Want PR Industry “Mental Wellness”? Then Fight for Fair Pricing of PR Labor

The PR industry's long-running pricing problem is arguably connected at the hip to its workforce crisis in mental health.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, and kudos to the UK public relations industry for lending voice and offering support, through efforts by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA).

Both organizations worked jointly to issue the 2023 / 2024 Workplace Mental Wellness Audit (research partner: Opinium), to shine a light on current statistics about how the UK PR industry workforce is faring on mental wellness, at this post-pandemic stage.

As per the CIPR’s website to download the free report, the study “reveals that one-third of public relations practitioners are currently diagnosed with a mental health condition. The audit also found that 91% of PR professionals experienced poor mental health at some point in the past year, with 58% citing workload stress as a significant contributing factor.”

While the problem of panic attacks is at the bottom of the list – ranked behind “stress,” “feeling low / down,” “anxiety,” “exhaustion / burnout,” and “depression” – it’s still truly concerning. After all, such episodes truly indicate deep-seated concerns that can be disruptive to a PR practitioner at a core, human level.

As a point of rough industry-to-industry comparison, some separate stats were reported in July of last year (2023) pertaining to the UK financial industry’s mental wellness… and the news there looks far more promising.

Personneltoday.com reported under a headline, “Finance sector makes progress on mental health” that “The number of cases of stress among financial services employees reported to the Health and Safety Executive dropped 36% from 44,000 in the first year of the pandemic to 28,000 last year, according to new research.”

It’s truly fascinating that between both industries – PR and finance, with each having been impacted by the pandemic — that the mental-wellness glass seems half-full for the UK finance industry but perhaps more than half-empty for UK PRs.

Let’s also consider another factor, for the sake of comparison:

According Talent.com, the average UK salary in finance is £44,964 per year, while it’s cited as £35,000 for the average UK salary in public relations. (In the U.S. where I live and work, PR specialists on average made $67,440 in 2022; financial advisors made $95,390, according to U.S. News.)

The ol’ A.I. separately cites, “The average salary for a public relations (PR) officer in the UK is £22,000 for a starter, and £40,000 for an experienced officer.”

PRWeek also reported some months ago that “The average mean salary advertised for PR roles in 2023 was £39,817, a 4.5 per cent increase from the 2022 average. However, an analysis of the typical salary brackets of job ads reveals that most roles (47 per cent) offered salaries below this industry average.” (My bold added for emphasis.)

Could it just possibly be that one major factor driving poor mental wellness in the PR industry centers on our far-lacking compensation profile, given the levels of “always on” job demands that are simply inherent to the realities of much front-line work in PR?

While it’s certainly well-meaning for anyone to suggest that it sure would be nice if the PR workforce could get away from “always on” modes and daily grinds, I also have to question whether any person who thinks getting away systemically from “always on” ever worked a day in PR.

Accountable PR people who are responsible for measurable, high-value outputs and outcomes must respond quickly and at an “A-Game” level when material changes occur in an employer’s or client’s world at any given time, whether with or without notice.

Full stop. End of story.

Over the 15 years I owned my small PR firm, I did not go on vacation even once without my laptop and without remaining at least somewhat connected daily with the office. Even when I went on a so-called “maternity leave” for the birth of my third daughter, my staff team back-up encountered an unexpected health crisis in his own family, requiring him to leave the office fully for an extended time. So, by day three out of hospital myself — and still recovering from surgery — I was required back online.

I share this personal anecdote to say, we must recognize that – for most PR colleagues (and I do not know anyone truly in “PR” for whom this fact of life does not apply) – this notion of waving a magic wand and suddenly converting a PR career to some fairytale oasis of work/life balance simply is not realistic to the nature of our work, particularly in many “always on” industry segments and employer / client cultures to which we must bend.

A dynamic PR career likely is not for you. Just telling you how it is, straight-up.

Where I’m seeking to make the case for much-needed change, however, is that we in PR are woefully under-compensated for not only the work we provide and the results we deliver but also this labor-intensive and personally taxing 24/7 element of what effective PR requires and demands of us.

Not to be impolitic, but in my 30 years of observation, those who have long set the prices for PR service delivery systemically devalue the heavy lift that truly solid PR requires, because everyone – from the PR agency to client side c-suite – has been conditioned to women who largely are doing the work in the trenches having been grossly under-compensated for so long.

Is it any wonder why women in PR at a certain rung on their career-ladder keep making a mass-exodus out of the industry?

I doubt those same women would exit stage-right to nearly this extent if they perceived – and their personal bank accounts reflected – that they were being rightfully compensated not only for their labor but also for the years and even DECADES of hard-earned prior experience that were required in order to perform such specialized labor in the first place.

The finance folks don’t seem to have this problem.

What about the persistent and rife over-servicing issue in the PR agency world… where we just give away far too much of our labor for free to unrealistic and overdemanding clients – some of whom can even reasonably be described as toxic and bullying in that regard?

As a former agency owner myself for 15 years, this observation doesn’t come from a place of presuming that I never encountered this challenge myself or consistently achieved a quick and easy solution… The struggle is real!

My point here is that a roundly better-compensated PR workforce who can realize and enjoy the rightful fruits of their hard-earned knowledge, expertise, and labor, just might enjoy the kind of mental-health recovery as it appears that our friends in finance have found post-pandemic… if and only if they are better-compensated.

Going up the food chain… Naturally, the only way for agency teams to realize that end is for agency leaders to secure requisite budgets from clients; and the only way for clients to secure those outlays is to convince CEOs, c-suites and boardrooms of the value of significantly higher PR investment.

While I applaud many PR industry conversations around offering more mental wellness resources and outlets for PR team members to cope (bearing in mind that many of these resources cost an agency’s bottom line, creating fewer resources for staff raises and bonuses), I strongly advocate that our industry at the macro level mount stronger campaigns around PR’s value proposition, writ large.

To how many economics, finance, and legal conferences are we booking compelling PR strategist-advocates, who can effectively make the case for PR investment to the management disciplines most composing boardrooms?

Seriously… how much of this advocacy is occurring, to the extent that clients, CEOs, and boardrooms have their “A-ha!” moment and commit to PR’s strategic value for brand reputation – and invest accordingly to fund the required, proper levels of effort?

A mentally energetic and emotionally empowered PR industry can only thrive if the people of the industry are supported… and that begins with putting real money where our mouth is on this notion of “support.”  

“Support” in the form of friendly, unpaid time off for PR staff to go fork over their undercompensated paychecks for mental wellness counseling, or, listening to yet another pep talk from a work/life balance coach during the next team brown-bag lunch is getting a little old. These are only band-aid home remedies to systemic issues that will require years of focused effort to improve.

We in PR are acting locally, but failing to evolve globally.

With it, we could have a real shot at better industry mental health.

Mary Beth West, APR, FPRCA, has 30 years of PR industry experience, including 15 years as an agency founder / owner. She can be followed on X and LinkedIn.


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