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‘Brutal’: PR execs over 50 are wading through a tough job market

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After her position was deemed redundant almost a year ago, a former comms VP at a global brand took a bit of time off. When she ventured back into the job market, she immediately realized she would be out of work longer than expected. 

“I caught up with a number of recruiters and my own network to update on my circumstance, and the feedback was, ‘It’s a very tough market for senior folks, with very few roles out there, banking and financial sectors aside,’” says this pro, who has more than 25 years of experience, a combination of both in-house and agency. “I’m hearing 2024 is similar, but I’ve had a fair few opportunities put my way, so there is clearly some movement.”

The PR job market has seen better times. PR agencies, from Weber Shandwick to Ketchum to BCW, have made layoffs over the past 10 months. On the client side, IBM laid off employees in comms and marketing in March while layoffs earlier this year at Twitch affected more than 500 employees, including those in marcomms

The 2024 PRWeek Salary Survey found that almost half of respondents (48.3%) said, “It is difficult to find a new position in the industry,” up from 37.3% in 2023. 

Industry veterans with the most experience say they’re having the toughest go. A LinkedIn post from a WhatsApp group of more than 650 comms professionals of various ages and backgrounds run by well-known agency veteran David Gallagher went viral for outlining a market “brutal” for those with the most career experience. 

“There’s a lot of frustration in the 50-plus crowd with the job market for comms pros, and I think it reflects a few things,” Gallagher, now managing partner at Next Practices Group and a former executive at Omnicom PR Group and Ketchum Europe, tells PRWeek. 

“On the one hand, there’s a younger-is-better bias that has been in place for years, especially in the consumer and tech sectors,” he says. “There’s also a tendency for people my age to think there should be a higher premium on our experience, even if that experience fails to include or directly embrace changes in technology and its applications.”

Gallagher, who is considering launching a WhatsApp group specifically for those in the 45-to-50-year-old community, says, “We’ve got to find a way to leverage our experience with new technologies – it’s both, not a choice.” 

The job-search anxiety extends across age groups with many professionals of various experience feeling uneasy about their job prospects. Companies have been cutting back at all levels after sensing they overinvested in talent in 2021 and 2022, when more remote and hybrid job options were fueling the talent war. 

“It’s been a case of whiplash,” says Jim Delulio, president of recruitment firm PR Talent. “Salaries and hiring were both way up in 2022, and then 2023 hit and we were standing on our heads. It was the complete opposite.” 

Delulio said he has seen companies backfill positions in communications this year, but there is no question a higher age can put otherwise strong candidates at a disadvantage. 

“There are fewer jobs as you go up the pyramid, and the industry hasn’t been kind to people in their later professional years. They tend to get pushed out the door,” he says. “There’s always been ageism, but I think technology has increased momentum for senior-level layoffs.” 

He adds that “it’s a shame” older candidates are quickly dismissed by some companies.

“They have so much experience, so much knowledge to share, but companies are leaning in on candidates that they feel are more tech savvy, and that often means younger,” Delulio says. 

Jamie McLaughlin, CEO and founder at Monday Talent, concurs that ageism is an unfortunate reality of the business. Yet he says he is working on filling CCO roles where experience will be highly valued by the CEO. He suggests some candidates remove the graduation year from their resume and LinkedIn profile, as well as early career positions.

“There are ways to take the focus off your age,” McLaughlin notes. 

He says senior talent can be at a disadvantage when applying for roles that seem to carry less responsibility than a prior role. 

“Some senior talent may have run a department or agency and don’t want to do that anymore, they just want to do good client work and enjoy doing that work,” says McLaughlin. “But then you have a hiring manager who worries after six or 12 months they will get bored.” 

Another frustration expressed by senior talent is the process of the job search itself, particularly applying via LinkedIn. Members of the WhatsApp group called it a “nightmare,” a “black hole” and full of “fake jobs” — and Delulio says that’s fair. 

“I think that’s true. It’s a recruiter version of being catfished, in that companies may not be filling a current role [they are posting on LinkedIn], but instead stocking up on candidates for once they have a need in the future, so they can move quickly,” he says. “It’s disingenuous.” 

Delulio recommends, where possible and if not working with an external specialist recruiter in PR, candidates directly contact the hiring manager, particularly if you have a first-level connection to someone in the same department on LinkedIn. “That can be a real advantage as opposed to going through internal recruiting. Internal recruiters don’t do a lot of PR searches and know what the skillsets are,” he says. 

Some experienced pros have launched their own consultancies after getting little traction in their job searches. They include Jacqueline Keidel Martinez, who was director of comms for PetSmart before she was laid off in December 2023. 

“I had a couple opportunities where recruiters found me, but I would have had to relocate,” she says. “Phoenix is a really challenging market for comms because there aren’t a lot of corporate headquarters and so I kept an eye out for remote jobs. But it was so competitive. I didn’t even get so much as a screening call for a single job opportunity.”

Encouraged by a former colleague on the digital marketing side, Martinez launched Lyra Communications in March and has picked up work at least until the end of this year with Deloitte, project work with Honeywell Aerospace Technologies and from agencies, including on a pet pitch. 

“That was a really fun opportunity, and supporting agencies looking to build their client base is a place where I see potential for growth,” she says. “I think this idea of a fractional model is attractive to companies, too, because they can get access to experienced and specialized experts.”

Dave Samson, a former comms exec at Edelman and Chevron who works as a consultant, says it has become imperative for comms professionals to reinvent themselves every five years or so. 

“I have a mentor who said, ‘Every year you need to give up 20% of what you know, which becomes an opportunity for somebody else to step in, and replace that with learning something new.’ That means every five years you’re reinventing yourself,” says Samson. “That is the mindset professionals need right now, because with technology, the role is evolving at a pace we haven’t seen in the past.” 

“if you don’t have a deliberate plan on how you’re going to continually reinvent yourself, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant,” he warns. 

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