Raise PR retainers to get better talent, says Amith Prabhu

The question that we rarely address in any profession and certainly in ours is that of salaries. I have always been of the opinion that our careers should ideally be bucketed in three phases - learning, earning and sharing. Each of the phase can vary from seven to ten years depending on whether we want to work for 20 or 30 years before we retire to do something beyond employment. These phases may or may not be equal to each other in the number of years but to appreciate a career it is good to have these phases.

Several journalist friends who switched to PR consultancies mentioned higher salaries as a reason to do so. And several former colleagues who moved to work in-house from PR firms mentioned the same reason. This is not entirely true but certainly the way it is to a large extent. While money is certainly important it should not be the driving force in the first phase of one’s career – learning and working with amazing people and organisations should be. Most often amazing organisations are not the best paymasters but there is something about them that makes them amazing.

Referring to the three buckets I mentioned right at the start, I keep telling budding professionals I meet on campuses and at the workplace that in the first phase the focus should be on maximizing learning and working on as much as possible that will help build a solid professional foundation. In the second phase while the learning should not cease, getting paid appropriately should be ensured so that one can focus on building a solid base as managers for the next phase of leading larger teams, practices or offices and at the same time being able to invest in a house and embrace those luxuries.

We have often heard the idiom – If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. This is true at various levels of the business we operate in. The problem starts with the evolution of Public Relations in India as a service offering little over 20 years ago. It began when a few enterprising individuals with a drive decided to venture out and create startups with lean teams in the early 90s. Retainers were just enough to break even and clients got used to offering a hand to mouth existence. Infact, some firms started out by offering services for barter rather than for cash.

Another factor for this phenomenon was that clients who were the first to embrace services of a PR firm were those that had global headquarters in a European or American city where global budgets were finalized and a fraction was set aside for what were then third world countries. Companies with headquarters in India were still coming to terms with this specialized service because until the Indian economy opened up they were used to the idea of free media coverage by media outlets they advertised in and this was a tactic that ad agencies used to keep clients in good humor. Also some of the traditional Indian companies had a PRO which is today evolved to be the corporate communications manager.

A decade later in the late 90s comes in formal Public Relations education first at the post-graduate level and later at the under-graduate level. This brings in a new influx of true blue professionals who are PR natives rather than PR immigrants. Prior to this new education revolution PR pros emerged from Journalism, Marketing and other People-centric professions including publishing and hoteliering. These niche institutes started charging a decent (high) fee for a one or two year programme thus making hiring good talent expensive.  While the fees at these institutes have increased five-fold in the last decade the entry level salaries have not kept pace thanks largely to the retainers not going up in a big way.

Most students who graduated from these M schools (M for Media) began to embrace a new term called ‘Recover’. The question that hovered on their mind was how could I recover the fees I paid in the shortest duration? This began the end of long careers in PR firms because in a year or two young graduates would get better offers and jump the boat so as to pay that education loan faster or live a merrier life sooner. Those who chose to stay back also survived but embraced the struggle.

PR firms have tried various tricks to manage attrition at the entry level. Some have succeeded and some have not. Some make campus hires sign 3-year contracts (I signed one and I have no regrets). Some have budgets for counter offers or international postings. And some others just let go because they believe the hassle of retaining talent that is after money is just not worth it. Job hopping is indeed a major problem to PR firms. It is cyclical and can only end when both sides of the aisle come together: in-house leaders and consultancy leaders to devise a way to offer smart, young 20 somethings a better deal. Gone are the days of commitment and eagerness to learn.  All goals are built on a foundation of money.

There is no set parameter for an annual salary increase and this topic is always pushed under the carpet thus leading to an expectation mismatch. Most employees expect a 30% raise but companies budget for a 10% hike. Disgruntled employees know the best way out is to change jobs and then get a 30% jump but the more one jumps the more ugly the CV looks. In the end it all evens out. The new aspiration for many PR professionals is to move into marketing. Hence, the churn in PR is high. This is an ongoing concern and will only be solved when the cycle changes – clients will have to budget better to pay retainers that can help companies offer more decent salaries to entry level staff. Until this takes place the quality of talent, of client servicing and of PR firms will suffer. Who will bell the cat?

Amith Prabhu is the founder of The PRomise Foundation which organises PRAXIS – the annual summit for PR & Corp Comm professionals in India. During the day he is a full time employee at a leading Public Relations firm in their Chicago office. He spent the first eight years of his post-graduation career in India and is currently in the US for two years. Views expressed here are the author’s own and don’t represent those of his past, present or future employer. He can be contacted at @amithpr.