The Middle East’s public relations industry is getting “bigger, better and smarter,” according to a new research report by the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), which also found that the industry faces long term structural challenges if it doesn’t rethink the way it invests in people.

The survey found strong optimism across the sector, with respondents seeing growth or improvement this year in 21 out of 22 areas surveyed, from the work they do, to the audiences they reach, to the levels of innovation they deliver.

Despite that optimism, the study did see more respondents expecting budgets to fall this year, with 34% expecting lower investment in communications in 2016, compared to 13% in 2015. At the same time, 35.1% of respondents expect growth in investment in 2016.

Mirroring the findings of our Global Communications Report, The Benchmark—a new MEPRA tool allowing agencies and in-house departments to evaluate their practices and performance across 12 elements of communications—showed worrying results when it came to the way the industry attracts, develops and retains people. Four of the five lowest scores for industry practice related to how it treats people, with the two absolute lowest combined scores for practice and performance coming in “graduate recruitment” and “attracting local talent.”

Ray Eglington, group managing director at Four Communications Group, and the MEPRA board member responsible for leading the study, says: “The core conclusion from what we believe is the largest study ever undertaken into the Middle East PR industry is one of great optimism.  This is an industry that really sees itself getting bigger, better and smarter in 2016.

“Our new tool, The Benchmark, shows a clear correlation between improved industry practice, in terms of policies, processes and quality control, and performance, in terms of the results that agencies and in-house teams deliver. Yet The Benchmark’s scores on people raise serious concerns for the long term health of the industry. No industry can prosper over the long term if it does not offer opportunities to new graduates. Perhaps even more importantly, no industry can prosper over the long term if it does not invest in employees from the markets in which it operates.”

Senior executives from 34 agencies and 100 in-house departments, covering all major business sectors, took part in the survey.