Today, the almost 120-year old profession of PR is attempting to mitigate the consequences of having failed to innovate; struggling to stay relevant, cutting edge and valuable with clients and employees alike.
The catalyst for PR’s decline in perception (ironic – an industry responsible for reputation management and creating perception hasn’t given its own reputation or perception much attention) isn’t singular. PR consistently ranks as one of the top 10 most stressful professions and PR firms, on average, under pay their people. The average PR firm only allocates 3.1 percent of annual revenue on bonuses. Not surprising, industry-wide, agency employee turnover spans between 20-30 percent, while some studies report the percentage to be closer to 50. Not to mention, PR firms only spend 1.9 percent of their annual revenue on technology when the average across industry is 5.9 percent. For the millions of digital-native millennial job seekers, who now represent the majority of the workforce, the technical deficiencies of the PR industry make it a non-starter.
While poor perception, a diminishing reputation and inadequate pay are commonly projected as the primary culprits of PR’s problems, it is, without a doubt, the industry’s highly inadequate commitment to professional development that is the root cause of its epic struggles.
The Alarming Lack of Professional Development in PR
If you receive the onslaught of daily emails from PR Daily, PRSA, Bulldog Reporter and other industry trades, you would think that PR pros are some of the best trained workers in the world. From live conferences and workshops to webinars, Twit-chats and virtual summits, not a week goes by without a learning opportunity available (we can debate the merits of these events another time).
Access to training is extremely essential, as 87 percent of millennials say professional development or career growth opportunities are very important. Yet when compared to the aggregate rankings of professional development investments across industries, PR trends towards the bottom of the pack. According to the Association of Talent Development, companies across industry with fewer than 500 employees (the majority of PR agencies), spend an average of $1,888 per employee. In PR, large agencies, on average, invest only $1,200 per year on each employee’s development. This dollar amount decreases substantially for smaller agencies.
Furthermore, in 2016, an astounding 14 percent of agencies indicated that they did not provide any, as in zero, professional development opportunities to their staff. A different survey of 200 agencies found that of those firms that did encourage and/or provide professional development, 64 percent relied on blogs as the primary source of employee education. In no reality should blog reading be considered a dominant form of professional development. Also in 2015, only 6 percent of clients listed understaffing & inexperience as a reason for termination; but that number jumped to 21 percent in 2016. In other words, as agencies struggle to stay competitive and meet client needs, they are sacrificing talent and sufficient skill development — and clients are starting to notice.
Why the Skills Deficiency for PR Pros, Anyways?
I have always argued that collegiate communications courses, even those specific to PR, are an injustice to students pursuing the profession because they do not teach the skills or present the scenarios that are common to a career in public relations. We can debate who or what is at fault for such a disconnect (I argue it’s PRSA while others put the blame on university admin), but the reality is that PR grads are entering the workforce with no idea how to pitch media, position messaging, manage budgets or communicate with clients.
Yes, today’s grads in particular embrace social media and other tech skills important to the future of PR, but they often lack any knowledge of traditional PR tactics, the business savvy needed to tie PR to sales and customer relationship skills. Wired argues that college today doesn’t effectively train people for any job, but I proclaim that this is especially true for PR. Heck, many students and recent grads cannot even accurately define what constitutes the profession, no less execute on the most routine of tasks.
For legacy (e.g. boomers & Gen-X) PR pros, many new many tools, technologies and techniques are now in the arsenal. For example, technology allows the efficiency and precision needed to track consumers from a media placement to the first visit on a client’s website. Visibility into these first touch points allows practitioners to nurture and build the relationship with compelling, effective content marketing up to the point when it converts to a sale. But if legacy PR employees aren’t afforded the opportunity to develop their skills and learn new tricks of the trade, the industry will continue to struggle with high-turnover and low client satisfaction. Marketing automation, Google AdWords and SEO weren’t a thing when older pros were in college or making their mark in the industry, after all.
A Defining Moment for PR
Never before has PR had so many smart, multi-tasking, passionate workers in the talent pool. Never before has the industry had the opportunity to demonstrate and prove the value of our craft from headline to sale. But if the industry doesn’t collectively set a higher standard for professional development, revenues will continue to decline, employee turnover will continue to rise and the industry will fail to take its tools and channels back from the agencies and departments that were forced to silo.
Evan Goldberg serves as director of ARPR, the Southeast’s fastest growing technology PR firm and 2014 Small Agency of the Year. Throughout his career, he has led integrated communications campaigns for startups, mid-sized enterprises and Fortune 500 companies that have resulted in measurable increases in awareness, adoption, sales and venture capital funding. Today, he leads ARPR’s cybersecurity and SaaS practice groups, where his clients have been seen in Venture Beat, Fast Company, The Guardian and MIT Technology Review.