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Rechecking the PR Industry’s Pulse

When we began our “Pulse of the Profession” project in early 2009 — PRSA Board members interviewing public relations practitioners about the impact of the recession on their careers and their thoughts on the state of our industry — we were sobered by the candid responses. Many of our colleagues had been hit hard, losing clients, suffering reduced budgets and, in some cases, struggling just to stay in business.

As one of the team leaders for this project, I recently revisited a few of the practitioners I had spoken with in January. While hoping for good news, I was careful to insist on realistic answers: We want honest replies to inform our survey findings, while recognizing that our purpose is to gather anecdotes rather than perform a scientific analysis.

First, the not-so-good news. It appears as though we’re not out of the woods yet. Respondents from hard-hit areas of the country continue to face challenges in their own businesses and struggle to find new career opportunities amid persistently high unemployment rates. One PRSA member I checked in with has not renewed her membership this year – likely the result of the corporate downsizing she also reported.

But I did find cause for optimism. Chris Wahl, PRSA San Diego Chapter President and owner of Southwest Strategies, a San Diego public affairs and public relations firm, notes that the government sector remains strong, with growth prospects also emerging in the business-to-government sector. Wahl’s agency experienced layoffs in late 2008, but now reports new clients and budding new business opportunities. “Following trends, watching for growth industries and developing and leveraging relevant expertise are keys to surviving and thriving in the current economy,” said Wahl. “Water, energy and transportation are areas likely to have strong budgets in the coming years.”

While the non-profit sector is enduring reduced donations and other difficulties, many such organizations are strengthening their public relations programs. A solid plan for engaging and communicating with all stakeholders is seen as critical to emerging from the recession on solid ground and competing effectively for donors’ consideration.

Debbie Long, APR, chair of PRSA’s Independent Practitioners Alliance, finds hopeful signs for independent public relations consultants, as well.

“Independent practitioners have comprised the fastest-growing segment of public relations for several years,” said Long. “Decreased budgets for public relations is a troubling trend, but many indies are embracing the advantages of the down market by positioning themselves as experienced practitioners without the overhead and expense of a larger firm. This is an appealing concept to businesses with recently downsized staff and budgets.”

Dallas Chapter President Taylor Cole, APR, adds that the basic principles of public relations apply now more than ever. “This is an important time for public relations practitioners to brush up on their skills, and work strategically to leverage a variety of tactics to deliver value to their companies,” said Cole.

Cautiously optimistic seems to be the catchphrase of the moment. As an organization, PRSA sees promising numbers among the leading economic indicators, and positive signs within the public relations profession. As the year goes on, we’ll be keeping an eye on our blood pressure, and our fingers on the pulse of the profession, continuing this important dialog in support of our members.

Leslie J. Backus, APR, is Secretary of PRSA.

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Leslie Backus

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