Recruiters on the Evolving Role of Senior-level PR Professionals

April 9, 2013

The economic forces that smothered the job market for senior-level communicators since the 2008 financial crisis finally appear to be receding, according to top PR recruiters.

Although continued policy gridlock in Washington, D.C., and lingering global financial instability are inhibiting the kind of long-term economic visibility required for a stronger recovery, recruiters believe this year will mark another step forward in an increasingly positive professional environment for top communications positions. 

“In challenging times, clients got incredibly conservative, and that still exists to a degree,” said Ward Group President James Ward, who has been recruiting marketing and communications executives since 1981. “Seldom are clients taking risks on great athletes, but instead, they are looking for very specific sets of experiences and capabilities and often category experience. They are looking for a combination of strategic capabilities, as well as tactical/execution strength.”

The “sheer turmoil and turnover throughout the executive ranks” in the last five years was unexpected, said Adriane Willig, a veteran consultant and health-care specialist for Witt/Kieffer.

“So many industries were hit hard by the global economic downturn, and companies and organizations responded in different ways,” Willig said. “Some downsized, shed non-core parts of their businesses and let even good executives go. Some merged and consolidated, causing C-suite redundancies while opening up new positions. Still other companies remade themselves, forcing senior-level staff to buy in or look elsewhere.”

Current job postings provide anthropological clues of how the economic crisis reshaped the playing field for high-level PR professionals.

“The number of years of experience required for director- and vice president- level jobs is lower than it used to be. On average, I see five years for managers, about eight to 10 for directors, and 10 to 15 for VPs,” said veteran recruiter Sandy Charet, president of Charet & Associates.

“When the markets fell, if there was a smart manager, they were kept on and the director was let go — or the smart director was kept and the VP was let go,” she said. “Now, it’s a few years later and that person has been promoted. To fill in underneath them, clients naturally want to hire someone with less experience. Also, digital media is so current and there’s a perception that younger folks have mastered it more than the older folks.”

Still a numbers game

The recruiters who The Strategist interviewed are unanimous in their view that 2013 will be the best year of this decade so far for senior communications professionals.

“Overall, we’re expecting a better year for hiring and movement of talent within the profession,” said Richard S. Marshall, managing director of the Global Corporate Affairs Practice for Korn/Ferry International.

The anticipated improvement in the recruiting environment is relative. During the tepid business reality of the past few years, communications veterans who held onto their jobs have been reluctant to retire or change positions, while most organizations have been reluctant to change, upgrade skills or expand PR-related positions. Recruiters use phrases like “hunker down,” “wait and see” and “push the pause button” to describe employer attitudes over the past few years.

No one is predicting that the recruiting floodgates will suddenly spring open. “Many companies right now are still operating lean. As a result, communicators play an important role. A CEO needs his or her confidante,” said Maryanne B. Rainone, senior vice president and managing director for Heyman Associates. “We’re optimistic about 2013, but there are limited roles for top communicators. It’s a numbers game.”

While change-management skills in internal communications and in investor and financial relations were generally a higher priority during the downturn, the demand for strategic expertise to seize opportunities for market share will grow as economic fortunes turn increasingly positive.

“As companies begin to experience growth again, many see the value of communications and PR in energizing that momentum through brand building, promotions and sharing their positive story with all stakeholders,” said Ann Vogl Savignac, associate principal for Heidrick & Struggles.

Willig predicted that the 2013 upswing in recruiting will be marked by new hybrid titles and roles for communication executives. “Titles like senior communications officer, new media/social media, or lead communications analyst are now being seen regularly,” she said.

Marshall said that in general, “every industry is undergoing significant transformation and having to adjust both their operating model and how they position themselves.”

His view is that senior-level positions in the technology, industrial and consumer fields seem to be more abundant compared with others.

Lisa A. Ryan, senior vice president and managing director for Heyman Associates, agreed, noting increased activity in the aerospace/defense, health care and insurance sectors — with the latter two categories seeing more recruitment opportunities due in large part to the historic market dynamics as a result of health care reform.

Wanted: ambidextrous C-suite executives

What kind of senior-level communications talent are marketing-leading companies and institutions asking recruiters to find?

The ideal composite candidate appears to be someone with the ability to:

  • Align communications strategy to support business growth
  • Utilize evidence-based planning and measurement
  • Demonstrate ample dexterity in both public relations and marketing
  • Maintain an operational understanding of digital and social media as well as traditional approaches

“In general, candidates who have embraced innovation, found their stride with all things social and have a view beyond PR to include branding are having the most successful interviews,” said Amy Segelin, president of Chaloner Associates.

The focus on recruiting ambidextrous, multitasking C-suite executives is emblematic of two trends.

Continued macroeconomic concerns about the long-term outlook for their budgets are causing employers to shoehorn multiple senior-level job responsibilities into a single role.

“It’s kind of a player-coach mentality,” Ward said. “Gone are the days of senior-level communications people having huge staffs, secretaries and simply setting the strategy. They are expected to contribute to the work itself.”

At the same time, the ongoing convergence of so many aspects of public relations and advertising has created demand for professionals who also can help enterprises effectively navigate a multichannel, multiplatform communications matrix. 

“Often, we find the roles of communications and marketing are merged together. Hence, an executive with strong experience in both areas may have more opportunities. The more skills you can offer, the better off you are,” said Willig.

Both Ryan and Charet pointed to the need for candidates who understand how to strategically deploy digital and social media programs.

“The use of big data and mobility is exploding and presenting new and exciting opportunities for PR and marketing,” Charet said. “Knowing how to effectively integrate that into communication strategies will be a big area.”

Savignac said the most consistent recruitment trend at Heidrick & Struggles comes from companies investing in communications that want to influence and shape their story for the future.

“These company events may include sharing a growth story, a new product, geographic expansion, a company going public or private, a new strategic initiative and executive leadership transitions,” she said. “Companies today are looking for business-savvy, strategic chief communications officers (CCOs) who can use effective communication to support and drive the overall business strategy.”

Today, Savignac said, people don’t talk about media impressions.

“Executives care about the communications program that is in place to safeguard the company’s reputation during a difficult time and thereby maintain customer confidence and loyalty,” she said.

Marshall said that while functional expertise is the “price of entry,” the real differentiators in the top communications roles are leadership and business acumen.

“What CEOs tell us they are looking for is someone who understands the business, how it operates, and how it makes money,” he said. “They also want someone who can be the connective glue between disparate functions, keeping the organization on strategy, solving problems, finding solutions and delivering greater value beyond their functional mastery.”

A hot seat at the table

A recent global study of communications leadership skills, co-sponsored by Heyman Associates with IBM and the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, described the need for a super-star generalist with enough depth of expertise to manage high volumes of information at high speed, master social media, measure the return on investment of communications programs and deal with crises.

That may be a tall order for communications professionals who, during the economic tumult of the past five years, have not had the budget, time or CEO-level support to pursue professional development while dealing with the pressure of putting out fires, fulfilling day-to-day responsibilities and managing teams.

Ironically, the trial-by-fire nature of the downturn may have worked to instill the softer skills that will help communications pros restart their career progression in the improving recruiting climate.

“Those involved in decision making need emotional intelligence, outstanding interpersonal and negotiating skills, and a strong backbone,” Willig said. “As senior-level communications professionals are actively involved in discussions in the C-suite, they’ll be expected to voice their opinions and often fight for diminishing budgetary dollars.”

For decades, PR leaders have argued that communications executives should have the proverbial “seat at the table” with other C-suite functions. That wish appears to have been granted. The challenge of navigating five years’ worth of economic adversity has finally proven the indispensable business value of public relations and marketing.

But the coveted seat at the table is a hot seat in volatile business conditions. “Because of the disruptive forces that every business is facing and the climate that now exists, CEOs and boards have a greater appreciation for the value of the function, as well as higher expectations for what it can and should deliver,” Marshall said.

Savignac agreed:  “Companies that place the CCO role at the table expect the very same business contribution level as their other functional executives.”

Ed Cafasso
A member of PRSA's Corporate Communications Section, Ed Cafasso is a managing director in the corporate and financial practice for Burson-Marsteller and the agency's Boston market leader.


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