Why the Industry Struggles to Attract Top Talent
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Why the Industry Struggles to Attract Top Talent

The ability to attract and retain top talent is the number one concern for public relations agency principals from around the world. In the first of three electronic roundtable discussions The Holmes Report examines the difficulties of recruiting the best and the brightest.

Paul Holmes

In a survey conducted earlier this year by The Holmes Report, the ability to attract and retain top talent emerged as the number one concern for public relations agency principals from around the world. In the first of three electronic roundtable discussions (others will focus on professional development and staff retention), The Holmes Report examines the difficulties of recruiting the best and the brightest to the public relations business.

Participants included:
• Paul Blackburn, joint chief executive of U.K.-based healthcare PR consultancy Resolute Communications;
• Jennifer Cohan, managing director of the New York office of GolinHarris
• Abby Gold, senior vice president of human resources at Weber Shandwick
• Cathleen Graham, senior vice president for human resources and recruiting at international public relations firm Ruder Finn
• Bill Heyman, president and CEO of New York-based executive search firm Heyman Associates
• Steven Murphy, regional operations director in Asia for Text 100
• Marylee Sachs, chairman of Hill & Knowlton USA

The discussion was moderated by Holmes Report editor and publisher Paul Holmes.  Some comments have been edited for length.

Paul Holmes: Earlier this year, The Holmes Report conducted a global survey of PR consultancy leaders. The verdict from around the world was unanimous: in every region, recruitment is the biggest challenge facing our business. I believe finding and attracting talent at every level is a challenge, but let’s start at the entry level. Are colleges and universities producing enough talent, and are we as an industry doing enough to find and attract that talent? Are we, as an industry, communicating what makes PR interesting and exciting and worthwhile? And are we reaching out directly to the best and brightest graduates?
Bill Heyman: It is certainly my sense that the schools that have specialized communications programs are attracting students. The question is: are they the ones that agencies and corporations want to hire? Our clients complain about the lack of basic writing skills. The issue of the intangibles such as presentation skills comes up, and the understanding of business comes up even more.
  The industry is definitely not doing a good job of attracting top talent. At the entry level, people are seeing the business as superficial and low paying. It’s a rare young person that sees the potential in the field. The fact that agency and corporate internships disappeared for a while hurt the recruitment process. Also, some internships and entry-level jobs don’t allow the talent to get a feel for the most significant and strategic aspects of the work.
  The field needs to focus on finding broad-gauged liberal arts students that have diverse backgrounds, a worldly perspective and who enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of the work. Entry-level candidates, especially the best and the brightest, need to be exposed to appropriate role models in the field to demonstrate just how much impact you can have in crafting messages for your clients.
Cathleen Graham: I agree with you Bill, and I think it’s the industry’s job to get this career choice out to college kids, which we don’t do well enough. We need to get the word out about our internships, because the reality is all of us would rather hire someone from Syracuse with internships than someone from Syracuse without. This is why we here at Ruder Finn hire the majority of our assistant account executivess out of our executive training program.
  What I have found, in working with the colleges that have provided good ET candidates, is that they are starting to be more aware of this career choice, and also the training it takes to succeed. For example, I have had three successful College of Charleston ET’s transition to the AAE role in the last 18 months. The school has since beefed up its communications offering with more PR courses, including presentation skills, media skills and more applicable writing classes. Though we all need seasoned candidates in a critical way, we should also make sure we spend the time with the communications schools to help tailor how they train the future employees we need.
Marylee Sachs: Totally agree with you both, on several fronts. We need to be much better marketers of our profession, for starters—and not just amongst college students. That in turn should create interest in going into our business, not just from the point of view of communications and perhaps even marketing majors, but also students in business studies and, as Bill suggested, liberal arts. And we need to broaden the net to appeal to more ethnically-diverse students as a matter of priority.
  As for giving students a good internship experience, maybe one of our professional bodies should create an initiative to endorse “better” internship programs: some sort of accreditation program based on length, experience set to be gained, mentoring, the creation of work for portfolios, and so in. Not that we need any additional competition for the spaces, but perhaps the sheer fact that one could be accredited might encourage an improvement across available internships.
BH: The “better” internship idea is a good one!
Paul Blackburn: The Holmes Report survey verdict that recruitment is our biggest business challenge holds true in the London market, although there are a couple of other challenges that are close seconds.  Looking specifically at the entry level talent, however, and particularly in the healthcare arena which is Resolute’s focus, I have to say the talent is available. We see many bright young graduates and have had great success with many of our entry level hires as they progress through our career path. These young professionals are smart, quick, eager, and fast to commit to learning our profession.  Often in our arena, they come with a strong university science background which is the foundation for much of our work.  What is often missing, however, are other critical skills: writing, editing, presenting.
  When it comes to our part in the process, we do need to work more directly with the colleges and universities in making sure they are aware of our exciting profession—what it is, what we do, the overall career potential for young graduates—and the skill sets needed to best prepare grads for our workplace. Healthcare PR, in particular, is not a well known option for science grads. Also, too often new grads are not really prepared for the world of work—they are often surprised by actually being held responsible for getting to the office every day and putting in eight or nine hours. In the U.K., we are in contact with the Sector Skills Council, a network that helps employers by business sector in influencing universities and colleges to ensure that their needs are met when students join the workforce. This provides an opportunity for our industry to have greater influence in the preparation of the entry level candidates we see.
  Additionally, our industry needs to do a better job of reaching out to the potential graduates themselves via visits to career days and the like. Encouraging and supporting our successful young employees to go back to their colleges and universities and do a bit of PR for the PR industry is a grassroots tactic that could pay off for all of us in interested new talent.
Abby Gold: Entry-level recruiting is critical and will become more so in the coming years, during which we expect demand for public relations services to rise while the leading edge of the baby boomer generation starts to retire. Colleges and universities with specialized communications programs, the sources for most entry-level candidates, are doing a pretty good job of preparing students for careers in public relations, but it can still be challenging to find people with the level of writing and presentation skills we expect.
  We need to broaden our reach to prepare for the industry growth projected for the next five to seven years.. This means going beyond the boundaries of communications majors and reaching out to a wide range of liberal arts students, many of whom have the critical thinking and communications skills that are the foundation of our business.
  The industry has a huge improvement opportunity with regard to marketing itself to the best and most diverse range of college students. We are competing with other consulting businesses that have poured enormous resources and creativity into informing and exciting students about the career paths they offer. We have to reach more students earlier in their academic careers, as early as high school, to create the excitement about careers in public relations that will fill the demand to come.
Jennifer Cohan: We have both the need and the opportunity to reach a diverse candidate pool. The need has been well articulated. The opportunity arises from key areas in which agencies are building their businesses, particularly interactive and sustainability or green communications. These are areas in which our target demographic wants to be involved. More than any other industry, we have the opportunity to attract them to a business that uniquely combines their interests and their values. We must tell this story.  And we must do so quickly. 
Steven Murphy: I think that while we understand the need to diversify and review our talent attraction strategies we have often been slow to react. As mentioned, we have done a poor job marketing our industry and in rapidly growing regions of the world such as Asia, we struggle to compete in securing the best talents available. In countries such as China and India there is a limited PR legacy. Young talent just doesn’t understand what we do or what a career with our industry is all about. Toss in the Gen Y variable and it’s certainly a huge challenge for us in this part of the world.
  The best minds here are more inclined to play in the better known and lucrative financial markets than they are in our media fields and the Gen Yers seem to be with us for a good time but not necessarily a long time. If we want to truly attract the best people into our industry we do need to leverage our new leadership position around peer media and green communications and develop a greater understanding of PR as a compelling career choice but we also need to compete on a more fundamental level and ensure we offer opportunity and package.
BH: Great point! The values and the ethics our business espouse make the sustainability/green issues a wonderful opportunity for public relations.

PH: Sticking with entry level issues for a moment... I have always felt that we are competing with other professions for a limited tool of candidates and that we lose two separate battles. We lose those motivated primarily by money to management consulting or even advertising, and we lose those with more noble motivations to journalism, or perhaps to teaching or the non-profit sector. In the latter case, I worry that we allow our profession to be defined by others, as cynical and manipulative and “spin.” How much of a problem is that for recruitment? Do you ever hear about that directly when you talk to college kids? And is there anything to be done about the former perception of low financial returns in PR?
SM: It’s a bit of a mixed bag here. When it comes to cynicism about spin, there is some but this is not a huge driver. The cynicism is more around the value of PR, particularly in our more developing markets. With the rapid and positive evolution of our industry, brought about through huge improvements in our college curriculum and the new fields that we lead and consult on, we are finding that PR as a career option is improving. Recruitment is not affected by this issue to any significant extent; bigger concerns for candidates are the type of industries and clients that we service as well as the culture we offer.
  With respect to the finances, it’s a long journey but the market is certainly starting to push salaries up and many of our senior consultants are enjoying packages comparable with professionals in the advertising and consulting sectors—packages that we require our consultants to support through providing higher level consulting, which in turn lifts the bar of the industry which attracts more and better talent.
MS: I agree with Steven about the “spin” aspect. I don’t think this puts any significant number of potential candidates off the profession. It is, however, an unfortunate off-shoot of our business that is too high profile and hard for the profession to shake.
  But while salaries are indeed rising, we still struggle to compete with, for example, management consultancies that are able to hand-pick students. And it’s not just a compensation issue but that PR is a lesser known and/or lesser respected field. I seriously do not think that we have done enough as a profession to “legitimize” what we do and then promote it. 
JC: I agree that the industry loses highly-qualified candidates to management consultants. I think this is due primarily to salary issues and it’s particularly pronounced when it comes to diversity candidates from the country’s most elite universities, who are being courted by an industry that—like ours—understands the value in broadening the diversity of its workforce. 
  My experience has been that we don’t lose entry-level candidates to professions like teaching or non-profit. We generally lose to these professions people who have worked in our industry for just a few years and—figuring out the direction they would like to take their careers—decide on an alternative route. This is similar to other industries, where it’s not uncommon for younger people trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives to experiment with a few career paths before settling in the one that is the best fit.
PH: Let me throw in an additional issue. Do you find candidates are aware of the demands of the job—the fact that there’s no nine to five, that they will be expected to bill so many hours, all the work-life balance issues—and that they are discouraged by that?
BH: There is no question that we get inquiries from young people who want to leave the agency business for corporate life because they think that they will be managed better. That includes better time management leading to work-life balance. But I am certain that the other professions we compete with drive people just as hard, and the hours are long.
  At the beginning of your career you should expect to “pay your dues.” It’s how you’re treated and managed that will determine whether or not you stay in the job, or the profession. The current entry level people do seem to be more sensitive to work-life balance, but if they find a place that treats them well, and helps them grow and develop, they stay.
SM: Entry level candidates believe that they are aware of the demands of the agency business but only understand the full extent of the hours and the commitment once they actually experience it. This leads to an assessment as to whether its all worth it and often a desire to move into corporate life which is seen as an easier option and one where they can enjoy a better work life balance.
PB: A number of you seem to be in agreement that there is stiff competition from other industries for the bright, young entry level talent. In the U.S., the management consultancies seem to be luring folks away, in London, we don’t face that challenge, but we do sometimes lose young, healthcare talent to industry research positions—good packages, excellent work-life balance, often 9 to 5. However, we often see the other side of the coin as we have young recruits switching from those industry positions to PR because of the mundane nature of the bench job—they are attracted to the variation in our profession. 
  They like the ability to learn and grow across different therapeutic areas, the challenge of different communication strategies and tactics.  What we need to do is make sure the colleges and universities really know what the field of PR or more broadly, communications, offers—the longer hours can be offset by the excitement—variety, travel—that our profession provides, and if we can supplement that with solid training, a supportive and enjoyable culture and competitive salary packages, we should be able to win the battle.
  At Resolute, we work hard to help our graduates understand that entry-level tasks are very important too—many expect to come in and be able to run whole program—because of unrealistic expectations related in part to their degree courses. Real life can sometimes be a disappointment, so we take a lot of time to explain to them that this element of their career is crucial if they are to develop the skills that they will use no matter how senior they become.

PH: Sticking with entry-level recruitment for a little longer, are we as an industry sufficiently active on college campuses? Are there good industry-wide programs to attract young people to PR, or is that task left entirely to individual agencies? If it’s the latter, do we have the time and resources to have a real presence on campuses?
BH: The industry does a good job of reaching out to schools of communications, but does a poor job letting people at great liberal arts schools know about the profession. Shouldn’t those students who major in English, political science, philosophy, etcetera know how applicable their learning is to our world? And why isn’t the industry reaching out to those bright young pre-med students at Johns Hopkins University and Franklin & Marshall College, and others, who are terrific writers and thinkers, but discovered they can’t stand the sight of blood.
   My guess is that there is probably unevenness with the PRSSA [Public Relations Student Society of America] chapters here in the States, and how effective they are at keeping students excited about the profession.
  All this is to say that I think individual agencies and companies are doing what they can, but the industry needs to think harder about how to be more creative about engaging a wider variety of talented young people.
JC: I believe that those agencies with significant recruiting resources are best equipped to reach beyond the schools of communication.  Because we have recruiters throughout the country, GH is able to recruit from a variety of schools, including those with a large number of diverse students. 
  Many of our people come from smaller liberal arts schools—myself included—and are active alumni. They do an excellent job promoting our agency and profession to their alma maters through job fairs, career days, college career development offices, and by making themselves available to students curious about careers in communications.

PH: We’ve spent a while on entry level recruitment, but what I am hearing more and more is that firms have the most difficulty recruiting mid-level talent. Is that your experience? What do you do to make yourself attractive to applicants looking for a change and how do you reach out to them?
MLS: I’d agree. It’s the same thing we saw 10 to 12 years ago coming out of the recession of the late 80s and early 90s when entry and junior-level folks opted out of the profession due to lack of positions, and the five or six year time lag created a gap in mid-level talent halfway through the decade.
  So first, it’s hard to find these folks due to their scarcity—of really good ones. Then comes the challenge of recruiting. We find that what is most attractive, besides the obvious competitive remuneration, is the ability to provide challenges and responsibilities that they might not experience in other places. Equally, really good senior talent—mentors—and training and development are draws.
JC: I would add that the availability of mid-level talent is improving as star junior level people who joined the industry post-recession—and those who were not laid off during it—are coming into the mid-level point in their careers.
  As with every level, the trick is identifying and recruiting top performers. High achievers will always have their choice of firms, and our industry is filled with agencies that offer employees a rewarding experience and solid career advancement opportunities.  Those firms that create, clearly communicate and consistently deliver a differentiated employee value proposition are the ones that will succeed in recruiting and retaining top talent.
BH: Setting your organization up as a “best place to work” matters and helps. Being a place known where mid-level professions without agency experience can succeed through quality and patient training programs is a great selling point. Those training programs should also include teaching mid-level communicators how to become good managers.
SM: I agree that it’s the “full package” where a person’s professional and personal development is worked on through formal training programs as well as strong on the job mentoring. Our most successful offices provide this and this is reflected in our retention stats as well as our bottom line.
  Talent at this level is extremely hard to find and we are increasingly relying on using non local staff in Australia and Singapore and candidates from second tier or other cities in China and India.

PH: I’m also interested in whether firms have success recruiting from other fields, so we are not simply cannibalizing each other. Obviously, we have traditionally brought people into the industry from journalism, and politics, and even the financial arena. Are there other places we should be looking for experienced talent? What kind of success do you have with people for whom PR is a career change? How do you identify people who can make the transition successfully?
BH: Despite having placed three journalists in corporate communications’ jobs this year, likely a record, we are rarely asked to think outside-the-box for our clients. In fact, they hire us to find much prescribed characteristics.
  The best example I can think of, of truly creative hiring, was when Gagen MacDonald, a change management firm that specializes in labor relations, among other things, hired a site manager with no communications background to help clients understand how to deal with difficult employee issues at the plant level.
  But when I canvassed my colleagues they felt that there are more lawyers entered into agency work today than ever before. The work is more fulfilling.
SM: I also pushed this question out to colleagues and the response was pretty unanimous: we get very few people out of the non traditional channels. There are a few instances of lawyers crossing the floor but the vast majority of staff are university or college educated PR graduates.
  We also have the challenge of in-house PR people making the switch to agency for the first time. The deadlines and consulting requirements of an agency role make it a very different proposition and we try and look for people with an entrepreneurial spirit mixed with strong project management and people skills.
MLS: I certainly agree about the challenge of recruiting talent, particularly at a more senior level, from more diverse backgrounds, but this is something Hill & Knowlton has made a conscious effort to do in order to get broader thinking and additional expertise. We have had success with lawyers, journalists, a doctor, a RN, and various other experts. And we also do not restrict ourselves to the university-educated PR grads, but rather look to grads in other disciplines as well. The trick is onboarding to the agency culture, and to that end, we’ve adjusted our onboarding process quite considerably for these folks. It may take a little more time, but the rewards are worth it.
PH: I’m a little surprised by this. I would have thought that increased specialization—the need for nutrition expertise, or specific technical knowledge—would have led to more demand for people with more diverse backgrounds. And it should not be prohibitively difficult to take a smart and knowledgeable individual from a different professional background and teach him or her the communications and other skills necessary to work in our business.
MLS: The communications aspect is not the challenge; rather it is the “business of consulting” that is less natural for professionals from other backgrounds - that includes the business aspects of our business, as well as the counseling aspects, in different degrees depending on individual.
PB: One of the most challenging aspects we find in Europe is the ability of these individuals to adjust to the service culture that is found in our industry. Often even lawyers struggle to come to terms with the client comes first mentality and the requirement frankly sometimes to be subservient in our role. Lawyers are used to providing consultancy to their clients, but their relationship with their clients can be quite different to that of ours.
  Many of our clients feel that they know a lot about public relations (and some do) and therefore feel justified to be a significant voice in the consulting process. It seems that those from other professions, and I would include the medical profession in this, are used to being heard or perhaps I should say listened to in greater measure in their professions.
  Combining these two factors along with the fast paced environment that exists in public relations agency life seems to make transitioning difficult for many individuals, certainly within the health environment in which we operate in Europe and internationally. We screen these types of individuals very, very carefully and invest a considerable time in their on-boarding. All of that said, we have had success in bringing on board a wide variety of people from non health related disciplines but are careful to keep the balance and mix of skills within the agency within certain bounds.
BH: Let me preface my comments by saying that recruiters are rarely asked to look “outside-the-box.” Clients tend to want something very specific when they approach us.
  That said, my basic issue with Paul’s point is that: why would someone from another profession want to make a change? While I agree that there are some people who might be good at public relations who might not be familiar with it, more times than not those people changing professions are not successful in their current jobs. Why would we want them? What makes us think they will make a successful transition?
  It takes a Herculean effort to find those successful people from other professions willing to make a transition. In a candidate market it is even more difficult to sell.
CG: I agree with Bill. It would be very difficult to persuade someone to join agency ranks and even more difficult to successfully transition them, when our managers want people to “hit the ground running.” Most successful transitions are made with journalists, who understand the nature of what we do intuitively, if only from the reverse side of things. It takes training, mentoring, management and patience to transition these candidates. And of course passion to make the change from the candidate! If all these things are in play, then it can be a success, otherwise, its a difficult thing to do with any degree of success.
JC: I think there’s a distinction between junior and senior-level people. We’ve successfully incorporated medical clinicians and others from the healthcare field. Their value quickly evolved from specialized knowledge to the core skills needed for a first-rate PR professional.
  It’s certainly more challenging—but not impossible—at the more senior levels, where clients rightfully expect their counselors to be equally expert in the client’s industry and communications. It’s incumbent upon agencies to recognize and communicate what these individuals offer and then commit resources to ensuring that these ‘outside of PR’ professionals are able to learn broader PR skills.
 Let’s also not forget about professionals from other communications disciplines, like advertising, who come equipped with many—if not all—important components of our jobs.

PH: I’ve always believed diversity is important to the PR industry, which after all has to communicate with a very diverse range of publics. That means diversity of educational and professional backgrounds, but it also means—particularly in the U.S.—ethnic and cultural diversity. This is not an area at which the industry has traditionally excelled. What are the obstacles to greater diversity, and are we getting better at overcoming them?
BH: This topic sometimes feels like the same difficult question that comes with finding good mid-level talent. They simply aren’t there. The Lagrant Foundation can give you statistics on the low percentages of ethnic minorities in communications. No doubt that is why Lagrant has been so successful in raising money for its scholarship programs and internships.
  On the corporate side, one of the reasons they can’t attract or retain ethnic minorities is because the individuals are often put in narrow roles such as community relations, urban affairs or ethnic marketing. Those professionals quickly determine if they are going to be pigeon-holed, they are better off starting their own agencies or specialized consultancies.
MLS: I wholeheartedly agree with Bill, and two of the reasons the candidates simply aren’t there is because they are either enticed to other, better-known and lucrative professions such as consulting; or we just don’t do a good enough job enticing these folks to our profession.
  What are we doing to address this? I think most agencies, resources permitting, are trying to get to appropriate college and university job fairs, as well as ethnically-diverse organizations’ events, such as this week’s National Association of Black Journalists’ Annual Conference in Las Vegas, in an attempt to attract more diverse job candidates. But we must also ensure that our workplaces are comfortable places to work for ethnic minorities, and that we fully integrate our diverse members of staff in the sorts of broad, challenging roles that the mainstream agencies can offer, versus the narrow roles Bill refers to.


 

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