Is the PR industry facing a recruiting crisis?

As PR continues to grow, Tim Addington asks whether attracting experienced and qualified staff has become an issue

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By  Tim Addington Published  April 2, 2006

Is the PR industry facing a recruiting crisis?|~|Walmsley200.jpg|~| Tim Walmsley, regional MD at Impact Porter Novelli|~|A recurring theme at the recent IAA World Congress in Dubai was the need for the marketing industry to understand that clients no longer want or need just conventional advertising but are increasingly looking for total communications services. For the Middle East’s public relations industry, this will come as welcome news as the industry, barely a decade old, looks to establish itself as a separate and distinct discipline in the marketing mix. Many agencies say that they are winning new business on a weekly basis and are inundated with requests for new business pitches. But the ability of agencies to recruit and retain qualified and experienced staff is hindering PR firms ability to service new and exisiting clients, and has been cited as one of the major issues that will prevent its growth in the region. Some agencies prefer to look to the Subcontinent, Europe and South Africa to fill the void due to the lack of homegrown Arab talent. But this route is costly and new recruits often lack the most basic understanding of the Middle East. Others choose to hire locally, but find that the available talent pool lacks experience and expertise in public relations, despite having local and regional knowledge. In Dubai, the most advanced PR market in the region, one agency boss estimates that 70% of those in PR are expatriate wrokers. But in Cairo, for example, Egyptians dominate with only a few expats in senior positions. Tim Walmsley, regional managing director at Impact Porter Novelli, says that people entering PR in the region often do so as a means of moving into marketing jobs for large local firms or multinationals. “The greatest challenge in making a sustainable agency is getting the right people. It is something that we have thought about quite seriously and which we are trying to address in a number of ways,” he says. “For us, retention is a key element particularly at the junior levels through to middle levels. Our experience is that a lot of people try to get into public relations but they are using it as a way forward as their ultimate aim is to get into broader marketing roles.” Sadri Barrage, managing director of Headline PR, and chairman of the Middle East Public Relations Association, says that developing local talent is the key to developing the industry across the region. “The industry is constantly looking out for good people, because many agencies are winning new business all the time and they need people to manage those accounts,” he says. “We receive a lot of applications from Europe and South Africa, but they often lack regional knowledge that can only be acquired from on-the-ground experience. We want locally available talent. “In the Arab world, public relations is a new industry, one of our challenges at MEPRA is to work closely with universities to get students interested in PR. There are some courses within communications degrees that offer public relations modules, but as a profession we need to promote public relations as an attractive career for new graduates to come into.” In Egypt there is a plentiful supply of people wanting to move into PR, but the problem, according to Loula Zaklama, president and managing director of Cairo-based Rada Research and Public Relations and world president of the International Public Relations Association, is that the teaching is too academic. She says: “The industry in Egypt is dominated by Egyptian people, which is a good thing. I have many CVs from people wanting to get into PR, but the problem we have is that they are not experienced in things such as media relations. “Public relations is being taught at universities here, but it is all being taught from an academic point of view. There are very few people who come out of university that have on-the-ground work experience.” Another factor deterring people from getting into PR is the low salaries given to those entering the profession. In an attempt to improve the situation, MEPRA will shortly be releasing guidelines from a survey of its members that will give the average hourly dollar value for those working in the industry. The hope is that agencies will use these figures as a basis of negotiations with clients. Barrage says: “We are not the best-paid industry. Many people go into advertising or marketing because it is better paid, so unless you are really interested in public relations, you are not likely to get into the industry.” For Zaklama the problem rests with clients who don’t understand what PR is and their desire to negotiate lower fees, which has a knock-on effect for staff working at an agency. “Clients confuse us with other disciplines such as advertising and marketing. I’m spending most of my energies on the ground teaching and educating clients about what PR is. “The pay is not high because clients here don’t see the value of PR and are always trying to negotiate lower fees, which is a struggle. PR is a very sophisticated industry, and in order to get good and experienced people, you have to pay them well.” It is a problem that Walmsley is only too aware of. “We recognise, particularly in Dubai, the cost of living is accelerating pretty fast, and it is difficult for people who aren’t earning that much. We have a system in place to ensure that people are not penalised for starting at an entry level.” Existing talent needs to be nurtured and graduates need to be encouraged to get into the business. The long-term development of PR in the region depends on it.||**||

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