Viewpoints: PR’s talent challenge in Hong Kong

The public relations industry in Hong Kong has always faced a talent squeeze. But as the local economy has slowed, that squeeze has turned into a crunch.

According to the 2014-2015 Benchmark Survey published earlier this year by the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong (CPRFHK), more than 40% of survey respondents reported a staff turnover rate of 20% or more.

Indeed, attracting, training and retaining the right talent continues to be the challenge most often cited by CPRFHK survey respondents, particularly with regard to social, digital and integrated marketing skill sets. Of the firms reporting growth, 60% indicated a 20% increase in fees, suggesting that incremental sales of social and digital are beginning to have a significant impact on firms’ top line revenue.

Given the speed with which the PR industry in Hong Kong is moving towards digital and social solutions for clients, the need to train and develop young talent to meet the new demand is greater than ever.

At the same time, the industry seems resigned to the continued poor quality of external training offerings for employees. Firms are increasingly hiring young people from outside the PR industry and providing them with in-house training.

However, current in-house training programs do not seem to be enough to retain the talent PR firms critically need, as the agency brain drain to the client side has not abated.

In our survey, moving to an in-house role was cited as the number one reason for staff turnover, with 79% of firms attributing this as a primary reason for staff attrition. The offer of an increased salary as an important reason for staff turnover rose from 44% of our respondents in 2013 to 57% in this poll.

Half of our respondents said staff left to move to a larger company, while 36% said employees left for a more senior role or a better title. Twenty-one percent said staff left for exposure to different clients, while, to add insult to injury, 7% reported staff leaving for the opportunity to receive better training.

What does all of this mean for the future of staff recruitment and retention at Hong Kong’s PR firms?

I believe it is a call to action. Necessary steps should be taken now:

  • Training: Employees must have specific job outcomes and benchmarks set for them when they receive focused and relevant training at their workplace. Outside speakers should be brought in to address staff on issues that affect their roles.
  • Engagement: Employees should understand how their role fits into the larger team structure, and how management views their role and the firm in terms of client service offering. Team building is a key to engagement.
  • Incentivisation: There are ways in which to incentivise employees, such as a new title or responsibility for a new practice area that may or may not involve money, depending on the situation.
  • Rotation: Swapping jobs or offices for a fixed period of time, where appropriate, can refresh employees’ enthusiasm for their role within an organisation.

Public relations is a wonderful career for anyone who is interested in learning as much as possible about how organisations can interact with each other and connect to audiences to achieve maximum outcomes. Talented, hard-working employees at PR firms must be given a chance to gain new skills and expand their capabilities if their managers wish them to continue to contribute at their firm.

Robert T. Grieves is chairman of Hamilton Advisors and chairman of the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong.