Opinion: Demand for PR needs to be met with more investment in talent

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DURING the pandemic, The New York Times ran a short series of articles; a collection of tales documenting easily achievable goals (‘It’s Never Too Late to Learn to Ride Horseback’), and seismic life changes (‘It’s Never Too Late to Ditch the City and Run a Farm’). What these ‘It’s Never Too Late…’ stories inevitably have in common is the journey taken to get to the point of change; what behavioural scientists would call: “the stages of change”. The Transtheoretical Model argues people move through six of these stages before change occurs; pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination, writes Jon Gerlis.

Most ideas of change never make it as far as the preparation stage. This is why, for all the talk of the ‘Great Resignation’ and people making significant life changes during the pandemic, we may have instead witnessed the ‘Great Contemplation’ while many workers did resign from their jobs, most who did, took up roles within the same industry. Including those working in public relations.

PR is not immune from a great resignation but there has been nothing to suggest a great exodus of talent in the last two years. Indeed, less than one-in-five practitioners changed roles in the last six months, though the concern for employers is that a third say they are likely to look for a new role in the next six months. Contemplation may well become preparation and action. 

How we got here and where we go next is the story that emerges from the CIPR’s latest ‘State of the Profession’ report. The research shows the industry is thriving and at a point of rapid expansion. Across all organisation types, teams are growing. This is true of in-house teams, in the public sector, and particularly within agencies and consultancies where 73 per cent of those with recruitment responsibilities report vacancies. However, more than half of those in recruiting positions are struggling to fill those vacancies, including 78 per cent of those in agencies and consultancies. The main reason given is the lack of applicants with the required skills. Those skills? “General PR experience.”

Following years of steady growth, the pandemic saw both our reputation and recognised value of our work rocket, but with it exposed a vulnerability. When our services are most in demand, the necessary workforce is lacking in numbers and basic skills to sustain it. Instead? Battles for capable talent to fill roles; overworked colleagues filling in the gaps and working more hours than they are paid for; an identified lack of promotion opportunities; and an omnipresent mental health crisis. 

This approach is not sustainable and presents a real risk to the otherwise positive story of our business performance. We are still heavily reliant on good relationships within the industry – practitioners say they value the good relationships with colleagues and that their relationship with employers has improved – but are failing to address the fact that poor work-life balance or demotivation as a result of feeling undervalued are among the most common reasons colleagues leave their posts.

The PR industry responded formidably in the extreme pressure of the pandemic. Improved business performance now needs to be matched with efforts to improve the experience of working in public relations so businesses can thrive with the right people with the right skills to meet the needs of business and society in the future. Now is the time to invest in those solutions.

As The New York Times might say: It’s Never Too Late.

Jon Gerlis is public relations and policy manager at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), the world’s only royal chartered body for public relations professionals.