PR Braindrain

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The FT has an interesting article on the drain of agency PR talent inhouse. Quite bizarrely the PRCA claims that the solution is making PR more measurable and enhancing the view of PR as a profession. Respect will benefit in-house practitioners and attract new competition from management consultants for PR agencies. The real issue is that PR consultants are moving agency side when it is more lucrative and less work. Agencies can expect to lose staff, particularly those that have had:

  • Pay freezes on for the past three years
  • Not recognised talent within their own ranks
  • Have had political games played out
  • Have had a rotating door of senior management

The clients get creative

By Meg Carter


Microsoft, PepsiCo, Woolworths and Accenture are among a growing list of brand owners to have poached public relations consultancy staff to fill their own in-house PR jobs in recent months. While the flow of PRs between consultancy and client and vice versa is nothing new, both head-hunters and consultancy bosses claim current levels of client poaching pose a major challenge for the industry. “It’s driving everyone mad,” one senior PR consultancy executive complains. “It’s happened to us three times in the past 12 months and we ended up losing business as a result. There’s a real shortage of creative talent on the client side, in my view, and the way this is being dealt with is unacceptable.”

Facing financial and time pressures and a need for direct experience of the brand among PR candidates, many clients are under pressure to poach. “It’s a growing trend, and it can save a client huge amounts of time and money – get the right person and they’ll hit the ground running without any need for induction,” says Melanie Lawn, a recruitment consultant at Blue Skies Specialist Recruitment.

Consultancy PRs are only too willing to jump ship, it seems, as they grow increasingly frustrated by long working hours, woolly career prospects and lack of respect. According to a new survey of PR consultancy staff conducted by the Public Relations Consultants Association, a UK industry body, long working hours, salary levels below client rates and unclear career paths are the main reasons for considering a client PR role.

Historically, worsening economic conditions have encouraged clients to rely on in-house PR resources. In boom times they invest more on external PR support, says Patrick Barrow, PRCA director general and former head of external communications for T-Mobile, the mobile phone operator.

“Tough economic conditions have always been a challenge for the PR industry,” he explains. “But despite 2004 being a better year for the PR business, there’s a widespread feeling the pendulum is yet to swing back in PR consultancies’ favour.”

The PRCA survey, which polled PR company staff at the junior account executive level and more senior account and associate director level, shows relief from excessively long hours is one of the main reasons for considering a client PR role. “Career prospects are limited if you work a five day week,” was one respondent’s observation.

“A number of PR sectors are female-dominated and this is another factor. When people return to work after having children, many opt for in-house roles in the belief that support will be greater, pressure less and working hours shorter,” Mr Barrow explains.

Lack of money is especially pressing for younger PRs a few years into their careers. Many are still struggling to pay off student debt, he says. Just as significant, however, is lack of respect. “Clients treat you like a skivvy, not a consultant,” said one respondent.

Mr Barrow says he was surprised at the degree of discontent among PR consultants. However, there is no shortage of other industry figures willing to endorse the survey’s finding and suggest supplementary factors.

“It’s a fact that the advance from account executive to account director within a PR consultancy happens relatively quickly, while the next step – from account director to board director – can take 10 years,” says Robert Phillips, co-founder of JCPR, a consumer PR consultancy. “People’s careers therefore naturally plateau around 30.”

Adds Niamh Byrne, director of PR at Orange: “I’ve noticed people are applying a lot more from agencies to come in-house in search of greater focus. They yearn to work on one brand and be able to follow a project through instead of constantly having to chop and change. And they relish the focus we place on coming up with our own creative ideas in-house.”

One solution to the talent drain away from PR consultancies, the PRCA believes, lies in improving evaluation methods and developing industry-standard measures for public relations effectiveness – something the PRCA is backing. “Better demonstrate how PR impacts on the bottom line and PR’s professional status can be strengthened and PR consultants enjoy greater respect,” Mr Barrow says.

Mr Phillips agrees. “Accountability is key. Chief executives don’t buy into emotions – they want to know how every investment impacts on the bottom line. PR must re-position itself as a strategic marketing discipline rather than a series of tactics thrown together,” he says.

PR consultancy bosses privately admit much still needs to be done to banish once and for all negative associations with Absolutely Fabulous, the British sitcom, fluffy consumer surveys and the dark arts of spin doctoring. In the face of cost-cutting and the desire of clients like Orange to “own” creative thinking in-house, however, reversing the PR talent drain may prove to be an uphill struggle.


* MICROSOFT Microsoft UK took on three new in-house public relations people in 2004 – two from PR companies, the third from another IT-related company’s PR department. Microsoft works with 60 or 70 external PR people in four companies who spend 50 to 60 per cent of their time on the brand. When recruiting to fill in-house PR positions Hugh Davies, Microsoft UK group PR manager, says how well an applicant “aligns with the company’s brand values” is as important as their core experience and qualifications. “Increasingly, we’re expected to employ people able to be trusted advisers, which means we are looking for people able to be proactive, used to selling in ideas, and adept at negotiating a complex web of different stakeholders,” he says. “An agency background can therefore be useful although, of course, we must not hire away from the agencies working for us for contractual reasons.”

* ORANGE Orange actively recruits PR staff for its in-house media centre with a mix of experience, drawing from other client companies’ in-house PR departments, PR companies and journalists. “We’re looking for people who’ll fit with the Orange environment which is very fast-moving and lifestyle-focused,” says Niamh Byrne, Orange’s director of PR. Orange employs nine in-house PR people and also works with Cake and Edelman for support in consumer and business PR respectively. A key strength of PR company recruits is their familiarity with dealing daily with journalists, she adds: “We want to recreate that daily dialogue between Orange and the media in-house all the time to double the effort.”