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The persistent problem of PR churn

Looking at recent work-life trends – and thinking about the future of PR as a career choice, a couple of questions come to mind. Does PR have a talent retention problem? Or is job hopping a necessary part of career development in the industry?

These important questions concern churn, which encompasses turnover and attrition rates. Measures of churn act as key performance indicators (KPIs) within organisations and can also be applied to an occupation:

  • Turnover relates to role change – the movement of PR practitioners within the industry. Includes PR positions in the same or another employer, becoming self-employed, etc.
  • Attrition relates to occupation change – movement away from PR positions within an organisation or outside it. Includes ‘natural’ factors, such as retirement and career breaks.

In addition to looking at churn (movement across and away from PR positions), retention within an occupation plus entry into it (by people without prior experience as well as returning practitioners) relates to growth indicators.

UK working population

It is difficult to determine the level and nature of churn within PR’s working population. Professions that have restrictions on entry tend to have low churn rates (around 9% typically). In contrast, low-skill occupations (eg hospitality) are porous, often reporting churn of 75% annually.

Hoping LinkedIn might offer a perspective on churn in PR, data obtained from Andrew Bruce Smith showed 4,000 of 98,000 PR professionals in the UK recorded a job change in a 90-day period (December 2020 to March 2023). This points to a 16% annual churn rate (turnover plus attrition), which aligns comfortably with a general labour market flow in the UK of 20% over a 12-month period (ONS data).

However, the 2022 CIPR State of the Profession Report observes a ‘great movement’ within the PR industry, with ‘a third of practitioners saying they are likely to look for a new job in the next six months and two-thirds of practitioners confident they would get a new job if they tried’.

Based on these stated intentions to move, a churn rate of 33% would trigger over 30,000 job moves. Unlikely? Well, the Drum’s Agency Wellbeing Census 2022 highlights an average retention rate of 42.4% among advertising and marketing firms.

While figures will vary across different specialisms and sectors, a high level of migration around any industry is disruptive and expensive with onboarding estimated to cost 50% of salary in recruitment and other expenditure.

The CIPD Good Work Index 2022 confirms intention to voluntarily leave a job is greatest among younger workers, with motivations to move cited as better remuneration and more meaningful work. The CIPR’s survey suggests two-fifths of PR practitioners up to 44 years of age may be looking for a new job currently.

Although there is a lack of data concerning PR attrition rates (ie those leaving the industry), in an occupation comprising 67% women, PRCA’s 2021 Census noted key considerations affecting retention are flexibility, maternity benefits, and design of senior roles. Academic, Liz Bridgen, found factors relating to caring restrictions and ‘the triviality’ of PR work are reasons why women decide to change careers and leave the PR industry.

Moreover, given the growth of PR in the 1990s - and particularly the number of women who started working in the industry at that time – a demographic shift is likely in the next few years. This is something I’ve started to research with Dr Sarah Bowman of Northumbria University.

This quick overview of the dynamic nature of PR churn suggests it is a problem requiring further attention. At the same time, job hopping, attrition, and recruitment can offer benefits to individuals, employers, and the wider profession. But, to make sense of the situation, more detailed evidence is needed. Precise metrics of churn would enable analysis and tracking of KPIs for employment, job movement, and career development. These should contribute to discussion and action regarding demographic inequities, changing career models, and other industry challenges in a coherent and consistent way.

PR is a highly fragmented industry where churn is persistent and inevitable. Understanding its positive and negative impact on career development, the profitability of consultancies, the effectiveness of in-house teams, and reputation of the occupation is an important matter that needs to be addressed.

Recommended sources:

Bridgen, E. (2022. It’s trivial, bitchy and dull. – women, the exit from public relations and the renegotiation of identities. In Topić, M. (Ed.) Towards a new understanding of masculine habitus and women and leadership in public relations. Routledge

CIPD , eg Good Work Index UK Working Lives Survey: https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/good-work-index-survey-report-2022_tcm18-109896.pdf

CIPR State of the Profession Report 2021/2022: https://newsroom.cipr.co.uk/new-stateofpr-research-finds-a-growing-industry-stunted-by-skills-shortage/

Drum Agency Wellbeing Census: https://www.thedrum.com/insight/2022/09/27/agency-wellbeing-census-average-staff-turnover-uk-agencies-just-42-our-survey

ONS Data, eg. Labour market overview, UK: March 2023. https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/march2023

PRCA’s PR and Communications Census 2021 UK: https://prca.mynewsdesk.com/documents/prca-uk-pr-census-2021-dot-pdf-423490

Article written by Heather Yaxley. PhD. FCIPR

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