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:
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.”