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.