The Public Relations Strategist

Signs of life in the public relations job market

May 25, 2010

With his clients laying people off in droves last year, Peter Bell found himself frequently passing the time with administrative tasks. Hiring, it seemed, had come to an almost complete halt.

“It was the worst year I’ve had in 18 years,” says Bell, who founded his New York-based executive search firm, Peter Bell & Associates LLC, in 2001. “It was absolutely abysmal. There was virtually no business.”

Like Bell, many senior-level PR professionals have felt the pain of the recession. Deep layoffs and hiring freezes have combined to create a growing pool of experienced, out-of-work practitioners — all competing for increasingly scarce openings.

The good news? While the job market remains tough for senior-level practitioners, it is improving — albeit slowly.

“We’re getting more queries, we’re getting a few more jobs,” Bell says. “It’s not nearly back to what would be called normal, but we detect an improvement.”

Taking a cautious approach
Don Spetner, executive vice president of corporate affairs for executive search firm Korn/Ferry International in Los Angeles, takes that cautious optimism a step further.

“For the first time in 18 months, I am optimistic and even bullish about senior-level jobs,” Spetner says. “It’s not a massive rush to market; it’s going to be a slow build. But 12 months from now, I think it will be very robust.”

After dropping almost 50 percent, business has been steadily increasing since May 2009, Spetner adds. But 2010 has brought a bigger boost. In the first three months of the year, Korn/Ferry booked nearly two dozen senior-level PR assignments in the United States.

Although it is still hard to find top-level positions as a chief communications officer, more jobs are opening up at the “second-tier” level, such as vice president or divisional head of public relations.

“Corporate profits by and large are pretty good,” Spetner says. “Our clients are shifting from a conservation and productivity mode to a growth mode. And that’s when real hiring begins.”

Dennis Spring, president of Spring Associates Inc., a New York-based executive search firm, says he’s seeing “a slight uptick” in senior-level job openings. Key industries that seem to be stirring: health care, pharmaceutical and medical devices, some information technology and even a few financial- services companies.

Senior-level PR pros located in or near Washington, D.C., have an advantage on the job front right now. Spring says he sees more hiring and more talk of hiring in that region, focused on public affairs, government relations and crisis communications.

Opportunity can sometimes be found in smaller markets. Elise Mitchell, APR, Fellow PRSA, president and CEO of Mitchell Communications Group in Fayetteville, Ark., says her agency had its best year ever in 2009 — and she’s expecting business to double in 2010. Since October, she has expanded her staff from 15 to 30, and she still hopes to add several more professionals.

“Northwest Arkansas is a successful, rapidly growing smaller economy,” she says.

However, 2009 was dismal for most companies and markets. But while many senior-level jobs disappeared, recruiters say they’re not gone for good. Instead, some of those jobs may just be reborn in a different form.

Even as jobs rebound, don’t expect a large bonus — or any bonus at all. Spring, whose firm publishes an annual corporate communications and PR compensation report, says bonuses were rare in 2009. While he expects them to eventually return in some form, they could remain a mere fraction of what they were.

Expecting longer job searches
Even with a slow improvement in the job market, those hunting for senior-level positions face a basic math problem: There are more qualified candidates than there are high-level openings. With a large pool of talent to draw from, corporations and agencies are pickier than ever, so searches are taking longer.

The requirements for senior-level talent haven’t changed dramatically from years past, but certain factors are taking center stage. Recruiters, HR directors and agency heads say their preferred candidates are:

  • Effective business counselors. Business acumen is non-negotiable for senior-level candidates. “You have to have one foot in the business world and one foot in the communications world,” Mitchell says. “First and foremost, clients see us as a business counselor and a strategist. You really need to be good at consulting CEOs.”
  • Savvy about social media. In general, companies and agencies aren’t expecting their senior-level hires to be Facebook gurus. But they do demand that candidates understand social media and how it strategically fits into client campaigns. That goes for all things digital, too, including Web content and video. Implementing Facebook-like applications for company intranets is particularly hot right now as well.
  •  Experts in their industry. More companies have begun demanding “exact matches” in terms of job specifications and industry experience, Spring says. Clients want people who don’t just know the industry but know it inside and out.
  • Proven successes. Your résumé should focus on your track record of successes, not your job descriptions. Employers want specific examples — and more important, references to call who will back up your claims.
  • Focused on growth and development. “Part of a senior leader’s job is to grow and develop talent,” says Kelly Womer, APR, ABC, vice president at Linhart Public Relations in Denver. “It’s often less about the core PR skills and more about, how are they going to come in and coach and support and develop people?”
  • Located nearby. “Even though they’re portraying their searches as national, [companies] are really looking at a 200-mile radius or so,” says Laurie Mitchell, owner of Laurie Mitchell & Co. Inc., a Cleveland-based executive search firm. “Preference is given to candidates who live closer.” Companies don’t want an unsold house to become an issue for a relocated executive down the road.

Looking ahead
Perhaps the best news for senior-level PR professionals — or anyone in the industry — is that the long-term future of public relations appears bright. In fact, some recruiters say it’s brighter than ever.

“Each time we’ve gone through a recession, there’s this dire talk that things won’t be the same,” Spring says. “But we’re a stronger industry now. Business and the economy are changing, and public relations is well-situated to handle it — better than marketing, and in many cases advertising.”

Spetner admits that in the past, he didn’t think public relations would be a good career choice for his children. But he’s changed his mind, because chief communications officers today have more control of resources within corporations — reversing a decades-old trend that favored advertising and traditional marketing.

This shift is driven by the dramatic change in distribution channels that accompanied the explosion of the Internet and related technologies.

“What’s required now is the ability to shape messages, decide the most effective communications channel and distill complicated issues into a simple, clear, compelling message,” Spetner says. “That’s the core skill of the PR person, and it’s in higher demand now. It’s a great time to go into public relations.”

Katie Sweeney is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She wrote the spring 2008 Strategist cover story titled “Caution: Slowdown Ahead?”


Edward M. Bury, APR says:

Bravo on this excellent and informative piece on the employment outlook for senior-level public relations professionals. I fit right into this category. Over the past few months, I maintain I've grown tremendously as a practitioner since I've been able to allocate time and resources toward learning and growing my network. Yes, it's been a challenge, but that's part of life. One more thing: Those of us "in transition" are rested and relaxed. We're ready to take on the challenge of a new position and help companies and clients succeed.

May 28, 2010

Mike Pierson says:

Your article was right on the mark. I'm an experienced PR pro (20+ years). My job search lasted for more than a year. I saw every one of your observations play out during my search; it was very frustrating. The good news is, the job market can only get better.

May 29, 2010

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