While the merits of European Union membership is currently being mulled over, one thing is for certain — the PR market in continental Europe is thriving.

Although the landscape is still predominately driven by the established markets, Eastern European countries are on the rise, producing innovative work led by strong talent. Meanwhile across the region, integrated communications is becoming more highly prized. Yet the continent still presents a complex environment for agencies and in-house talent with skillsets, specialities and salaries varying considerably across countries.

The Mature Markets

“It’s the same as it always has been” in that the large European markets are really driving the PR scene, says Amanda Groty, ABB’s VP and group head of communications for the company's electrification products division.

Countries including Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands are very active, either with big name clients residing there, or strong agency communities that are pushing the boundaries of the discipline. Switzerland is also home to large global clients, particularly in financial services and healthcare, while Italy and Spain are respected for their creativity.

“From a geographical perspective, there’s something really interesting going on in Germany, France and Italy right now,” says Aaron Sherinian, vice president of global transformation at Philip Morris International (PMI). “These are the places that are leading cultural conversations. We are looking to those markets to identify the larger cultural conversations in Europe.”

Media relations is still a crucial skill for any communications professional working in the region, but the overall focus changes from market to market, reflecting Europe’s varied cultures.

Even within the mature markets, there are significant differences. After a rough stretch in France for a period, public relations is now back at the top of the agenda, says Cédric Voigt, general manager for Ballou PR’s Paris office (the agency also has offices in London and Berlin). Lack of professionalism and strategy prompted many companies to pull the function in-house, until relatively recently.

“It’s only around 2010 that PR became a priority again, and is now perceived as strategic for companies,” Voigt says. He points out that many agencies closed their French operations in the 2000s and larger firms have been cautious about investments in the country during that period. “We saw a real restructure of the market, but the agencies that continued to develop are those that are strongly business-orientated and focus on ROI.”

In comparison, he says the German market did not go through this same contraction, resulting in far more small and midsize agencies operating in the country. Moreover, Germany has prioritized privacy and data protection, creating considerable opportunities for PR firms. The varied media landscape has also been kind to PR.

There’s something really interesting going on in Germany, France and Italy right now

“It’s very corporate and trade-focused and there is a heavy reliance on print media,” says Groty. In addition, the rising desire for integrated communications is a key trend across the continent.

“It has become increasingly important to think through how you are going to use everything from paid to earned media,” she adds. “At ABB we are looking at how we campaign through the line. So what can my team do to help the sales team, how can we can produce the right marketing, sales and content collateral?”

This new client demand is changing Ballou PR’s focus. Voigt says: “Right now, the boundaries between PR and marketing are becoming thinner and thinner. The future of PR is around content and messages, this is what we are focusing on at the agency. The way it is communicated is different with video and animation becoming more trendy and also using social media in a more strategic way.”

The Emerging Markets

To find the emerging markets in continental Europe, however, PR professionals should look east. “The countries on the rise are Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Serbia. They tend to be very good around start-ups and technology,” says Jamie McLaughlin, president of Capstone Hill Search.

PMI’s senior manager of regulatory communications Ryan Sparrow agrees: “These may be smaller markets than the big players but they are gaining more influence within the European sphere because of the economy and their high levels of talent.”

They tend to offer broader services than mature markets. Agencies are often combined PR and marketing outfits — specialisms are the preserve of the more established markets. “In very established markets you can be more niche, but in the smaller markets you need to be broader in terms of what you do,” says McLaughlin.

“You can’t just be a crisis comms shop in Serbia. You can have an emphasis on that but the economies of scale are such that you have to turn your hands to other things,” he adds.

Securing the Right Talent

The rise of integrated communications across the continent is changing the type of professionals who are in demand. “A big trend is the need for companies, large and small, to find ‘tri-sector athletes’ – those who can fulfill the public affairs, public relations and media relations needs of clients,” says Sherinian.

If you can operate successfully in Europe, you can operate anywhere else in the world

Groty agrees: “When recruiting, I’m looking for people who really understand global brand, comms and reputation management. You may not find that as much in continental Europe as in the UK. The challenge is finding more people with global views.”

As well as a global outlook, anyone working in continental Europe must navigate the cultural differences and unique characters of the individual markets. Groty, who recently moved from London to Switzerland for her new role, says, continental Europe is “a mix of cultures.”

“That can present challenges in terms of decision making and consensus, but it also breeds creativity because it brings people with different backgrounds and points of view to the table. I’ve always thought if you can operate successfully in Europe, you can operate anywhere else in the world,” she says.

These cultural differences show themselves in various ways from how business decisions are made to office etiquette. For example, Voigt, confirms the view that the French consider lunch sacred: “France is indeed much keener to have a real lunch break rather than having a sandwich in front of their computer, usually between 12.30 to 2pm. We love to meet face to face.” Meanwhile he says his German colleagues place emphasis on precision and punctuality.

While English is the official business language of Europe, those who can speak the local language are at an advantage. Sparrow says brands are increasingly trying to insert themselves into the debates taking place in popular culture: “There are no borders on digital platforms, and these are the most prominent way of getting messages out. If you can operate in different languages, you can see the cultural trends immediately. This allows brands to capitalise on them quickly and communicate to far broader audiences.”

Aside from perhaps Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels or Zurich where English is broadly used in and outside of the office, English-only speakers can feel alienated. On the flip side, offices that don’t speak English dramatically reduce their talent candidate pool.

Another issue when recruiting staff across Europe, is the huge salary disparity between countries. The cost of living may be cheaper in countries with lower salaries, but this doesn’t help with recruitment if someone has financial commitments – such as a mortgage or school fees — in a more expensive country. If you are in countries with low salaries like Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Serbia “you will lose talent as a result of not being able to compete,” says McLaughlin.

Sometimes lifestyle can make up for salary differences. “If you move to Barcelona you are going to be by the beach. Meanwhile the way countries like Denmark treat their staff in terms of maternity and paternity pay, flexible working and work/life balance is far more desirable others,” says McLaughlin.

But he adds that there is also still a hierarchy of countries in Europe and this snobbery can affect recruitment. Countries either have to be seen as established or intriguing emerging markets to really attract the best talent.

The Brexit Question

What Brexit will actually entail is currently anyone’s guess – not least the politicians. But there are obvious advantages for continental Europe in a potential migration of talent (especially in-house professionals) and business from London and the UK.

Another issue when recruiting staff across Europe, is the huge salary disparity between countries.

As Voigt says: “Brexit is representing a business opportunity for us. We are seeing more companies wanting to establish themselves in continental Europe or to contract directly with us in France and Germany, without going to UK first.”

But it is not without its threats. For example, McLaughlin argues that severing ties with the UK might make Europe less enticing for international trade, especially for those who are well established in, or have historic ties with, the UK, such as the former British Empire countries.

Also Europe is not immune to the political views responsible for Brexit. “It does have a knock-on effect for other countries. There is talk of ‘Frexit’,” says McLaughlin.

Whether any of that happens is another matter. But for now, continental Europe can remain secure that it is a thriving region for PR and it may be about to get even better.