What do Senior Digital PRs truly look for in a role?

Agencies have reaped rewards of a phenomenal increase in demand for Digital PR, but how has this impacted the specialists on the ground, and what impact has the fluctuation in demand had on them?

The Problem with Progression in the Digital PR Space

The shift towards a natural, PR-led approach to backlink acquisition has brought about so many positives.

We‘ve seen a huge spike in opportunity in recent years, turning an emerging discipline into to what is now considered a key performance channel.   

The SEO industry now boasts a higher standard of work generally, while a flourishing community has developed under its umbrella. But has this rapid evolution been positive for everybody? 

Agencies have reaped rewards of a phenomenal increase in demand for Digital PR, but how has this impacted the specialists on the ground, and what impact has the fluctuation in demand had on them?

From the horse’s mouth…

I hosted a podcast last year with Jasmine Granton (Evolved Search) and Bethany Durham (North), where we discussed the problem with progression in the Digital PR space.

Episode 1 Roletalk Podcast

The industry is maturing every day and I wanted to explore this further from the perspective of people in senior positions. I spoke with 25 senior Digital PRs, focusing on three key areas:

  • Number of organisations they have worked for in the last three years.
  • Satisfaction with their current roles, focusing on structure and progression.
  • Key factors they consider when looking for a more senior role.

(Note: some responses have been kept anonymous)

People are – mostly – satisfied

I want to start with the positives – more than half of the respondents rated their happiness in their current role at 8/10 or higher. However, there were a few issues that repeatedly came up.

A proportion have had to kiss a few frogs!

15 of the 25 respondents have moved organisations three times in the last three  years.  Six had moved twice, meaning only four of the group have remained at one company for the whole three year period.

Of course, this can to a degree be explained by rapid professional progression and opportunity in the space. Jade Denby, Digital PR Account Director at Wavemaker, said:

Profile photo of Jade Denby

“As a young exec, If I didn’t get a decent yearly pay rise and/or bonus, I’d leave. I was getting great results at this point (started in 2010) and there weren’t as many outreach specialists in the market. The industry was switching from spammy link building to better quality PR at the time. I’d still encourage those starting out to do the same”

However, other respondents cited a lack of structure/support for senior staff and an absence of any clear goals and objectives other than blind scale as reasons for moving on.

One senior Digital PR Manager with 5 years of experience replied that 

“I wasn’t given full transparency of the nature of my current role before I started. I was headhunted to start a new offering, but was misled on the current state of the department I’d be managing,  as well as the overall attitude/knowledge of the channel across the business. I had plans to hit the ground running, but I’d actually been training for a different race”.

This particular issue has cropped up regularly in the last few years – it’s common for agency founders and brand-side hiring managers to approach me with a brief to source a single person to start ‘brand new departments’. These people are to hold the fort whilst ‘things develop’. A Digital PR Manager from a well-known independent agency in Manchester said “the role needs to be defined. I will never take a job with a promise of it being ‘moulded to me’.”

Digital PR Director, Jade Denby of Wavemaker says:. “When I was looking for roles in the past, I wanted to know if there was support to deliver the work.  I find resources lacking on the agency side and at my level, I don’t want to be doing the job of a full team each and every day, regardless of pay.

There is logic to hiring somebody with experience to start things from scratch and handle everything until revenue increases enough to hire more people, but in practice it rarely works. I regularly advise a rethink in order to avoid hiring somebody that is going to become disillusioned and overwhelmed pretty quickly – believe me, I’ve been there myself in my career. One option could be to hire a manager for strategy and scale with initial execution, and then an entry-level/junior person to support the execution with view to taking on greater responsibility in time.

They say a lack of a plan is a plan to fail. 

“When looking for a role myself, or advising others on their career in Digital PR, I would definitely prioritise joining an agency with an established path for progression, clear salary bands and objective setting”, says Saffron Shergill, Digital PR Lead over at Digital Ethos.

Profile photo of Saffron Shergill

Experienced Digital PR Manager, Jo O’Reilly of Salience Marketing said: “ “agencies in particular just don’t know what to do with senior digital PRs to develop their career past a certain point. Where senior tech or content SEOs move into director positions, it’s not as common with digital PRs and I think that’s why we’re seeing so many hit a ceiling and then go freelance or decide to start their own consultancy.”

Profile photo of Jo O'Reilly

A Digital PR Team Lead at a well-known fully-remote agency who rated their satisfaction as being 9/10 for their role, responded: “I’m the most senior PR in our team so while I encourage my team to share their skills with newer staff and learn from them myself, I have to seek out research/information to keep developing myself as well which isn’t ideal”.

Another senior specialist in charge of a team at a global media house replied: “New learning opportunities being put into new, challenging positions, are so important for senior people. It can be easy to become a little stuck.

“I’ve seen some first-hand examples of fellow senior PRs who lack some of the fundamental skills (often soft skills rather than technical). This isn’t their fault, and these are often things that can be rectified. However, because there isn’t enough internal support, they a) don’t recognise they’re doing something wrong b) don’t know how to improve and c) are hesitant to highlight shortcomings for fear they’ll appear out of their depth”, said one senior specialist with 5 years of agency experience. 

Senior Digital PR Consultant Ruth Barrett has a reputation for delivering insightful talks at places such as Brighton SEO . She said: I have worked in Digital PR for 8 years and so I know that (some) agencies can promise the earth and not actually be set up for the development of senior folk, and I know first-hand this can and did cause people to move on.”

Profile photo of Ruth Barrett

“It’s not a senior role just because someone has more experience. It needs to have a clear lane for that person to own, and grow”,  said another  Senior PR when talking about this.

Look to external support and development for your seniors 

It’s understandable that even the most successful agency owners might not be equipped to support these individuals’ specialisms. They may lack the capacity to offer development from a wider business acumen perspective too – some of my closest contacts are founders of 50+ people agencies who cite a lack of time as a reason for leaving their senior leaders feeling unsupported.

I always encourage agency owners/hiring managers to consider external support for their team leaders/managers – there are many great people in the digital space who can offer this sort of support:

Confidence and Personal Development:


  •  The incredible Kirsty Hulse of Roar Training. Kirsty covers everything from confidence when dealing with clients, senior stakeholders and teams, to advanced presenting and creativity. She’s awesome at what she does and the amazing feedback she receives on Twitter is testament to this. 

Profile photo of Kirsty Hulse

HR-focused issues:

  •  Sean Butcher, who is an ex digital marketer turned agency culture specialist. He is great and would also be a good person to speak to generally if you are looking for the tools necessary for cultivating a solid internal culture and handling people. 

Profile photo of Sean Butcher

There are also a host of accomplished and experienced senior Digital PR freelancers who can offer mentorship and support: I’d recommend speaking to Olivia Lott, Sophie Rhone, Niamh Spence and Chris Nunn!

Employers are naive to think that they can hire an experienced individual without including them in the bigger picture

Communication between Directors and upper-middle management is key for maintaining morale and engagement. Many agency leaders are quick to communicate the good, but not quite so forthcoming when it comes to the bad. 

For example – during times of high demand for creative backlinks, internal promotions help to meet the need which is great for employees. But as we all know, demand can fluctuate and in turn, promotion and internal opportunity can dip. But is this communicated properly? 

“We’re all aware that rapid growth isn’t sustainable, but as an industry, we now need to turn our attention to the vacuum it’s created. Execs can suffer severe imposter syndrome and workplace anxiety, and a reluctance to take on more responsibility knowing it won’t serve them if the opportunity for promotion isn’t there. They leave perfectly good roles which they could’ve thrived in due to thinking their progression is stagnating when in reality, the industry needs for seniors has naturally slowed, Armarni Lane-Turton PR team head at Clicky Media.

Profile photo of Armarni Lane Turton

Armani also says: “If agencies who have previously promoted regularly, are now slowing down with this, but fail to communicate and address it, I worry that they’re going to see lower job satisfaction, more resentment for colleagues who are progressing and higher staff turnover”.

Another common thread when discussing job satisfaction is the need to feel part of the bigger commercial picture. All too often, people are put into leadership roles and are expected to operate purely on delivery, completely away from all commercial decisions/bigger picture decisions. I’ve been in that position myself, and it’s a real motivation killer.

At a commercial level, what are my roles and responsibilities? I think once you hit AD and above, you should feel a part of driving the agency and department forward in a meaningful way” says Jade Denby, PR Director at Wavemaker.

Profile photo of Jade Denby

What do Senior Digital PRs look for in a role?

I asked respondents to name what they look for in a senior role, and common themes ranged from the need for a positive challenge,  through to more obvious things such as salary. But another factor that consistently came up was again, progression support/training. 

“I need to know things like:  Is there anyone above me whom I can learn from? Are KPIs and timelines sufficient? Do clients have realistic expectations?”  said a Digital PR Account Director with 8 years of experience. 

Traditional benefits are still important

You won’t be surprised to hear that holiday allowances, flexibility and work/life balance are still key considerations:

 “At this stage, I want a competitive pension contribution, decent holiday allowance (30+ days excluding bank hols), yearly pay reviews and flexible working (preferably remote 60% of the time and as I’m about to have a baby, workarounds/understanding with school pick-ups, drop-offs etc)”  says one well-regarded Senior Digital PR from a UK based agency.

“Right now, it’s firstly pay & progression, but secondly a friendly culture/a company with a social atmosphere where real friends can be made. If you have one & not the other, it can make it really tricky to decide whether to leave a role or not as I think it’s so important to really love your job day to day, but obviously feel that you’re paid the right amount for it too, responded one Digital PR Lead of 4 years.

Autonomy, trust, flexibility – with progression

 “The ability to run with and own my ideas and approach is so important” says one Digital PR Head of five years.

Many respondents reported a need for trust and a culture that is conducive to progression. During my time as a Digital PR specialist, I worked with a 50-person agency with a founder who insisted on signing off ideations, and I have been part of teams that felt disempowered to make decisions.

“If I’m bringing years of experience in digital PR I would also expect a role to respect my knowledge and allow me to fully manage my time and workload. That means actually flexible working and no micromanagement. This is something I definitely receive in my current role”, says George Driscoll from leading independent agency Root Digital.

Profile photo of George Driscoll

“If I were to look for a new role, it would definitely be to join an agency with an established path for progression, clear salary bands and objective setting”, says one well-known senior Digital PR Manager.

Diversity is also lacking

I spoke about diversity at length in an episode of the RoleTalk Podcast, chatting with the fantastic Chima Mmeje and Reji Ojiaku . It was extremely insightful and educational – I’d recommend checking it out. I learned that as an industry, we aren’t doing half as much as we should do to support diversity and inclusion. Supporting this in my recent research, one Digital PR Lead says: “As a woman of colour in the industry, I know statistically I am at a higher chance of being underpaid in comparison to my counterparts so it’s important for me to have clear transparency in these areas. My current workplace sadly doesn’t really offer this.”

Perception is everything if you’re going to attract talent

We all know that things like Glass Door reviews can make or break a reputation for somebody looking for a new role. Louise Parker, Director of PR at leading independent agency Propellernet, says: “I would suggest applying to somewhere where you get a feeling you’d get along well with the owners/senior management team – so would look to see what they are like on Twitter and LinkedIn. And also ask around to see what people think of the business/agency.”

Profile photo of 💡 Louise Parker

In conclusion

The responses I got from this study could fill ten blog posts (I’ll get to them eventually!), 

but the overriding messages here are that senior Digital PRs are largely satisfied in their roles, but cite the following as potential reasons for dissatisfaction:

  • Lack of planning, clear goals and support/progression
  • Not being part of the bigger picture

Of course, agencies may not have the capacity to offer adequate progression to people in senior positions – but you can include them in bigger picture discussions. Senior Specialists should feel empowered –  I know first-hand that some business owners are reluctant to let go.

It’s understandable – particularly within organisations that  have seen rapid growth, but micromanagement and lack of trust are guaranteed killers of employer/employee relationships.

I hope you enjoyed the piece, drop me a message on Linkedin or Twitter to let me know what you think!