Prospect MD Emma Dale says the PR industry is changing and so are the people rising to the top
With a solid social media presence now a must for just about any company, the value of the public relations and communication function has soared, says Emma Dale, co-founder and managing director of Prospect Resourcing (Asia), which specialises in PR and comms recruitment.
“I think PR and comms was traditionally seen as a fun, creative environment to be in, but now it’s viewed more as a business career,” she says. “We are noticing senior people entering comms from industries such as banking to advise CEOs and CFOs on reputational issues. They can do that because they’ve been there.
“Chief communication officers [CCOs] are becoming trusted advisers to CEOs, but they need that business knowledge. It hasn’t been as much of a prerequisite in recent years, but it is now,” she adds.
To gain a greater insight into their companies, some in-house PR and comms staff are asking managers if they can temporarily move into other areas of the business, Dale notes. “They then come back into comms with real business acumen and that’s helping them move through the ranks much quicker.”
Other seasoned comms staff are establishing their own agencies due to a lack of senior roles on the market. “They’re setting up boutique businesses, which clients love, as they’re getting advice from someone who’s been in the business for a long time, rather than an account executive or account manager with five or six years’ experience.”
Dale set up Prospect in 2002 in London with her business partner and came out to Hong Kong six years ago to establish the Asia operation. London is the largest team with seven employees, and there are four staff in Hong Kong and two in Singapore. The boutique firm is a specialist recruiter, seeking talent solely for PR and comms positions either in-house or at an agency.
One of the biggest problems Dale has found within the PR and comms industry is its high turnover, an issue she believes is down to unsociable working hours and poor training. When Prospect asks why its clients are leaving a company, they frequently cite inadequate training and development, and a lack of decent leadership.
“We do an annual salary survey with Public Affairs Asia, which also talks about benefits and training, and training always comes out below average. Agencies think what’s the point in training juniors as they’re just going to move after a couple of years to get different experience. But if they do invest in training, those people are more likely to stay.”
The training offered to PR and comms staff has traditionally been limited to courses on media relations and writing skills, but firms are gradually widening the scope. “If you want to develop leaders, you need to offer business training, too,” Dale says. As a mentor at The Women’s Foundation, which aims to increase the number of women in decision-making and leadership positions, Dale also believes staff in the industry could benefit from a mentoring scheme, particularly as it’s such a female-dominated industry. “A lot of younger women are coming into the foundation as they lack the confidence to ask their male boss for a pay rise, or [help them develop] a career path.”
As the lines between PR and marketing become increasingly difficult to draw – with companies distributing press releases and marketing campaigns through social media networks and circulating posts on social media to manage public relations crises – PR is a much broader discipline than it’s ever been, she adds.
“It’s not just about media relations any more. Typically, people that moved into PR and comms were ex-journalists. Now we’re finding they might be digital specialists, marketing people, creatives or planners.”
When Dale first came to Hong Kong, she remembers that the senior comms roles were mostly going to expats. “The West is more advanced in terms of PR and comms, and Hong Kong needed to bring those skills in.” Now, firms want Hong Kong Chinese who understand the local landscape and can communicate in Chinese and English. “All of our clients want locals rather than expats now,” she says.
Excellent writing skills are a prerequisite and locals are expected to be trilingual, while China roles require fluency in Mandarin and English. “It’s really hard to find people who are great writers and have excellent language skills,” Dale admits.
Being social media savvy is also essential for anyone looking to enter the industry. “Reputational issues are coming up all the time, so good digital skills are needed to survive.”
Indeed, a recent study from executive search firm Spencer Stuart and PR firm Weber Shandwick found that companies are hiring more digital and social media experts and developing more relationships with influential Twitter users and bloggers.
As PR, comms and marketing become increasingly integrated, the role of recruiters is also changing. “We may need to bring in recruiters specialising in digital, or other elements of the marketing mix. We’ve always hired people who have worked or recruited in PR as it’s so important we understand our client’s market.”
Dale believes it’s an interesting time to enter the industry. “There is now more opportunity for people within PR than ever before, but the industry needs to address talent retention policies and offer flexible working hours to get more people in.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Going far in PR.