A Donut Hole for PR Agency Talent

Aside from offering a really handy way to scoop up two or three donuts at one time, a “donut hole” has been recently used to reference the insurance coverage gap found in Medicare.  This anology can also be easily applied to the mid-level talent gap that is impacting PR firms across the country.  Specifically, there just aren’t enough qualified public relations professionals with 3-6 years of experience who actually know what they’re doing.  The result is a shortage of  critical worker bees at the Sr. AE and Account Supervisor levels.

This seems to be attributable to a number of converging factors:

1.  With entry level hiring at a minimum during the recession of 2009, a whole class of PR professionals were wiped out.  It’s like a mass poison kegger took them out before they hit their prime.

2. Social Media has been a boon to PR firms and to advertising agencies.  Creating a demand for communications professionals across the board.  Ad agencies have similar mid-level needs and have regularly plucked “youngns” from the PR talent pool.

3.   After 4 or 5 years of PR agency experience, many professionals start looking for the exit.  In-house opportunities or the siren song of an independent freelance career siphon off a big layer of mid-level talent.

4. The demand for mid-level talent is always highest at PR firms which normally creates stress at this level (think worker bees… think Foxconn), however combined with the factors above, the stress on the middle is even greater (think buttons on a fat guy).

What can agencies do?

1. Grow their own.  Create a steady pipeline of talent by aggressively stocking up with entry level folks and training them… I mean really training them, not just the lip service or occasional guest speakers for ‘brown bag lunch’ functions.

2.  Make ’em happy & keep ’em home.  Agencies need to step up and more aggressively cater to their quality mid-level talent.  They shouldn’t wait for their best people to hold a gun to their head seeking a counter offer.   HR and senior management need to get together to set up in-house retention plans designed to make the firm a great place to work as well as a great place to grow and learn.  Staying should be the best career option available.  Also, look to increase benefits.  Sabbaticals, vacation time,  telecommuting, health club benefits and other perks should be top notch and be even better than what they’ll be offered by in-house hiring managers.  That may ding the bottom line, but losing talent, and in turn clients, will have a bigger impact!

3. Get out of the “round peg, round hole” hiring mentality.  Instead of playing musical chairs with competitors, agencies need to start getting creative.  Ad shops, trade journals, integrated comm’s boutiques, consultants are all viable sources of talent.

4. Provide some transparency.  Mid-level managers are often left out when it comes to strategic discussions on how to manage and grow the agency.  Bring these people into the loop and you will not only get buy-in for ideas… you might get better ideas.  Having a say in agency management decisions is a great way to create loyalty among staff at all levels.

5. Account mobility.  Talent will often leave because they feel stuck on a piece of business they hate.  They’re too valuable for their own good and agency management doesn’t want to make a change for fear of annoying the client.  One solution is to develop a cross-training option that allows staff to move between accounts after a period of training and as need dictates.  Granted, this is not the easiest thing for most agencies to pull off, but with some parameters in place it can work… and is a helluva lot cheaper than back-filling the positions of people who leave because they hate their client.

A few random thoughts on donut hole filling…  excuse me while I get a glass of milk.

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