Ever since public relations became a career option around a century ago, people have found themselves working in it by accident. It is still common today for practitioners to reflect vastly different job histories prior to joining the field, and to pursue different career paths over their working lives.
Some people move away from the occupation and this churn is not necessarily a bad thing.
Perhaps practitioners secure opportunities for promotion taking them away from a core PR role. They may take up non-PR positions that continue to use their transferable skills, or they may decide to follow a new career path entirely. Such moves are positive, with pull factors taking practitioners into new directions. Similarly, people may face push factors whereby they leave of their own volition or are forced out of the occupation for one reason or another.
Frustrated by working in PR?
Concerns over the lack of representation of women in senior roles in public relations has led British academic, Liz Bridgen to conclude from research that women may go “missing” as a result of finding public relations work to be “trivial, meaningless and dull”.
Such frustration is nothing new. In research I undertook among women who entered public relations in the 1970s/1980s (published in Public Relations Review in 2013), one participant stated:
I woke up one day and didn’t think I’d been to University – that my mother and father had scrimped and saved – for me to promote toilet cleaner so I decided to move.”
Jacquie L’Etang, likewise, reported in a 2015 article (in the Journal of Communication Management) drawing on her earlier oral history interviews, a female participant saying:
The thought that my life should be restricted by some sort of external power that although I had a degree all I’m fit for as a woman is to run a cosmetic account was something I really thought was too much.”
These two women remained in the occupation, demonstrating personal career agency in stepping away from the gendered notions that women should focus on female issues.
Why the women interviewed by Liz Bridgen choose not to develop their careers elsewhere in the occupation is not clear. Within public relations, emphasis is largely on ‘individualization’, whereby people are viewed as responsible for managing their own career development. Hence, leaving the occupation, or shifting to a position where the work, and working conditions, are more to someone’s liking, reflects Parsons’ early 20th century concept of uniting (subsequently termed matching or ‘fit’), a person’s “aptitudes, abilities, ambitions, resources, and limitations” with their individual career choice.
However, this ignores structural reasons why people leave the occupation, when a more radical approach would be required to respond to churn (than simply viewing such decisions as a personal matter). Before drawing this conclusion, we need to obtain much more robust data on turnover within the occupation.
Unfortunately there is a lack of reliable ongoing research into staff turnover levels, let alone how many practitioners leave the industry. Indeed, such data can be masked by the ongoing growth of the occupation.
Volatility of consultancy sector PR careers
Based on historic reports in the the UK version of PR Week, churn appears to be most prevalent in the agency sector. Looking back to the early 1990s, articles reveal an unprecedented rate of closure of consultancies, but do not consider the impact this had on practitioners and their careers. In 1992, Jefkins claimed “during the recession in 1991, when consultancies were losing clients and shedding staff, an increasing amount of PR was being handled in-house” – although he cited no evidence to substantiate this claim. But we don’t know if the downturn saw agency staff moving into PR roles within organisations as Jefkins seems to imply.
Even today, it is hard to locate facts concerning the numbers of people entering the occupation, switching between consultancy and in-house roles, moving jobs and leaving the occupation at any time. The Hollis directory of 1976 claimed “the rate of transfers, promotions, and other employment changes in the public relations field is extraordinarily high”, whilst in 1987 PR Week noted clients “complained about the frequency of personnel changes within the consultancy team dealing with their business. The consultancy business is painfully aware that it is considered less than stable”.
In 2003, a British study jointly funded by the (then) Institute of Public Relations and the Department of Trade and Industry noted “a cultural expectation that PR practitioners move jobs every 2-3 years”. It wasn’t presented as problematic (nor supported by data) – and could be seen as reflecting the success of the industry by suggesting plentiful opportunities for career development.
Nevertheless, my research shows a likely correlation between volatility in the consultancy sector and the state of the economy and other societal changes. PRCA Benchmarking surveys offer some indication of current employment trends in the UK industry, with staff recruitment and retention identified as critical business issues. At the same time, redundancies continue to be common (although not at the level experienced between 2008-2010 owing to the global recession). Yet, rather than the large scale layoffs noted in the 1990s, today my deduction is that relatively small numbers of redundancies occur across a large number of firms.
There is some indication that staff turnover in public relations agencies in the UK is around 20-25% – which may seem high at one in four or five account executives/managers leaving each year. However, the figure compares favourably to advertising (where the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising reports an average staff churn rate of 30% within consultancies). Yet it is more than double the UK general average employee churn rate of 10%. The significance of job instability for career development within public relations consultancies as a whole, or for individual practitioners, is under-studied.
A PRCA Consultancy Benchmarking study suggests 36% of leavers move to another agency, 14% switch to an in-house position, 8% become self-employed, and 13% make a complete career change based on limited 2013 data. Within organisations, staff poaching and high staff turnover are reported concerns for PR teams, with a relatively low level of job cuts and non-replacement of leavers. This implies that retention and recruitment are less of an issue with in-house employment than in consultancies, which would not be surprising.
Occupational churn affects all professions
Mind you, churn isn’t necessarily bad or unusual, even in professions. In his seminal book the System of Professions, published in 1988, Abbott notes that:
Out-mobility is high in nearly every American profession except pharmacy and dentistry. By age forty-five, about 10 percent of a beginning cohort of pharmacists has left active practice, about 30 percent of physicians, 25 percent of lawyers, 30 percent of architects. Rates for clergy, engineers, social workers, and teachers are around 50 percent.”
This is striking given the commitment required to training in many of these professions. Today we face ever greater opportunity and propensity to change jobs – alongside potential to develop careers on a global basis. So can we be surprised that people decide to move into, and on from, working in public relations?
We should also recognise that people are unlikely to have either a job, or a career, for life, as was the perceived norm in the mid-20th century (at least for men on a managerial career track). Anyone looking to climb the traditional career ladder undoubtedly will need to change companies, if not countries, in pursuit of a hierarchical progression in 2016 and beyond. Within public relations, there are many other opportunities beyond the typical linear career path – and this is something we could convey as a benefit not present as a problem. Many of the recent ideas within career studies literature can be found within PR employment, such as boundaryless, portfolio or protean careers – something that I’m exploring in completing my PhD thesis concerning career strategies in public relations.
Radical changes needed to address career issues
I believe that there are structural issues within the public relations industry that need to be challenged, to ensure that talented individuals choose to spend at least some of their long working careers in the field. This is true in relation to ensuring a diversity of people feel that they ‘fit’, particularly if they are in any way different from the typical expectation of the working population within public relations practice.
Without radical change, it will not be surprising if the occupation’s demographic make-up remains stubbornly homogenous, and the level of churn among certain practitioner segments is disproportionately high.
Indeed, without openly addressing industry practices and assumptions, we will continue to see the numerical dominance of females studying specialist PR qualifications and in early career positions, whilst employment in senior roles retains a predominantly male default setting.
If we continue to focus on tactical execution (as noted in a recent LinkedIn post, Let’s break PR, by Catherine Arrow), women – and many men – will vote with their feet and look for more rewarding, flexible, and socially valuable work outside of public relations.
The current arguments for ‘modernisation’ (largely referring to use of technology and content marketing) ignores the fact we live in a post-modernist world, where many different voices, experiences, expectations, career choices and options for engaging employment are required.
Developing a flexible, rhizomatic PR career framework
I would like to see development of a framework of career opportunities within public relations. This should map out the scope and the structure of employment which is vast and seems to be ever-expanding. The idea is to support better career decision making and demonstrate how professional mobility can be a fact of a healthy industry and mature occupation. My thinking is that this would take the form of a rhizomatic structure, and be genuinely future proof, to replace the notion of rigid career ladders found in PR literature (technician-manager roles) and practice (executive-manager-director progression).
This is an industry that ought to be able to offer flexible, rewarding employment for a wide range of people. We know that contemporary careers involve an increasing number of positions (greater even than the 10-14 jobs estimated in the 2007 Shift Happens video).
A trend for ‘job hopping’ and new types of opportunities (jobs that didn’t exist even 12 months ago) means people remain in organisations for shorter periods of time, consequently organisations do not necessarily offer even short-term career opportunities. Public relations could be seen as a vanguard profession, offering transferable skills, with the potential to capitalise on career developments and opportunities.
Or it can carry on with its traditional thinking of careers often based on outdated hierarchical large agency models that do not reflect the experience of the majority of practitioners, or offer consistent long-term career progression as is suggested in role theory models. Too much career advice in the occupation remains anecdotal or derived from 20th century experiences.
I once worked in a consultancy where most Fridays involved a leaving event – signing ‘sorry to see you go’ cards was an ongoing process. This was a successful, growing business, where many of my former colleagues moved on to build great careers. I was never sorry to see someone leave in such circumstances.
If we are to continue to attract talent and allow it to flourish within this industry, we need academics and practitioners to research career churn and use robust understanding (from both perspectives) to focus on some radical challenges to our modus operandi.