post-graduate courses. In Northern Ireland, Morrow Communications is scouring the buoyant public sector for talent. ‘We have standards that we’re not prepared to drop,’ says account director Dana McCusker.
‘But we need people – agencies should be prepared to accept that there will be a big learning curve for those new to a consultancy environment.’
Looking further afield
Fishburn Hedges has always been interested in finding people with flare, regardless of their experience. ‘We’re constantly on the lookout for good people with a different perspective,’ says director Rachel Jones, who handles the agency’s recruitment.
She adds: ‘Because we have a matrix structure, we believe we are able to recruit in a more fluid way. It means that if somebody leaves, there’s not an empty desk to fill with three accounts attached.’
Jones argues that the skills gap at middle-management level makes such diversity all the more important: ‘We have a model whereby we are committed to having a workforce made up of former journalists, civil servants and CBI employees, alongside those with wider experience of agency and in-house PR roles.’
Other organisations, though, have found the skills gap more challenging to overcome. Over the past 14 months, accountancy and business advisory firm BDO Stoy Hayward has hired three PR staffers. PR reputation manager Lindsay Kennedy says: ‘It’s been difficult. I need people who can advise partners at a senior level. I need people with gravitas. Middle-management roles are hard to recruit for because candidates are at the mid-point of their careers – they’re not new, but they’re also not board-level.’
Kennedy initially outsourced the task to seven recruitment consultants, with disappointing results. So she hosted a recruitment day, featuring a series of presentations from herself and the firm’s HR department, plus in-depth discussions with the recruitment consultants. ‘People see accountancy and think tax and audits,’ she says. ‘But once I explained that we deal with issues such as fraud, matrimonial disputes, family business, wealth management, M&As and business restructuring, the consultants went away with a real understanding and excitement about the roles.’
As a result, the volume and quality of CVs improved. ‘It was an incredibly worthwhile exercise,’ Kennedy says.
The recent changes to employment law naturally raise the question: will PR recruiters do as the Government intends and hire the best candidates, whatever their age, from the widest possible pool of applicants? As the business cycle moves on and more money is invested in training, the next breed of middle managers will step up to the plate. But the long-term challenge for employers is to ensure these talented individuals commit to a career in the PR industry.
B-M’s loyal threesome
To uncover what motivates people to stay in the industry, PRWeek spoke to three Burson-Marsteller staffers at different stages in their career:
#1. Now an independent consultant and adviser to B-M, Bob Leaf joined the agency’s New York office in 1957 as a trainee. He is the firm’s longest-serving employee, helping to set up the agency’s London operation in 1967 and guiding its expansion in Asia, Australia, Latin-America and the Middle East. He says his loyalty has been driven by intellectual stimulation and the people he has met along the way.
But there have been temptations to quit. ‘Once it came close, when a mutual fund business promised to make me a millionaire in the space of two years,’ Leaf says. ‘But I knew I wouldn’t get the same level of enjoyment and feeling elsewhere.’
#2. By contrast, 30-year-old Adam Lewis has been in the PR industry for nine years, joining B-M’s corporate division four months ago from Luther Pendragon. ‘I did turn down a higher offer from somewhere else, which was tough, as I’ve got family responsibilities,’ he admits. But Lewis says he was swung by the agency’s reputation for training and development and the opportunity to work with big brands internationally.
He confesses that he seriously considered leaving the industry early in his career. ‘At a junior level, PR can be tough: development paths are blurred and it’s heavy on administration compared with the hand-holding and structure you find in professions such as law and management consultancy.’
However, the diversity of his current position and the increasing strategic nature of PR makes Lewis positive about the future.
#3. Born in Egypt, 28-year-old Radwa Allaban joined B-M’s London corporate practice last June, and friends often ask her why. ‘My answer is simple – I enjoy it, it gives me a sense of achievement, and I can see how I contribute.’
Having previously worked in Cairo, Bahrain and Dubai, Allaban says London is more relaxed. ‘Eventually, though, I would like to go home and set up my own consultancy,’ she adds.
HAVE JOB ADS CHANGED?
When the anti-age-discrimination laws came into effect last October, PRWeek asked specialist PR recruitment firm Price Trace Hawes to analyse the job ads it received over a three-month period.
Predictably, firms made a bad start, with 63 per cent of ads in the first month deemed illegal, of which two thirds came from consultancies.
‘We did let our clients know about the most obvious things they wouldn’t be allowed to say,’ says Price Trace Hawes director Neville Price. ‘But we received a significant number of ads stating the number of years of experience required.’
By November, the number of illegal ads had dropped to a third of all those received. However, the statistics for December show a rise in illegal ads to 60 per cent. The latest figures, to mid-January, indicate a fairly even split.
‘Of those breaking the regulations, the vast majority are in the consultancy sector,’ says Price. He argues that this may be due to smaller agencies’ lack of a dedicated HR specialist, but adds: ‘Ignorance of the regulations is not a defence. Every company should know about ageism and should train their staff accordingly. I suspect there is an attitude problem with some consultancies thinking they can either just get away with it, or assuming the legislation does not apply to them for whatever reason.’
NO REGRETS: PROs WHO LEFT THE PR INDUSTRY
At 28, Court quit the PR industry last July to become a recruitment consultant with PR specialist PRJS. ‘I absolutely loved PR and did still want to be part of it, so working in recruitment for the PR sector was a logical step,’ he says.
Court says he ‘stumbled’ into the industry in August 2000, joining Ogilvy as an account executive to work on a corporate, B2B and technology remit with clients including Sony. Three years later, he joined Good Relations as an account manager, advising clients including the Energy Retail Association, St John Ambulance and British Sausage Week.
Naturally, I still have a lot of respect for the PR industry as it is an interesting environment, and if you have the ideas you can make a name for yourself,’ he says.
‘I was also lucky enough to work for companies that were very meritocratic and offered real opportunities in terms of career development and training.’
Having decided to follow his instincts and leave the industry, Court says: ‘My career has no ceilings or bounds, it’s about what interests and stimulates me, as opposed to how far I can get in one particular industry.’
At 38, Peake ditched his five-year career in PR to set up Space Designs, a high-end design and build company that has refurbished property for celebrities including TV presenters Vernon Kay, Tess Daly and Dermot O’Leary. He has also worked for kids’ TV host Andy Peters.
‘I’m definitely glad that I was involved in PR, but I don’t regret leaving,’ he says.
Having joined Profile Corporate Communication as a graduate trainee, Peake worked with clients including the Press Complaints Committee, Savlon and Tupperware.
‘Having set up my own company, however, working with clients and architects, it was a valuable experience in learning how to deal with people.’
Peake is also using his PR skills to act as a brand ambassador for Dulux, providing celebrity angles for magazine shoots and offering advice on paints and colours on radio shows.
Thorniley, 29, is a florist who owns her own shop, Northern Flower, in Manchester city centre, and has an active interest in ladies’ designer corsetry business Cocu. She left the PR industry last June.
‘I loved what I did, I got some fantastic opportunities and learned a lot. But in the end, I got bogged down with the nine-to-five grind and day-to-day office politics, and decided it was time for something else,’ she says.
Having taken a business degree in the US, Thorniley spent four years working for tour operator Caribbean Connection. In 2003, she joined Odeon, now UCI, where she rose to become retail marketing and PR manager with responsibility for in-cinema concessions. ‘There was room for career development and I got promoted several times, but once I got to managerial level, I felt I’d ticked that box and could go and work for myself,’ she says on her decision to quit.
‘In fact, Thorniley’s departure from the industry was cautious; she spent two years getting her business up and running, before finally deciding to pursue it full-time. ‘I work much harder now and it can be quite stressful, but somehow I don’t mind,’ she says.