The PRSA Board of Directors launched 2009 with its “Pulse of the Profession” project. Each of us interviewed 10 public relations practitioners regarding the impact of the recession on their careers, their thoughts on what’s happening in the public relations profession, how they define success in public relations, and how PRSA can help them in this difficult economic climate.
Our sample was not random, but we sought diversity in terms of age, gender, geography, and employment sector (e.g., PR agencies, corporate, nonprofit, higher education). Most respondents are PRSA members, and many have been leaders in the Society. As one of the board’s three team leaders for “Pulse,” I’m sharing some of our findings.
The recession has impacted PR practitioners but unevenly. Some PR agencies are holding their own, stating that business in the last two quarters of 2008 was the same as 2007 or even slightly better. Other agencies said business is down by 10%, 20%, 50%, or is “horrible.” They also predict that business will slow down this year.
Corporations also are reporting a downturn in business, with hiring freezes and cuts in spending on communication programs. Like the PR agencies, many are pursuing new business opportunities.
The nonprofit sector is struggling. One nonprofit practitioner noted, “People donate their discretionary funds to nonprofits; that’s the first thing that stops in a recession. Government funding has decreased, too. So we have to raise more money, but people are giving less.”
Independent practitioners have been hard-hit, too. One respondent commented, “I’ve been through three or four recessions; this was the worst. So many businesses are gone and so many people are out of work. I’m hearing that businesses are ‘taking a break’ from using PR agencies.” Some reported they are doing project work only rather than being on retainer. However, others are picking up more freelance work as companies lay off in-house PR employees.
Students are still flocking to colleges, especially public colleges, but hiring freezes and cost-saving activities are commonplace, according to faculty and higher education PR professionals who were interviewed. Some college administrators are teaching courses in their fields to temporary fill faculty vacancies, more students are going to school part-time while working full-time due to financial problems, and tuition increases have been proposed or implemented.
Rising to the Challenge
Public relations professionals are responding to these economic challenges in many ways. Agency practitioners said they are thinking smarter with their clients, focusing more on customer service to clients and looking at new business opportunities, restructuring workloads and holding off on hiring for new positions, and reducing costs, including funds for travel and professional development programs. On the corporate side, according to one respondent, practitioners are returning to core PR strengths: relationship management, good writing, and planning skills.
“We need to establish new levels of leadership in our profession and greater perceived value for what we do,” said one PR agency practitioner. “It’s more important now because organizations will need public relations to distinguish their work and their outreach to stakeholders as never before.”
PRSA is highly-regarded by many respondents as an excellent resource during this recession, both for its professional development programs and networking opportunities. Chapter leaders told us they are working hard to provide value to their members in the form of affordable, relevant programming.
Stay tuned for additional posts about the “Pulse of the Profession” project.
Deborah Silverman, Ph.D., APR, is a member of PRSA’s 2009 Board of Directors.