Jessica Bayer has twenty years of executive search experience in the communications industry, both in the PR agency world and at executive search firms. Currently, a Managing Partner at DHR Global, Jessica is building and leading the firm’s Corporate Affairs and Communications executive search function.
When the world shut down in 2020, internal communication functions became essential to reach employees who were no longer in the office. Connecting with remote and unwired employees was crucial to ensuring employees stayed engaged during the Great Resignation. As we faced a social justice reckoning, communication team leaders responded by creating positions to help companies figure out their place in making a societal impact.
Not coincidentally, if you glanced at the communications job market between 2020 and early 2022, you were pleasantly surprised by the abundance of new positions. That stemmed in part from a recognition by leaders, in a moment of multiple crises, that there needed to a focus on building a strong corporate reputation. The race was on for professionals who could protect and promote their brands in a socially aware and newly remote environment.
That hiring spree appears to have paid off: Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer found trust in companies is up 6% in the U.S. from last year, and as we know, trust predicts whether stakeholders will find you credible in the future. But despite that success, hiring has slowed in our industry.
Over the past two months, I have met with more than 150 corporate affairs and communications executives across industries to discuss the current state of communications and the evolution of corporate affairs. The themes they raised were consistent: A company’s corporate reputation is critical to its growth and bottom-line success. Those conversations solidified my confidence that innovative and business forward-looking communications executives who manage brand’s reputations, will remain in demand as we exit the pandemic hiring boom.
Here’s what I took away from those conversations about where things stand now, and what you should know as you navigate the current market.
The economy. The most obvious is the overwhelming uncertainty over what will happen in the economy. As a result, investment hires companies expected to make this year are on hold, and hopes that they will be made in this calendar year is dwindling. Asked when they plan to make investment hires again, and 57% of the 65 companies who responded said they are pushing investment hires to 2024.
Risk aversion. The economic uncertainty also impacts the natural attrition we typically see in the March-May timeframe, also known as bonus season. Many executives wait to receive their bonuses before making a move. Others find out they will be getting a disappointing bonus and explore new opportunities. That did not happen this year. Leaders are more risk-averse and prefer to stay in secure roles. According to The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, 89% of employees are concerned about their job security, up 6% from last year.
Over hiring. Many industries over-hired communicators during the pandemic, predominately the technology industry. As the communication function became more critical, companies started rapidly hiring communicators without long-term plans and clear structures. As a result, they are now right-sizing the teams, leading to layoffs.
Bad habits. When budgets tighten, executives cut positions that don’t have a direct line to profits. Human resources, communications, and marketing have often been targets. No matter how important the communications function has become, there is a dotted line to profits. Communications teams, including DEI, CSR, and ESG, are working with what they have.
What does this mean for the future of the communication function?
Hiring is slow right now, but as we have seen before, things will come back around. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of public relations professionals is expected to increase by 8% from 2021 to 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations. While many communications positions are on hold, they have not been eliminated.
The credibility of the communications function was solidified when, according to the Trust Barometer, 63% of people admitted they buy or advocate for brands based on their alignment with the company’s beliefs and values. The corporate affairs function protects and promotes the brand and tells the company’s story, which ties back to consumer motivations.
What should I do in this market?
Be open-minded. Look for opportunities outside of big brand names. Every posted Vice President of Corporate Communications role at a Fortune 500 company will receive 500+ applicants. There are so many fantastic opportunities at startups, newly public companies, emerging industries, and companies going through transitions. Learn about the opportunity before ruling it out. I recently recruited a communications executive out of a Fortune 100 to join a much smaller company that did not even have a name. She is excelling. Having diverse company sized experience is an asset.
Stay relevant. If you are unemployed, consider joining a small consultancy or starting your own thing. Applying for jobs all day is discouraging, frustrating, and can make you desperate. Consulting allows you to work with clients, generate some income, and allows you time to focus on what is right for you.
Be brave: Even if you are happy in your role, take the call; you never know what another company will be able to offer you. The corporate affairs function is evolving, and knowing what is happening in the industry is essential. The executives I pull out of companies kicking and screaming usually call me in six months, saying they should have taken the risk years ago. Move when the right opportunity comes along because you may never see it again.
Position yourself in the industry
- Lend your voice to thought leadership pieces.
- Write articles.
- Stay involved in membership groups.
- Be visible.
- Know the recruiters in your space.
The more people who know what you are doing and how amazing you are, the better. Be active on LinkedIn, ensure your profile has all the relevant words a recruiter may look for, and be patient. By becoming an industry thought leader, you may find the opportunities will start coming to you.