Why there is the current ‘Great Resignation’ in PR and ways to solve the crisis

The last two years haven’t been easy, and one of the many fall-outs of the Covid pandemic has been a recruitment crisis in PR. However, agency chiefs say this isn’t the only reason for the ‘Great Resignation’ that has hit the industry. Here they give their take on what has caused the emergency and what can be done about it.

The causes 

Disconnection

Guy Walsingham, CEO of PR agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry: "The ‘Great Resignation’ is hitting agencies hard. PR pros gained new perspectives as the workplace became disconnected during the pandemic. Everyone suddenly lost the ability to interact with colleagues in person and many felt isolated. This created a volatile environment in which individuals didn’t feel as settled or engaged as they did pre-Covid-19 - prompting many to eye a career change.”

Too much competition 

Tanzila Ahmed, talent acquisition specialist at Weston Foods: “During the pandemic, employees got a chance to assess which companies matched their values, how they treated their employees, and what kind of flexibility they offered. Candidates are now receiving more attractive offers from competitors, shifting to in-house roles, opting for a career change, or pursuing a more autonomous, entrepreneurial path – thereby intensifying the war for talent. In the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Survey, more than half (54%) of employees surveyed globally said that they would consider leaving their job if they weren’t provided some form of workplace flexibility. Now more than ever, it is an employees’ market.”

Changing priorities

Kam White, global head of people and culture at PR agency Hotwire Global: “The pandemic, Brexit, the drive to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, and an accelerated global tech transformation have affected all economies and industries worldwide. People’s priorities have changed, the way we work has changed, and the skills we need in the comms industry have become more specialised. Changing jobs has become transactional. If you can do the same work remotely, you can work anywhere, and money becomes a key motivator to move as other in-office perks are lost. “ 

Being stuck at home 

Helen Jane Campbell, business coach for creative people and author of Founders, Freelancers and Rebels: How To Thrive as an Independent Creative: “I see plenty of talented people struggling to put together strong CVs and find the confidence to interview well. Being stuck at home for so long is definitely a factor here. There's not so much to put on a CV if you've been emailing in your pyjamas for the last 18 months as there would be if you were handling international in-person launches.”

Employers are impatient

Helen Jane Campbell: “Good people will be on long notice periods, but agency owners and in-house PR managers may feel a huge urgency to hire after all the setbacks of Covid. Taking time to truly figure out what's needed and hire thoughtfully is an important investment. In some cases, people come to my coaching and tell me they are desperate to hire a new account manager when what they actually need (for example) is perhaps an accountant or a financial director.”  

Poor working practices

Tony Garner, MD at agency Viva PR: “Attracting and retaining the brightest and best will always be an issue when the norm is poor conditions and massive expectations.

“When 90% of those in PR say they have had mental health issues, especially in the past 18 months, one factor exacerbating the recruitment crisis may be the real and perceived poor working culture and practice that this industry has become known for.” 

Lack of knowledge

Richard Cook, founder of agency Champion Communications www.champiojncomms.com: “We are recruiting hard at the moment at AE through to SAM level and have found candidates are often overwhelmed with options, may not be being given enough guidance from recruitment consultants and in the more senior cases, have come from environments where they have not been trusted or invested in so are more cynical as a result. It’s also notable that many graduates are not really sure what PR is and are unclear about the great things that a career in PR can bring. Other marketing disciplines and environments may seem much more attractive and innovative to those on the outside looking in and considering their options.”

The solutions 

Have a culture-first strategy

Guy Walsingham: "Agencies are now struggling to find the right candidates. This can be solved with a culture-first recruitment strategy. Agencies must focus on a holistic approach - defining and delivering on their unique culture and profiling candidates to find out whether they’d fit into the team and how to best manage them. They should get to know the candidate on a personal level, balancing this with the skills and experience needed for a particular role. The result will be a happier, more cohesive and more dynamic experience for candidates and staff alike. Skills can be taught, personality fit can't."

Widen your net

Tanzila Ahmed: “You are not always going to find that ‘perfect’ candidate. Understand the value that candidates with transferable skills bring to the table. If someone with a recruitment or banking background - with, say, impeccable communication and management skills - is looking to make a career change, be open to those candidates. Invest in training and development, factor in salary increments, WFH options, and focus on building a robust talent pipeline by engaging with universities and colleges. When you find the right hire - move fast. Remember to also keep your current staff engaged, as a positive work environment will make them your best ambassadors. 

Focus on the individual

Kam White: “At Hotwire, our response has been to focus on connection, wellness, career paths, and innovative ways to hire. For example: 

  1. “We work hard to connect with people. We run regular surveys, peer group sessions and, more recently, attraction and retention sessions to ensure we maintain a dialogue with our employees. 
  2. “We have a Thoughtful Working culture, where wellness and mental health are at the heart of what we do, and we build the work around it, rather than the other way around.
  3. “We proactively help people manage their career paths and not assume that they will know how to navigate them in the hybrid world we work in. 
  4. “Social media is the critical platform to attract new talent. You have to move fast, and the process has to run in hours and days, not weeks and months. Launching our new TikTok account has been very successful in recruitment leads.”

Use mentors

Helen Jane Campbell: “Coaching and mentoring can really help with interview style and CV-writing. Lacklustre CVs and anxious Zoom interviews are leading to agency owners thinking there are no good people out there to hire. In truth, there are good people but they might need a bit of nurturing to be interview-ready and that's their responsibility as the candidate, but it's hard. I'd urge anxious candidates to find a mentor, friend or coach to support them.”

 Think laterally

Helen Jane Campbell: “Thinking about the tasks that are piling up rather than having a knee-jerk reaction to hire another client-facing team member can be useful. In some cases my clients have actually gone off and hired a cleaner for their home or a meal-prep subscription to take some of the pressure off outside of work. This is just an example, but what I mean is the way we are currently living can require some lateral thinking about what's really going to ease stress. It's not always about the obvious things.”

Put wellbeing first

Tony Garner: “Instead of accepting the status quo and saying ‘that’s how it is in PR, it’s either right for you or it’s not’, we need to be looking at how and why we’ve got to this point as an industry.

“One way of addressing that is to put workplace wellbeing and culture at the heart of agency life. Another is to tackle workload issues in a meaningful way. Put simply, look after the people you have, and the new recruits will come.”

PR must explain itself

Richard Cook: “As an industry we would benefit from doing more to show how exciting, varied, profitable and flexible a career in public relations can be. I have noticed that there is greater diversity in the candidates we have seen over the past 12 months, which is fantastic. We are also noticing and welcoming candidates that have unconventional working requirements, perhaps being based away from the office or working part time. PR’s reputation as offering desk-bound sweatshops run by Patsys and Edinas with no career path or prospects is outdated but is still holding us back.”

Healthcare and tech sector perspective

Shalon Roth, founder of virtual healthcare communications agency PR-it, describes how the talent shortage in this sector is getting worse and why flexible working could help:

“Since I started in public relations 17 years ago, there’s been a talent drought in healthcare and tech, and it’s only getting worse. Historically, agencies and in-house communications departments poach from each other; however, sector growth combined with more talent leaving - both sides - to freelance is making hiring all the more difficult. 

“At PR-it, we’ve noticed an uptick in the volume of requests from our healthcare agency clients for deliverables to white label. Mid-level and seasoned permanent employees and high-quality freelancers are becoming harder for agencies to come by. Agencies are in a tricky cycle because without being able to staff ahead, coping with new business often overextends an already overworked team.

“According to Weber Shandwick’s United Minds study, people across PR want greater work-life balance and see flexibility as key. Burnout, vacancies and people reflecting on their value and job satisfaction is causing employees to demand more. However, this is not a bad thing - PR desperately needs a personalised approach to effectively retain high performers. Whether the industry’s top brass likes it or not, the Covid-induced “Great Resignation” is going to force agencies to rethink talent

management and company policies.”

Postcard from New York

Michael Kaye, corporate communications manager at LinkedIn, describes his experience of how things are changing in US PR recruitment , backed up by LinkedIn stats:

Before going in-house to OkCupid, and later LinkedIn, I spent years on the agency-side, working at firms with offices as small as five to ten people, to the largest public relations firms in the world. And though I recommend every communication professional begin their career at least one or two agencies, there were definitely challenges. Most importantly, there is a serious diversity problem. There has never, in my opinion, been adequate gender, racial or LGBTQ+ representation within the public relations industry, especially when we look at leadership teams. We’ve made progress in recent years, but there is still a lot of work to be done. My career began over seven years ago, yet it wasn’t until I went in-house that I saw someone like myself - an out gay man - within the executive team. And trust me, it isn’t for lack of talented, qualified LGBTQ+ candidates. But we’re seeing a shift happen. Clients are demanding more diversity on their account teams. They want to see their customers represented in their agency partners. I recently connected with a friend that works in-house who shared that they turned down an agency who brought an all-white account team to their new business pitch.

“A company post by LinkedIn found that: ‘Since the start of the pandemic, more than half (59%) of people in the US have experienced a career awakening: some looking for an entirely new role (33%), others pursuing a side hustle or passion project (34%) and many taking steps to learn something new in their existing role/company (30%), according to our recent survey. (Read more here.)’”