PR Week.com Keith O'Brien, Executive Editor September 28, 2007
A PR Headhunter's Retrospective
by Larry Marshall
Now celebrating our 40th year in PR executive recruiting, we're recalling the many changes we've witnessed in the biz. Over the past four decades, the lowly PR person, once considered little more than a necessary evil within the boardrooms of a few American corporations, an apparatchik hired merely to keep the insistent, nosy media at bay, has gradually grown in power, influence, remuneration, and even paranoia to become a key player within the complex organizational machinery of most of today's major companies. They were regarded as dispensable staffers: “last to know, first to go”! But not today.
--Most PR people then were former print journalists and became PR people because it offered more money and a better career opportunity. Now, in contrast to the editorial field, many come from a myriad of backgrounds, be it broadcasting, teaching, law, politics, marketing, social services and community affairs.
--Most PR people then were men, dealing almost exclusively with male reporters and male dominated companies. Not now. PR has become an interesting and attractive field for aspiring career women, akin to human resources, law, and other key corporate functions. Industries initially seeking them were in the lifestyle, fashion, food, and other “soft” business areas, whereas now they are in virtually every industry, including healthcare, technology, financial services, and even hard-nosed engineering and manufacturing. Initially, women understudied men as the implementers of programs, but now have successfully moved into all areas.
--Formerly, in the “60’s and ‘70’s, most PR people were paid meagerly in the $25-$50K area, which was way down the totem pole from the pay of senior officers, even then. Nowadays, their compensation packages are on par with other members of corporate management, most often with mid and senior execs being in the $100-$400K area, and with some senior PR officers having packages exceeding several millions.
--On the agency side, most agency owners weren’t entrepreneurial and didn’t aspire to be agency builders. However, almost by default, many agency service staffers started their own small business practices, and some grew very quickly into major PR firms.
When I founded Marshall Consultants, based in New York City in 1967, we were the first executive search firm and management consulting firm (distinct from traditional personnel agencies) to specialize in the PR, corporate and marketing communications, and investor relations functions. Often, general executive search firms would ask us to assist their clients to recruit creative talent, which they didn’t want to be involved in. Nowadays there are several such independent, specialized search firms, as well as general search firms with PR practices. We have become the barometer of changing corporate America, our industry going up and down, depending upon the vagaries of the business climate. PR and Corporate Communications Changing Roles:
Most PR people were buried within the organizational charts of major companies. Now PR people often report directly to the corporate CEO, right along with the CFO, the general counsel, heads of marketing and manufacturing, etc. Whereas, in years past, marketing communications and media relations was the primary activities of pr execs, now the corporate PR chief, who often is titled as the SVP of corporate communications or corporate relations, presides over an empire that includes specialists in media relations, marketing communications, brand management, employee communications, corporate speechwriters and crisis communications, and, as well as external agencies, on hand for idea generation, program implementation and SWAT team crisis management campaigns.
Why So? What has taken place over the intervening decades that changed so dramatically the role and influence of today's PR people from that of their predecessors? --Special interest groups, from environmentalists to corporate governance specialists, became more powerful and insistent.
--Business' own foibles and missteps created crisis after crisis that lowered public trust in business and made the proper handling of crises a singularly important activity within the corporation. The very survival of many companies was often at risk.
--Business' need to communicate effectively with more and more audiences in their own languages and frames of references grew by leaps and bounds.
--Business leaders came to realize that they needed more than customers and shareholders in the outside world. If they were to survive, they needed friends and supporters, as well. At the very least, they needed society to understand their problems and concerns, and that requires targeted communications.
--Finally, the financial stakes soared for everyone within the corporate suite, from CEO to corporate PR head. And, as the stakes soared, so did the competition for real PR talent, leading to exploding compensation packages.
Problems In Camelot or What Price Glory?
As a result, today's corporate PR head earns more, has more respect and influence, plays a far broader role in the corporate empire, has more power and staff, and larger budgets…and life should therefore be beautiful? Well, be careful what you ask for! Closer to the flame, means it's easier to get burned. --PR people are often beset by conflicting priorities between the CEO and the audiences they are responsible for influencing.
--Many PR people feel constantly on the verge of being blindsided or betrayed by the media, special interest group members, government leaders, and even their own employees. The fine line they wind up walking between is the thirst for insight and data on the part of target audiences, and the potential betrayal of hidden agendas, timetables, and strategic data that worries management, generates a constant, high level of paranoia and concern among many top PR people and often forces them into a communications cat-and-mouse game with outsiders. But the stakes are high. Quite often, not only are the corporate King's life on the line, but the King maker's, as well... for major and even relatively minor, decisions.
Where does PR go from here? What’s the future for the PR executive? From my perspective, reflecting two separate and successive careers as the major independent search firm in the PR business, some trends are evident:
--First, PR is here to stay. Why? Communications is an absolutely essential part of business today.
--The PR person's place in the boardroom of the future is secure.
--Corporate officers are going to have to understand better the risks and boundaries inherent in running today's more open corporation and, therefore, have more realistic expectations of what PR people can and cannot do. Goodbye smoke and mirrors! Communications starts at the top with a CEO and Board committed to open, consistent communications, and not just crisis management. The PR chief who understands the business of the business will be encouraged to become the future leaders of corporate management, with some of them rising to the C-Suite! Carpe Diem! Larry Marshall is founder and CEO of Marshall Consultants, www.MarshallConsultants.com in San Francisco and Ashland, Oregon
A few weeks back, I had a call from David D’Alessandro, whom we had recruited for John Hancock Financial Services as their communications guru several years ago. When he was hired, this dynamic, ambitious and bold communicator reorganized their communications and created dramatic, new, innovative advertising and PR strategies, building Hancock’s image and repositioning them in their marketplace as a progressive, diversified new-age company.
What’s more, he convinced management of the benefit of using big budget sports and marathon running corporate-sponsorships, often usurping the territorial entitlements of erstwhile competitors with great business building results, and garnering a myriad of financial services communications awards. But, David’s own career aspirations took him well beyond PR and corporate communications, and he broadened his portfolio to include overseeing all marketing, human resources and other corporate staff functions. He soon was viewed as a “problem solver” and was given the challenge of making their ailing healthcare services unit profitable, which he did (with much admiration from the CEO and chairman). He then rose to become president of the retail sector and, hence, to become CEO, a very rare career move for a communicator. He took the old-line company public, doubled its stock price in just a few years and sought and found a similarly sized insurance company to merge with in order to position the company to compete in the increasingly competitive financial services arena more effectively. But, as often occurs in such mergers, the acquired company’s management imposed itself on Hancock and took over the reigns of command. However, this wasn’t a bad deal for David, who exited the company with over $130M in his pocket; not a bad pay day! What does this story mean to other hardworking PR practitioners? This:
Communicators have often been shortsighted in visualizing their own professional talents and career growth potential. However, taking Robert Browning’s quote to heart, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”, we can now view opportunities that abound today for so many traditional communicators to dream bigger—and to realize their larger destinies, should they choose such a career growth path. Most traditional communicators have set their career tracks not by choice, but by being employed in roles with built-in limitations. Most are wordsmiths who have developed their careers in agency and corporate environs, using their creative writing skills (e.g., executive speechwriting) as their paramount talent. The opportunity is often afforded such communications counselors to become the Machiavelli of their corporate Prince, the consigliere or confidante of the corporate chief. If they have business acumen, are astute to learn the business of their business, understand P&Ls, hone their corporate business skills, are adept at building confidence and relationships and are viewed as creative problem solvers, able to make things happen to achieve real results, they, too, can rise to the top—if that’s what they (or you) aspire to do. What should ambitious communicators do to successfully climb this lofty career ladder? 1. Think beyond the tactical—parlay creativity into a strategic asset. If PR people want to take full advantage of their career opportunities in corporate life, they must think beyond the production of smoothly written articles, annual reports, analyst presentations, speeches, VNRs, multimedia presentations, etc. The Rubicon they must aggressively cross is to embrace creative and strategic thinking about how all forms of communication can advance corporate financial and marketing goals. And they must be willing to become managers of the production of PR, advertising and marketing materials, not direct producers. 2. Devise and implement crisis plans now—then step up when bad news strikes. The most likely opportunity to move from being wordsmiths to being strategic thinkers often comes when PR people are forced to, or afforded chances to, manage communications crises, either while still working for agencies, or as part of their corporate experience. It is in the crisis management crucible, working under intense pressure alongside lawyers, CFOs and the CEO, often under the nervous scrutiny of the board, that the budding communications executive learns the difference between simply elegant communications and truly effective, timely, often company-saving communications strategy and its ensuing, rapid implementation. 3. Integrate, integrate, integrate—manage (and play well with) other disciplines. They also need to master and learn other related disciplines while moving up the corporate ladder: advertising (corporate, yes, but also product) and marketing. Since these functions usually have larger budgets (approved by the executive committee) at their disposal, they are often thought to be more important. Therefore, so are the people running those functions. Smart CEOs know differently, but PR execs need to be highly conversant and strategically sound in the marketing and advertising arenas, as well as in PR if they hope to be given the nod to run the entire corporate communications kingdom. Often, unfortunately, they eschew those fields, thus curtailing their larger career ambitions. 4. Step out of the corner suite—and into the business-building unknown. Once ensconced in the corner office for all corporate communications, the accumulation of additional responsibilities is the function of not only ambition, but also of willingness to step into new arenas that test the metal of all upwardly mobile corporate executives. One must be willing to give up the comfortable life of the corporate communications chief, to run a foreign operating division, or a troubled business group, for example. One must then be willing to run one or more domestic, foreign or other operating divisions, and bring new luster and growth to them. In these cases, the former communications executive is no longer operating solely as a communications guru, but, alongside operating executives with law or MBA degrees, as a driver of company growth and success in the most direct fashion. This transition is the most dramatic and difficult of all, and that’s why so few communications people, never mind pure PR types, ever make the transition successfully. In fact, it means years’-long refocusing of one’s entire career under intense pressure. 5. Be willing to learn from—and be inspired by—other top-tier execs. Find the right mentor(s) who are securely located at the top of the corporate ladder—either a CEO designate or an established CEO, former chairman, or another decision-making senior corporate executive to provide guidance and support. 6. Never get comfortable—take risks, innovate and embrace change. Be willing to put their own job on the line for new, innovative strategies, with full commitment to implementing change. Carpe Diem!