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Sounding the signal

Published on Saturday, 18 Jun 2016

For an industry that prides itself on delivering a positive image of its clients, the public relations sector could apparently do more to raise its own profile. 

At a time when the industry is undergoing pivotal changes – driven in large by digitisation – talent management is a prime concern. The major challenges include the recruitment, training and development of a pipeline of talent to lead the field in the future, as well as attracting people with industry-specific expertise focusing on digital and data analytics.

This is what the audience heard during a panel discussion at the recent annual Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong (CPRFHK) awards presentation, which recognised the achievements of young PR professionals in Hong Kong.

Emma Dale, co-founder and managing director at Prospect, which specialises in PR and corporate communications recruitment, believes employers need to make a bigger effort to promote the career choices and opportunities that the PR industry offers.

“It is an area where a lot of work needs to be done,” she said. She explained that by focusing on career opportunities and talent development as a business priority rather than a feel-good exercise, employers can take on a stronger position and create a culture of transparency and curiosity. This culture motivates people who are interested in exploring their potential to go out and seek employers who support their career opportunities.

The PR sector generally consists of two streams: in-house roles at a company or organisation, or positions in an agency that represents a number of clients. PR professionals also work in various government departments and non-government organisations.

Looking ahead, in an era of broader communication channels, Dale believes there are more opportunities for growth in the PR industry for those who choose to make a career in it. “We are seeing non-traditional PR jobs being created that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” she added, referring to video content management, web traffic management, coding and data research.

However, hiring people with the skills from outside the PR sphere is proving difficult. “We are at an early stage of recruiting from outside the traditional recruitment channels, but it is happening, and would happen faster if the industry can offer a compelling career story to attract candidates,” Dale said. Dale suggested that, during interviews, employers introduce candidates to the people they will be working with, so they can get a feel for the team spirit and the staff’s enthusiasm for projects.

The PR sector in Hong Kong shares a global industry challenge: a high proportion of women work below management level, but far fewer women stay in the sector to take up senior management positions, which are mostly held by men.

The “World PR Report 2015”, published by the Holmes Report and the International Communications Consultancy Organisation, revealed that women make up about 70 per cent of the PR workforce, but only hold about 30 per cent of the top positions in the industry.

In response to this, CPRFHK committee member Jane Morgan, who takes over as the Hong Kong managing director at PR agency Golin at the end of June, pointed out that while the PR agency lifestyle can involve long working hours, many companies are developing work-life balance programmes.

“Flexible working hours and working in locations outside the office could go some way to help retain women with family commitments within the industry,” Morgan said.

High employee turnover, or “talent churn”– widespread among industry newcomers –is another issue blamed for stalling the development of a talent pipeline.

“While we often refer to PR industry practitioners as branding experts, I feel that we have a long way to go before we successfully brand our own industry,” observed panellist Kevin Lam, head of business development (China) at Sinclair Communications. “There are many fresh graduates who have no idea what PR is really about and assume it involves going to fancy events, enjoying a few glasses of champagne and mingling with celebrities,” said Lam, who was named “PR Star” at Marketing magazine’s 2015 PR Awards.

Lam believes this lack of awareness often leads to job-hopping, particularly among those in junior positions. “People don’t realise what they are getting into and can’t see where they fit in,” he said.

A good agency will nurture its new recruits and explain that opportunities and career development come with responsibilities and commitment.

“This is the gap the industry needs to bridge,” Lam said. “It’s like learning kung fu; you need to know the basics,” which he explained include high-quality writing and language skills, plus a good understanding of the way social media plays a significant role in PR communications.

For young people interested in joining the industry and wanting to raise their hiring potential, Lam suggested starting a blog and volunteering to work on PR projects for charities and sporting organisations. “If you already have the academic skills, having a story to tell during interviews will raise the chances of you being hired.”

Dale also offered a piece of cautionary advice to young people attracted to the PR industry, which she explained was based on conversations with employers who are prepared to invest in training and offer career development opportunities, but are reluctant to offer a job to someone they feel could leave the company after a year or 18 months: “Just because you are not happy with your job title, don’t get along with a colleague or boss, or happen to be offered a few extra dollars, think carefully before frequently switching between jobs.”

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Sounding the signal.

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