How old is too old in PR? Where are all the 40 year old account managers?

It is illegal to discriminate against people because of their age at work, but if you’re a PRO over 40, how confident are you that your career hasn‘t already peaked? Even if you are at the top of your organisation, you might feel that you are not getting the respect from younger colleagues that your experience should demand. In particular, new agencies like to think of themselves as young and cool, and the word ’hip’ is unlikely to be ascribed to middle-aged PROs, unless it is in connection with the word ’replacement’. 

Denise Taylor, chartered psychologist and career coach at Amazing People, has found that in her experience, the best move for a PRO over 40 is into another industry. She says: “I've worked with a couple of clients who worked in PR and both felt that as they approached 40 it was time to look for a new career.  There were so many young and upcoming people biting at their heels that they felt they could no longer expend enough energy to stay ahead of the rest.”

It is rare to come across an account handler in their late 40s, says Richard Houghton, founder of PR agency Carrot Communications. He thinks this is a waste, because someone who has been in the sector for 20-plus years has a lot to offer clients than more junior consultants. He adds: “One of the challenges of offering a long-term career is that we don't always value the practice of PR over the management of an agency. There can only be one managing director in each agency, but there is lots of opportunity to have senior practitioners consulting to clients and managing campaigns. The challenge is that – outside of financial PR – clients do not always want to pay for the additional experience and the agency structure doesn't always welcome the 40 pluses unless they are director level.”

Rassami Hok Ljungberg, director of PR agency rassami, agrees with Houghton that financial PR offers more scope to senior PROs than such sectors as media and technology. She also questions whether women suffer more from ageism than their male counterparts: “As a man, increasing age just makes you seem more experienced and wiser, whereas for a woman that is not a given.” Career coach Taylor agrees that it is worse for women, and the PR clients she worked with were both female.

However, not everyone thinks that older PROs are being shoved aside, or that being a woman is a particular disadvantage. Joanne Milroy, partner at PR firm Eloqui, points out that because PR people talk to such a wide range of audiences, of all different ages, this means that older PROs are more likely to understand, and communicate better with many of these people than those with less experience who cannot relate to them. Milroy’s own opinion is that having a long career in PR is about attitude rather than your age, adding that, “personalities such as Lord Bell and Lord Chadlington demonstrate you can have an exceptionally long involvement in the industry if you remain relevant and add value for a client or employer.”

Milroy also thinks there are plenty of roles for older PROs: “Lots of young entrants are coming into the industry, but I think there are many more older PR people around these days. I seem to be coming across a wider range of people and ages among industry contacts and in our client base. It is a function of the industry maturing and ageing itself."

So if you are getting on in years, this should not hold you back from getting on in PR.

Soundbites

Mital Joshi Goel, account manager at Speed Communications:

"There isn't a sell-by date on a PR person. The industry and the media moves incredibly fast – how could you ever become bored? There are always new challenges for me being presented by my agency, clients and the media. If you're happy in your role and working for the agency or organisation which fits in with your long-term career goals, you will do well and progress to a senior role – and the sky is the limit.”

Julia Ruane, head of PR at digital agency DigForFireDMG:

“PR can offer a long-term career very easily – either by moving up the food chain or setting up your own agency. It's possible to diversify into internal comms and marketing roles too. Making a move out of PR should be easy as PR comes with lots of transferable skills, but there's a tendency to not see PR as a 'real' career outside of the industry, instead to be seen as a spin artist. Saying that, teaching is an option, as is, apparently, politics and being the leader of the opposition.”

Emma Hazan, managing director of consumer PR agency Skywrite:

"Perhaps PR is viewed as a young person's career because, more often than not, it is the more junior staff that end up having the face time with the media and are the go-to people on the account. If senior PR people no longer liaise with the media on a daily basis, there's a danger that they alienate themselves from what they loved about the job in the first place. Maintaining good relationships with the press not only means senior-level PR consultants remain enthused and excited about PR, but also ensures they know what journalists want, placing them in a better position to provide that much-needed senior counsel to clients. Only a hands-on approach will keep senior staff engaged and respected in the PR industry – otherwise they'll eventually step aside to make way for a younger, fresher and hungrier version of themselves.” 

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