PR executive search pioneer Larry Marshall, looking back on a 50-year career that included working for more than half of the “Fortune 500,” said the most striking change he sees is the switch from male to female executives.

Larry & Joy MarshallLarry & Joy Marshall

“In the late 1960's, most communications practitioners, especially senior-level corporate executives, were male, many of them former journalists,” said Marshall, who heads Marshall Consultants, Ashland, Ore. “Now most are female and come from a broad variety of disciplines. There are many high-profile, top-level women corporate communications executives.”

“In those early days, women had subordinate PR roles, primarily doing marketing publicity. Many now head corporate communications functions and are well-respected as strategists, often counseling and reporting to the CEO,” he said.

“Whereas PR, corporate and marketing communications, and investor relations were relatively minor corporate functions, often for ‘window-dressing,’ they are now in senior management, akin to other senior functions such as finance, legal, marketing, and human resources,” he said. “They are seen as vital to the very existence of corporations. Some have even become the 'consiglieris or ‘gurus’ to the 'Dons' of industry!”

Mid-senior level compensation that used to be in the $25K to $50K area is now in the $125K to $250k bracket, he said, with some packages exceeding $500k. “Years ago, salary was the sole component of compensation, but now packages are often boosted by hefty bonuses, stock options, deferred compensation, family college grants, etc.”

Duties of Corp Execs Expanded

Marketing PR programs were dominant in the 1960s but executives are now working on corporate media relations, internal communications, public affairs, crisis communications and corporate social responsibility, among other areas, said Marshall, who founded the first retainer-oriented search firm to specialize in the PR area. A New York office was maintained from 1967-2001.

“Corporate practitioners had little job security, often being ‘the last to know and first to go,’ but are now seen as essential to corporate growth and survival, some being the one to finally turn off the lights in failing companies!”

“Whereas PR firm success was often measured by how much 'ink' was secured, nowadays message-targeted, strategic media PR programs, counseling ability, media training, relationship-building and business acumen are often keys to success. Print and broadcast media used to be the principal targets but today comprehensive and diverse communications, especially new digital and social media, are required.”

PR Firms Grew Exponentially

While duties of top corporate communications executives expanded, the size of corporate staffs shrank as many functions were shifted to outside firms. A similar trend took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s when corporate ad departments were closed in favor of independent ad agencies which were able to put many creative minds on a project and also had buying power that could reduce the cost of media time and space.

Revenues of the leading PR operations were in the single-digit millions in the 1970’s. Biggest firm in 1971 was Hill and Knowlton with $8.5M in fees, followed by Ruder Finn, $6.3M, Burson-Marsteller, $6M, JW Thompson PR dept., $5.4M, and Harshe & Rotman, $3.7M. The operations grew by leaps and bounds as corporations transferred many functions to outside counsel and the firms added new areas of expertise. Propelling the growth was purchase of many of the leading firms by conglomerates including WPP, Omnicom Group of Companies, the Interpublic Group of Companies, Publicis and Havas. The offerings of the firms were expanded and ad clients referred to them.

Revenues of Edelman, the biggest firm, an independent, were $874 million in 2016. Other major operations, according to figures compiled by everthing-PR.com, a U.K. organization, are Weber Shandwick, a unit of IPG, with $800M in revenues; OMC’s Fleishman-Hillard, $580M; OMC’s Ketchum, $515M, and MSL Group of Publicis, $490M. Figures are for 2015.

Marshall Typified Era of Sociability

Marshall, who hosted gatherings at his East Side New York apartment, as well as inviting PR people and press for stays at his house near the Catamount ski resort in the Berkshires, personified an era of sociability in PR that lasted to about 2000.

A goal of corporate, agency and service people was to become close personal friends with as many editors as possible, opening their homes to visits by editors and visiting editors’ homes. PR and press mixed at more than a dozen New York luncheon and dinner groups. Contact points of PR people were available in PR/IR industry directories.

PR/press contacts currently are mostly via emails. Communications with the press are closely monitored by corporate management.

Marshall searches over the years included mid-senior corporate communications staff for Avon, Citicorp, ITT, Mobil, Playboy, United Technologies, American Express, Pepsico, AT&T, New York Stock Exchange and John Hancock, where he recruited David D'Alessandro, who rose from communications chief to CEO.

Agency clients included Burson-Marsteller, Bozell PR, Kekst, Edelman, Rowland, Howard Rubenstein. Ruder-Finn, Ketchum, GCI, KCSA, Omnicom, Porter-Novelli, and Lobsenz Stevens, among others. Nonprofits included United Jewish Appeal, Planned Parenthood, American Bible Society and United Way.

Associates of the firm through the years included Walter Carlson, former New York Times ad columnist, Judith Cushman, Hugh McCandless, Susan Elion, Sandra Charet, Neysa Schindler, Anna Kosof, Cathleen DesRosiers, and James Bardwell. All were based in New York except Cushman, who also worked in Seattle, and DesRosiers and Bardwell, who worked in Los Angeles.

Some Searches Still Handled

Marshall Consultants continues to handle a limited number of senior-level national and global searches. Marshall, who is semi-retired, works with his wife, Joy, who was involved in national fund-raising events for the Children's Miracle Network of more than 170 children’s hospitals. They partner in Marshall Fundraising and Event Management which represents local, regional and national nonprofit clients with public service missions. Son Donald, who has created family-oriented video games, now works on movie and TV properties for Radar Pictures, Hollywood.