Is a lack of talent hurting the Indian PR business?

The Indian PR business is believed to be growing at between 13 and 15 per cent every year. To sustain this level of growth, talent is the biggest challenge being faced by both agencies and in-house teams. Not only does this affect the bottom-line, but also leads to over servicing of the client.

Rama Arya, Managing Partner, The Communiqué, agrees that, “On the recruitment side, finding good talent year on year to service growth and new clients tends to be left unmet, increasing the challenges even more to raise the profession to a meaningful level that adds value to an organisation.”

Sagar Desai, Head of Corporate Communications, India, at internet security firm Symantec Corporation, says that there is no dearth of people in the PR industry, but, “The challenge is that few are employable and from that very few are talented. I have seen agencies and in-house teams struggle to find the right talent and then out of sheer exhaustion end up hiring whoever is available. That's a concern since it leads to stagnation in the growth of the overall industry”.

However Tarunjeet Rattan, Managing Partner at Nucleus PR, feels that, “businesses have a serious lack of proper talent which is a big deterrent to our growth. It's surprising that this situation exists despite the fact that there are so many colleges graduating mass communication students. Most of them seem to be out of touch with the ground realities of our profession. During our last growth spurt, a couple of months back, we interviewed 20 candidates from different reputed colleges and were hard pressed to find a relevant candidate”.

Devdarshan Chakrabortyy from StrongKofee points out that the breadth of PR required today is heavily dependent on the quality of people that agencies are able to hire and retain. “Trained and mature advisors are few and far between. This is further exacerbated by the churn in PR agencies. Clearly this impacts the consistency of service delivery, the quality of advisory as well as the very basics i.e. media coverage. These are the fundamental reasons clients change agencies and squeeze the budgets for the next partner they hire. Consequently the account may not be profitable enough to allocate a higher cost resource and vice versa….And thus precipitates a vicious cycle.”

Finding money to buy talent

Talent can be expensive and with stagnant and even declining PR budgets, talent procurement is stuck in a vicious cycle.

Devdarshan bluntly states that agencies will have to be prepared to be out of pocket for a while when planning for annual targets. “That’s the time you need to know the horse you are backing to achieve those targets will pay for the salary bills. Once business happens it should pay for the costs. A revenue linked hiring model is the only solution.”

Tarunjeet feels that, “A high salary with the wrong attitude can do a lot of damage to your internal processes and team spirit – whereas a decent salary with the right attitude can lift your company and support it to the next level. I would recommend that PR companies look at strong HR tools that are available in the market that help you assess the potential and attitude of a candidate and how he/she fits into your team before making that investment. Also, at the end of the day if the expected salary does not fit into your tight budget then move on”.

Sagar feels that within companies the problem lies with the way HR treats PR candidates: “HR needs to understand this profession, its requirements and its value better in order to make the right compensation, retention and career path recommendations. That is lacking at the moment in the industry overall. The focus for now seems to be only on staffing.  Everything else is secondary.”

Can ‘on the job’ training fill the talent gap?

Clearly Indian PR colleges and institutes are not doing the job by producing job ready candidates. Does the solution lie in up skilling people at work?

Sagar feels that, “the quandary is how much one can spend when the talent is lacking. There is just no ROI, partially because basics are weak and attrition rates are high. So it’s a tough call. But agencies are far better equipped at training than in-house teams. Good agencies have the processes and wherewithal. In house teams have to rely on external trainers or programmes as very rarely do they have in-house training modules specifically around PR and communications”.

Rama believes in the benefits of training: “PR is a learnable skill. PR personalities are inherent. Many of us would agree that we learnt more once hired. By providing PR training to these ‘right personalities’ it wins staff loyalty, and better skilled manpower in line with the organisation’s own vision and mission in a cost-effective manner.”

Tarunjeet agrees with Sagar that training does increase costs, “But it is a necessary requirement and if we want to grow we have to set aside budgets every month to do this. One can look at investing in select team members who then, along with the team leader, also become good, intelligent, brand ambassadors for your company as well as provide relevant counsel for your clients that are in tune with the changing times”.

Devdarshan believes that “PR training acts as a retention tool as most people look for added learning in the course of their jobs. I am not so sure if, on its own, it is a devise to attract talent for PR agencies. But since acquisition costs are higher than retention of talent, training has its economic benefits.”

Don’t go the TV business way

As a young reporter working on BBC’s first India based production, “India Business Report,” in 1993 I had the opportunity to receive training from a BBC producer who was placed in India for 3 months to help launch the programme, and accompany and train reporters on shoots. The journalism I learnt at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications was not as useful as the on the job training.

However, by the time the TV news industry faced a talent shortage when it faced an explosion of 24x7 news in 2005 – TV station owners did not have the time and resources to train reporters. The decline in reporting quality is clear to see – one of the reasons being a complete lack of in-house training.

But the bigger challenge that the PR business faces is to maintain growth levels in the face of expensive and scarce talent.

Written by Paarul Chand 

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