Calculating your worth in public relations

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A basic calculation of what you are worth as a PR practitioner comes by dividing your annual income by the number of hours that you work. Not the number that you are employed for, but how many hours you work.

Often in PR we ‘over-service’ – not only if we work as a consultant but within in-house roles too. It has become ingrained in practice that clocking up hours, and getting the job done is what’s important. Consultancies regularly charge clients for total hours worked by their staff even if only paying them for contracted hours, as overtime rates are not always given. Likewise, in-house PR practitioners may not get time off or other recompense for their over-contract hours.

This illustrates how PR practice is traditionally predicated on maximising the output of practitioners for a fixed cost payment without truly valuing either their input, or more importantly, the outcome or outflow of their work. Of course, the occupation has not been the best at evaluating the value of public relations work itself – with spurious ‘advertising equivalent’ measures used (now commonly renamed as ‘PR value’) where if we actually assessed and promoted the strategic benefits gained from public relations, we’d be in a better position to calculate what we are worth.

It can be hard to benchmark your worth against other PR practitioners as exact salaries are generally not published (check most PR job adverts). In reports researching the profession/industry by CIPR or PRCA in the UK (and from other bodies elsewhere), general salary banding figures are produced that may be calculations of mean averages. Statistically this can reflect a skewed perspective if raw data or median or modal figures aren’t available. Such studies often rely on voluntary submissions and we have no way of knowing if those who complete them give a representative picture of the entire occupation’s income or if participants are telling the truth when it comes to what they are paid.

The lack of a clear salary for a particular advertised PR post or even a reasonable range (rather than ‘competitive’, ‘negotiable’ or ‘on application) suggests employers seek to exert their power in paying for talent. It is only where individuals have a track record and established salary base on which to argue for what they believe they are worth – and where demand for their talent is greater than alternative suppliers – that the provider is in an equal or better negotiating position.

For those at the start of their careers, discussions are more difficult (as student Page Hiley notes in her blog post on the topic). This is arguably critically important as first salaries will set the track for future percentage increases and career moves. Allowing negotiation of salary is also said to favour men over women who are traditionally said to be less likely to up their price tag.

There are other components of determining your worth which may be ignored by younger employees keen to enter the PR workforce. Pensions are just one example, but other benefits are often open to negotiation. But job adverts targeting graduates and other early career practitioners tend to focus on the employer and what they want from the applicants. Commonly this is a long list of demands, fizzed up by hyperbole about the reputation of the employing organisation and the opportunity for travel and other perceived hooks to catch the juiciest, young fish.

Universities and professional bodies could do more to make the PR people market more transparent, alongside of course, employers and specialist recruitment agencies. For graduates who in many countries face repaying educational debts from having invested in a specialist qualification, understanding how to calculate their worth – and where they can best achieve a return on their talents is vital.

Some sectors and employers pay more than others (likewise there is a reported pay divide in relation to pay rises) – but do students recognise this when making decisions about placements, internships and graduate positions? Or are they led by their hearts for example into fashion or similar industries that notoriously pay poorly and require connections to get inside the door.

The same ‘return on investment’ analysis applies to those who engage with professional development. Whilst income tracks experience, it is difficult to determine the contribution of enhancing competencies as robust industry evidence is hard to come by. PR Academy’s annual research supports the premise, although it is reporting feedback from those who have achieved professional qualifications where we don’t necessarily know the status of those who haven’t voluntarily spent their time and their own, or employers’, money in skills and knowledge development. Let alone compared to those who rely on career moves or years on the job as means of gaining salary increases.

As an educator, I believe there are tangible and intangible benefits in gaining knowledge and improving skills. As someone who is self-employed – and has invested in gaining qualifications, self-directed learning and competency development (as evidenced in part in my 11 years’ record within the CIPR’s CPD scheme), over nearly 30 years in public relations, I have to calculate a figure for my worth. Being able to translate my development into personal and professional benefits has certainly been of value to me, in tangible and intangible terms.

The PR industry has traditionally used a task based budgeting approach, with an hourly or daily rate charged for individuals (commonly relating to a stratified job band – e.g. account executive, account manager, account director). This historically translated into a monthly or annual retainer fee as a negotiated budget against which hours were billed. But dissatisfaction among clients who felt under-serviced, and consultancies who argued they over-serviced, plus economic constraints, have tended to reduce the ubiquity of this set-up. Discussion around ‘payment by results‘ have been around for years, along with charging by the task (cost per press release for example) or project.

One problem with such productivity approaches to charging in public relations is that such heavily people based business can be less profitable compared to other services. With many clients taking payment for ‘bought-in’ costs in-house or prohibiting generous mark-ups, the pressures increase to pay people as little as possible, and then focus on billable hours.

It is therefore not surprising when investment in professional development is lacking in the PR industry – and where offered focuses mainly on skills training, which in the case of many larger agencies is undertaken internally so becomes oriented to proprietary processes and practices.

Task or hours based calculations don’t actually indicate true worth either as it favours a ‘market-value’ view of what to charge. This can be based on prejudices such as willingness to pay a large agency much more than a smaller one, based on swanky offices and city addresses, or the belief within organisations that a big-name agency or individual is the most reliable option perhaps rather than a start-up, local freelance or more flexible staffing arrangements. The New York based publicist Ben Sonnenberg famously sought to increase his prestige and income (leading to a fabulous mansion home in Gramercy Park) by the mantra “always live better than your clients“.

This shamelessly audacious approach to charges is changing as budgets have tightened but the implication continues that you pay less for the smaller entrepreneur or in-house provider. That is, PR can be gained on the cheap. Mind you, an industry that has compared itself to the advertising industry as being a ‘free’ coverage option, has hardly conveyed its value to employers and clients.

Whilst academia and the professional bodies increasingly promote a strategic approach to public relations that is higher up the income chain, this remains an industry dominated by the young who are involved primarily in tactical activities. Media relations remains the dominant skill requirement, being replaced by social media and digital communications – again predominantly by those early in their careers.

The career path in PR remains stuck in the past, with the metaphor of a ladder evident in working your way up into better paid strategic work. Alternatively, the option of freelance work is particularly welcomed by women, who appreciate the flexibility offered and opportunities to avoid gendered employment traps. However, it is likely given the ongoing salary disparity between men and women, that freelance rates could equally reflect charging differences. Or perhaps women as freelancers tend to focus on tactical services or particular industries which are paid less well.

As a rhizomatic self-employed PR practitioner-academic, increasingly I calculate what I’m worth in relation to whether or not I wish to do a job. I’m assessing what’s in it for me, which includes the fee being paid, but covers much more than that. What does the proposed work offer me in terms of enhancing my social or cultural capital, my reputation, my professional development, my enjoyment of investing my time (and often a lost opportunity cost)? It is naturally, important to value what I can bring to those I work with, so I also expect to be treated with respect not least in relation to the worth of my time and insight in helping others.

Of course, I am fortunate to be in a position to make such an assessment of the worth of work in my life. Many public relations practitioners are not able to do so as they need to focus on getting and maintaining a job, even at the expense of what it pays, over any other criteria. Indeed, talk about the rise of robots and how much of the tactical or technical work undertaken in PR could be – actually is being – automated or outsourced emphasises the necessity of  shifting the PR industry to a better way of calculating its worth, and that of those who work in it. Other pressures come from the increase of on-demand services, which have potential to impact on the traditional PR agency model – but could favour freelancers.

As I am arguing in my PhD studies researching career strategies in public relations, one thing seems clear. This is an occupation that is inherently entwined in the socio-cultural context of its times. As the world of work is changing rapidly, in many different complex and chaotic ways, I think it is ever more essential to be able to calculate – and demonstrate your worth in public relations.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Heather, thank you for this article. So well timed, especially given the recent CIPR research here in the UK showing the disparity between salaries for men and women.

    I’d like to focus on the points you make about pay. At one point early on in my PR career I did a simple calculation: The amount of billable hours I logged on average each week, multiplied over the course of a year. Then I compared it with my salary. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out just how much you are generating for a company, and the small amount you are paid in return.

    I think this is just another reason why PR practitioners move frequently throughout their career these days. Why show loyalty to an employer when the personal return is so low, and the salary increases offered each year are a third of what you’d make by moving to another agency?

    The recent CIPR research (showing that men, on average, earn £8.5K more than women), is so disappointing. It’s 2015 and women are still not asking for what they are worth – and this is in an industry largely dominated by women! Perhaps this is something that can be addressed as part of University courses before young practitioners enter the workforce – but I am not hopeful.

    I will however share this thought – PR professionals are dedicated to client service and keeping their clients happy (and rightly so). However I have seen time and time again the mentality where practitioners act as if they work in customer service rather than what they are – professional consultants with excellent advice that is worth taking. Women are more likely to work to grant a client’s request whether it is feasible or not, rather than tell that client it’s a bad idea and suggest a more workable alternative. With this mindset of being a ‘people pleaser’ it is no wonder that when it comes to salary negotiations women are less likely to accurately judge their own worth, and to accept a low salary offer or increase, thus contributing to the problem.

    It is something I hope to cover on my blog when it launches later this month.

  2. Sarah,

    I appreciate your comment and good luck with your new blog. You make some good points about salary and career moves. In relation to salaries in agencies versus the amount being billed to clients, the issue of course, is that PR practitioners are the ‘product’ being sold and consequently are covering all the overheads, including the salaries of non-billable staff. The same is true for many fields that are predicated on billable time (from tradesmen to professionals such as lawyers, accountants, etc), but there does seem to be less engagement of PR practitioners by employers. This reflects a change in the psychological contract (as well as in legal contracts) where expectations of employees are commonly not reciprocated with tangible benefits, or a long-term commitment. So yes, no wonder people switch jobs more frequently.

    It is interesting that you discuss ‘keeping the client happy’ and reference to ‘service industry’. Studies I have seen argue that clients actually value PR practitioners who are experts + able to push back “When CEOs dealt with high-calibre advisors, their perceptions of the value of PR were higher.” (from http://chimeplc.com/downloads/reputationkm.pdf).

    In terms of how this relates to gender, there are some interesting academic studies such as:

    Fröhlich, R. & Peters, S. B. (2007). PR “bunnies” caught in the agency ghetto? Gender stereotypes, organizational factors, and women’s careers in PR agencies

    Yeomans, L. (2010). Soft Sell? Gendered experience of emotional labour in UK public relations firms. PRism 7(4). Via: http://www.prismjournal.org/fileadmin/Praxis/Files/Gender/Yeomans.pdf

    Much work to do here in many different ways so look forward to reading more of your perspective on your new blog.

  3. Hi Heather – interesting post. The question of pricing is always the hardest one for us PRs. When I launched (goodness, six years ago!) Communication Ammo, I acid-tested pricing by interviewing agencies and asking, “were I working for you, at what level would you bill me?” The answer surprised my, but should not have, as the agencies all said either at partner or SVP level. That led me to focus my strategy and my rates at higher-level points than I might have had I not known that. I discounted for retainer work and for not-for-profit, but largely am in the range I researched at the outset.

    Secondly, the question of the wage gap: Dr. Bey-Ling Sha of San Diego State presented research last week she is supervising on uncovering the gender gap in PR. She’s focusing not on sex, but on the range of masculine/feminine attributes and self-identification. It turns out there is more at work here than genitals. Identity seems to have more to do with it. But also, those more feminine in the range seem to turn up more frequently in education and non-profit, which also could be a contributory factor. That makes sexism unlikely to be the sole factor responsible for the gap (consistent with previous research on people who are out of the workforce for some period, which also seems to be a factor.)

    That didn’t stop Bey-Ling from dubbing the difference in pay the “Penis Premium.”

    Cheers.
    Sean

    • Sean – thanks for the comment. Regarding your first point, I think that there is a tendency for those who shift into self-employment to under-value themselves. Why shouldn’t we value our work at the same rate as those who are running an agency as it is about the worth of our work, not the overheads that the larger agencies need to cover that should be important. But on that point – too many freelancers in my experience, fail to cost out their own overheads, and again fail to factor this into their charging rates.

      On the second point, I’m sure that any salary debate is more nuanced than simply gender, and there could be some leaning towards certain sectors or type of work that result in pay differences for certain people (whether with a penis or not). But perhaps that also underlies some gender issue with regard to men gravitating (or those high on masculine traits) towards higher paying work. Or is it that sectors that tend to employ more women, don’t pay as well? Still lots to investigate – and of course, it is an issue that isn’t just PR related.

  4. Very interesting piece and follow on comments. I’m interested to know if research and experience show that there is a gender pay gap when comparing same level jobs (ie: female director to male director) and experience (years of service etc…) or if this is an overall comparison which shows more than fewer women progress to senior positions than men?

    Also – if this is replicated with “in house” roles. Most of my career has been “in house” (35 years) vs. agency (2 years) and this is an issue I’ve only seen raised re: agencies. When “in house” my experience was that most top roles were held by women not men.

    • Mike – can I direct you to the UK research by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (http://www.cipr.co.uk/stateofpr) that claims there is a gender differential even when taking into account the factors that you mention. I believe that it is also said to apply in-house and not just in consultancy work. Even when women are in senior roles, there is a salary differential.

      One question I ask is why women themselves as employers are not apparently addressing any disparity. Particularly in the UK where gender salary differences for same job are illegal – it should not be tolerated at all.

      From my own experience in debating the topic with my practitioner students, it seems that in the UK at least, there is less differential in public sector work (state employment) where gradings and salary levels are more transparent. But I get a sense that it remains true (and I have had students research this) in the private and not for profit sectors. There are other factors than salary that also I’ve come across, such as where a male manager was replaced with a female one, who no longer had a personal assistant but had to share this resource with another manager. May be coincidence, but some of these signs seem to emerge when you speak with women.

      • Thanks Heather. I had seen the CIPR survey which does have some insights but I’m not convinced that the model used really compares like with like. If any employer is paying a woman less than a man for doing exactly the same job they should and could be prosecuted. For the employer it really makes no sense to restrict talent searches and people development once hired by applying gender discrimination. I appreciate that it happens but it is bad business, and bad for business.

        Interested in your PA comment. Do managers still have PA’s? I haven’t had a PA for many years (unfortunately) because in the companies I’ve worked for managers, directors and execs are expected to be self-sufficient. That’s what technology is for – to ensure that we all have at least two jobs to do in the same time for less money 🙂 Progress.

        • Mike – I feel that the CIPR methodology is quite flawed to be honest. But even though I agree with you that the issue is one of compliance to what is already legally mandated, there is enough wriggle room in most job specs and salary bands to allow for some variance, which may benefit those who are more ‘forward’ in negotiating their benefits package. Whether or not as Sean suggested this always relates to gender is of course debatable.

          You would think that organisations recognised and rewarded talent, but we all know that’s not always the case. It is a bit like people who will cut corners to save a few pennies when the outcome is normally to incur more costs later.

          Regarding PA support, what I tend to see these days is more a departmental administrative function as the idea of a personal PA (let alone a secretary) seems tied up with status that only the most senior are provided with. As you note, it does seem to be the case that everyone is expected to DIY these days.

          Again that’s so short-sighted as the cost of good admin support more than pays for itself IMHO, particularly as otherwise, those who are paid more are spending time doing it. Although as you indicate, that becomes part of that ‘unpaid’ but charged for expectation.

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