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Does PR have an age problem?

PR is a profession that has more than its fair share of younger workers. Darryl Sparey, business development director at PR agency Hotwire, quotes statistics to back this up: “Data from the IPA's 2017 Census shows that only 7.7% of creative and non-media agency staff are aged over 50, and just 0.8% are over 60. Contrast to wider society, where by 2050 25% of people will be aged over 65, or other professional services: The average age of an accountant is 44, the average age of a lawyer is above 30.”

Youthful bias

Sparey believes the bias towards youth needs to change: “As an industry we should increase our efforts to promote the benefits of age and experience.” Although he appreciates that there are benefits of a youthful workforce, he thinks that experience should be valued more: “Younger people tend to be less expensive, more flexible and have less commitments, typically, than their more experienced counterparts. But with age comes experience, the ability to know how to deal with a crisis, because you’ve dealt with it before. Or more long-standing relationships with media, policy makers and other stakeholders which can be drawn upon when needed.”

It also concerns Sparey that there may be some stigma attached to being older in PR: “That’s why earlier in the year I launched the #PR60Over60 initiative to find, recognise and celebrate 60 PR practitioners who are putting their craft to work now. It’s not been straightforward – people have not wanted to publicly suggest someone is over 60, and then be told they’re wrong. I’ve had nominees contact me to tell me they don’t want to be included because of a stigma at their existing workplace associated with their age.”

To further discuss what counts more in PR, experience or youth, PROs of different ages discuss below whether age is just a number in PR.

You need a mix of all ages

Luke Bigwood, head of content and communications at food producer Yeo Valley, says all ages have something to contribute to PR teams:  “Age and experience have their benefits but so do youthfulness and inexperience, so it’s good to have a mix of both in a PR team.

“I think brands will always want an experienced PR leader to take a longer-term, strategic view on how it is positioned and presented. But my view is that you want a mix of ages and experiences in your team.

“Experience does not always mean better results. Quite often inexperience, even nativity, delivers the most unexpected results – where you think you’ve seen or done it all before, but youthful optimism shows you a new way of looking at or executing an idea.”

Younger people can have a sense of entitlement…

Jules Herd, managing director of marketing agency Five in a Boat, says PR graduates these days can be over-confident: “My first day in PR finished at 10pm with a two-hour commute home. A day spent photocopying and gluing press cuttings. Despite having a PR degree, I didn’t question it. Today the focus on educational versus on-the-job experience appears to be disproportionate. I see many –  NOT ALL – PR graduates leave uni with a sense of entitlement; a sense that they have finished a degree and are therefore somehow more knowledgeable than those who have spent years in the industry.”

… but more experienced people can have a superiority complex

Herd adds that this is not to say older people are any better: “At the same time, I’ve witnessed with some of the ‘old guard’ a resistance to learn, and an opinion that – given their years in the PR game – they’re better than someone who is younger or less experienced.

“From my perspective, experience doesn’t necessarily make you better at your job, but it does give you a better understanding of how to navigate the working environment. Life experience can’t be delivered through a degree. However, length of service can also breed laziness and contempt.”

Attitude is what counts

Herd concluses:  “I truly believe that it is attitude not age that separates the wheat from the chaff. Being willing to learn, getting your hands dirty and celebrating talent is what will set you apart from the rest and ensure you remain at the top of your game at every age.”

First person  

Working in PR in your 40s and 50s

Jill Hawkins, director of PR agency Aniseed PR: “As I hit 50 this year, the thought of being too old to do this job did enter my mind. I work with a relatively small number of journalists and so my work relies on the fact that I have built up a very close rapport and trust with them. But they are getting younger, as I get older, so is it still possible to have that close relationship if you are twice their age/closer in age to their parents? I think it’s more down to attitude than age – some people are ‘old’ at 18, whilst others are still young at 70. I still enjoy their company and I do socialise with them, but I may alternate my alcoholic drinks with tonic water these days (the hangovers definitely get worse as you get older). Age (and experience) does have its benefits though – I find I’m closer in age to the CEOs of the companies that I represent and so it’s easier to build trust there, and also having experience of a sector and its history is invaluable.”

Sonja Robertson, editorial director at agency Milk & Honey PR: “Your professional value should never be defined by your age. Experience makes us better at everything, but it comes from more than just work. It comes from our different backgrounds, focus areas and the life lessons that shape us. I believe experience is transferable, we can apply it to all manner of situations and, given the opportunity, use it to flourish in new jobs and new industries. Whilst we all gather experience over time, the level of experience we bring to a given discipline isn’t restricted by background, gender or age. Neither is a career in PR. 

“Coming fresh to this industry in my late 40s I’m proof of that. I’m sure it helps that I’ve found myself working in a genuinely diverse, people-first PR agency. I feel valued and confident adding my experience to the pot and equally enlivened drawing new skills from it, learning from colleagues with a wealth of different experience.  Age becomes irrelevant when everyone operates from a place of respect. Capability and achievement – professional, personal or physical – are not measured by the number of candles on your cake.”

Working in PR in your 20s

Jessica Pardoe, PR executive: "I'm only 22 and I like to think I do alright for myself in terms of my PR capabilities, but that being said I know I have plenty more to learn too. I think a lot of the qualities that a good PR person has cannot be taught. For example, passion, creativity and ability to be a people person. These are all traits that age should not impact. But then, on the other hand, experience does do a great deal in this industry. It gives you more time to build up solid media relationships, and also allows you to learn the tricks of the trade. PR is an ever-evolving industry so you do need to keep updated and know what's hot and new. At the same time, it helps to have experience under your belt to know the standard dos and don'ts of the industry too.“

As well as the stats quoted by Hotwire’s Sparey at the beginning of this feature, the PRCA Census also highlights to what extent PR and communications is a young industry, with the most common age range being from 25 to 34. So it is not so much that it is an advantage to be young in PR, it is just that it is more common –  the reasons for this need to be analysed and if there is found to be any prejudice against older workers, this must be tackled.

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