Public relations in India is underpaid and underappreciated, says MSL India’s Jaideep Shergill

Public relations in India is underpaid and underappreciated. In the first edition of MSLGROUP’s India PR report, released last year, industry veterans had said that clients are reluctant to recognise the value PR brings to the table.

This reluctance is a longstanding worry in an industry that is still evolving, one which doesn’t yet have even the basic fee-per-resource norm. The industry itself is not above blame. Undercutting is rampant, which is partly responsible for retainers not rising.

It’s no surprise, then, that while the average annual advertising contract is Rs 2 crore, PR retainers average Rs 20 lakh.

This has a direct impact on the talent that industry attracts. Low retainers ensure that the salaries on offer are lower than the ones offered by corporations. This has resulted in a talent shortage that is the biggest challenge before the industry. This shortage often results in client expectations not being met, which, in turn, makes them reluctant to raise fees.

In MSLGROUP India’s latest executive report, ‘Public Relations in India: Inside the Industry’s Mind and 2013 Outlook’, we surveyed PR professionals across India and across hierarchies. Talent was a top-of-mind issue for most respondents.

Many feared that the talent demand-supply gap would widen over the next few years. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Attracting talent: There is little by the way of formal training for PR, and no benchmarks for compensation. Most industry veterans believe that that a standardisation of salary ranges is essential. Incentives and benefits, such as stock options, need to be worked into compensation packages, and these need to be communicated clearly.
  • Managing talent: In an environment of low fees and lower salaries, organisational leaders play a critical role. It is up to them to create and maintain an atmosphere that staff find supportive and to keep the vertical and horizontal lines of communication open. Employees must be told how they are contributing to the organisation. Their goals and values need to be kept in mind and their growth planned accordingly. This is lacking in an industry that is otherwise growing fast and adopting best practices from across the world quickly.
  • Mentoring: One critical factor that has been ignored almost across the board is mentoring. Again, organisation leaders must ensure that talented people, once hired, have a go-to person in the firm. These mentors can help starters find their feet and share knowledge that would otherwise take months or even years to acquire.
  • The flight of talent: If the PR industry is to sustain double-digit growth, talent could become a make-or-break issue. Some estimates say the industry will absorb 10,000 to 12,000 professionals a year. But industry sources say that more than 70 per cent of professionals at entry levels shift to greener pastures within a year. This shift happens not just within the industry but also to the communications departments of corporations, which pay far more. The PR industry, quite simply, cannot match the salaries or the benefits offered. Many professionals choose the money despite the PR industry offering greater job satisfaction and challenges.

What was thought-provoking in our survey was how respondents ranked potential solutions to the problem. Curiously enough, even while the industry debates salaries, respondents ranked raising salaries ranked lowest as a potential solution. A structured, stringent selection process ranked first and planned, consistent investment in training ranked second.

It was obvious that money is not the main motivator.

The respondents echoed what the first edition of the report – ‘Understanding the Public Relations Industry in India: Challenges, Opportunities and 2012 Outlook’, released in January 2012 – said: With the education system not geared to the industry’s needs, it’s time PR agencies collaborated with training institutes to evolve a curriculum that makes their students employable.

Several other industries – such as information technology – have collaborated with academia and there is no reason the PR industry can't do the same.

So, here are my recommendations to solve the fees-talent conundrum:

  • The industry should standardise salary ranges. Incentives, such as stock options, should be worked into compensation packages.
  • Employee growth is a priority and it must be planned and communicated early.
  • Mentoring is conspicuous by its absence. It is up to agency heads to ensure that talented people have a go-to person within the firm.
  • Training must be implemented at all levels. Seniors within the firm can be tapped for this, and external trainers hired when needed.
  • To raise fees, turn the focus on innovation and improving quality of work, which in turn will help you push for fees that match value.
  • Push for a premium for the adoption of new communications formats and services.

Jaideep Shergill is CEO of MSL India