FOCUS: GRADUATE RECRUITMENT - Great expectations. PR is right up there as a top career choice for graduates wanting success but, as they take that first important step onto the professional ladder, how realistic are their ambitions? Mary Cowlett reports

It seems that the days of graduates being attracted to PR through the image of its glamorous lifestyle may be on the way out, and today's recruits to the industry are a surprisingly professional lot. The adjectives that slip from recruiters' lips are dedication, passion and focus.

It seems that the days of graduates being attracted to PR through the image of its glamorous lifestyle may be on the way out, and today's recruits to the industry are a surprisingly professional lot. The adjectives that slip from recruiters' lips are dedication, passion and focus.

We asked a selection of graduates who have recently joined in-house and agency teams to tell us why they wanted to go into the PR industry, what their expectations were, and their hopes for the future of their career.

We plan to revisit them a year down the line to see if their dreams are on track - or if the industry still has a way to go in putting across an accurate impression of what PR is all about.

Three of the graduates are in their six-month probation terms at Kaizo.

The hi-tech specialist consultancy's main graduate intake is in the summer, and this year the agency saw 19 of 300 applicants and hired six.

Like many in the industry, CEO Crispin Manners says that throughout the recruitment process, what he and his team are mainly looking for in the candidates are the right attitude, and an indication that they will fit into the culture of the organisation.

Over two days, potential Kaizo graduates were put through their paces to see who measured up. Those that made the grade passed a simple psychometrics test, a writing skills exercise and performed well in team interaction sessions. In addition, the lucky six each had to put together a 'blow your socks off' presentation, amply demonstrating analytical and reasoning skills.



Tough standards

But even before a graduate gets to the interview stage, the specialist recruitment agencies impose their own tough standards to identify those who are likely to be successful in PR.

At Graduate Appointments, consultant Claire Fowler says she is still approached by a lot of graduates who have no idea about PR beyond it being about communications in some way. But she says the good ones are often very good: 'Those who have done a PR or communications degree, who have worked consistently in PR through their summer holidays, have a portfolio with examples of their work and who have done voluntary placements are very placeable.'

Fowler says the easier to place candidates still tend to have degrees in journalism, PR or communications, but one of the big problems is that briefs from clients rarely match up with the desire of most candidates to go into consumer PR.

This is echoed by Leanne Wilbur, graduate recruitment consultant at Major Players: 'This year we've seen very few sloppy candidates who haven't done their research and don't know what the industry is about, but most want to go into consumer or fashion, and most of the briefs are for business-to-business, IT and finance.'

She adds: 'We're targeting different graduates as a result, not just PR degrees, and looking more at people who were thinking of management consultancy but felt it wasn't personal enough. We're seeing a lot of graduates coming into PR from politics and business studies degrees now.'



Interviewing techniques

Clients who use recruitment agencies don't get to see the ones who aren't up to scratch, but even so, that certain something can be missing at the interview stage. The Lloyds TSB Foundations, which has just taken on Vicky Andrews in its public affairs department, is the independent arm of the banking group which receives one per cent of pre-tax profits to distribute to grassroots charities and local community causes.

Public affairs officer Rachel Buckley says the key thing she finds is lacking in a lot of candidates is real enthusiasm of the job they are going for.

'Understanding of what PR is about is quite high now, but not a lot of candidates really expressed their enthusiasm to work in-house, and for a big name,' she says.



Training and qualifications

Some in the industry still moan about falling standards in written English.

But on the whole, candidates who are serious possess impressive credentials and a long-term commitment to succeed.

'There was a time when people almost fell into PR,' says Text 100 human resources manager Pippa Tordoff. 'Now students are identifying their future careers a lot earlier on, and we are seeing more graduates who have PR or communications degrees or have studied journalism.'

The debate over the value of such specialist study rages on, however.

On the one hand, after a PR degree, recruits know the basics of writing a press release from day one, have some relevant work experience and realise that in the world of big business, the bottom line is usually money.

However, Chris McDowall, PRCA director-general, says graduates who have devoted their entire higher education to PR are not always the answer.

'I'll make a few enemies by saying this, but employers still see a PR degree as a soft option.' he says. 'What employers really want is people with a good degree from a good university. Then having proved that they can think, a secondary qualification with some PR skills.'

At PR recruitment company Median, director and graduate specialist Colette Brown has found that most graduates who want to come into PR have a humanities or specialist degree, and yet the real demand from the industry is for graduates with science and IT qualifications.

'Universities definitely need to sort out their career advice and encourage graduates from a broader variety of disciplines to look at PR. People who go into PR have generally done it on their own initiative and research, not because they have been given any specific career advice,' she says.

But Brown adds the industry itself could also do a lot more to persuade high-calibre, broadly-educated graduates to go into PR - especially if they invested more in properly-structured training.

'There is a lack of well-structured traineeships in the industry - it still tends to be only the bigger agencies who have them. Many graduates are taken on as PR assistants, but the perception from the outside is if a company has a proper training scheme, they are more likely to go for that job.'

But faced with a bunch of bright-eyed graduates, waving glowing references, how do you know which ones are really up to the job?



Psychometric testing

For some in the PR industry, the answer is psychometric testing, where aptitude, personality and basic skills can be accurately measured and scored.

As training and retaining graduates proves to be an evermore expensive and time-consuming process, it makes sense to try and identify which applicants have what it takes to succeed.

London-based PSL has been helping clients look more closely at prospective recruits for over ten years. Working mostly in the marketing, advertising and retail sectors, PSL puts job applicants through an assessment, comprising personality questionnaires, job simulation exercises and ability tests.

PSL director of test development Sean Keeley says: 'What we try to do is give everybody the same situations, so that we can compare the results and identify people's position on a sliding scale.'

For those looking to join the ranks of the PR industry, this involves checking out writing skills, whether people pay attention to detail, and the strength of their planning and organisation skills.

However, as graduates attracted by PR are likely to be quite people-focused, Keeley says the process is also about uncovering whether good listening and social skills can be translated into actually getting things done.

'It's all very well having good social awareness, but is this coupled with analytical skills, resilience and a dedication to filling in the paper work?' he asks.

A questionnaire is used to ascertain candidates' social confidence, their attitudes to risk-taking or their ability to be a team player. Then to get over humans' natural propensity towards 'social desirability' - telling fibs, to you and me - potential recruits are asked to back up their claims in an interview session.

'There are no 'right' answers, the idea is to work out what people are like in a scientific manner and use the information to probe more deeply,' says Keeley.

It looks as if recruiting graduates into the PR industry is still a minefield, with so many factors to consider and so much pressure for them to be up to the job quickly in the current climate.



VICKY ANDREWS - Lloyds TSB

'I guess that a lot of graduates expect PR to be glamorous, with lots of opportunities to make contacts and to communicate with people.

To some extent I reckon this to be true, but you also have to persevere and talking to journalists can sometimes be difficult.

'I took a degree in psychology at Exeter University. I have always been interested in a career where I would meet and communicate with lots of different people.

I decided I wanted to go into PR in the first year of university, so I got some work experience at a London agency, which confirmed it was what I wanted to do.

'My strengths lie in my communication and writing skills and my weakness would have to be that I'm a perfectionist.

'Lloyds TSB offers training that covers all aspects of PR. I have regular appraisals to assess areas of the job where training is required. When I first started, I went on a day's course on how to get the most out of the regional media -- with whom I mostly deal with - and a features writing course as I write for internal magazines and the regionals. I have also been on presentation courses as I have to present to senior staff at Lloyds TSB.

'Lloyds TSB is a large company but I work within a small team. People in the corporate communications learn from one another.

'I work for the Lloyds TSB Foundations and do a lot of writing about charity. We have covered mental health, which is something I'm very interested in from my university degree.

'My ambitions remain very much in PR. It's a growth industry that provides plenty of opportunity and so long as it is still a challenge I foresee a career in PR.'



SOPHIE GRIFFITHS - Fishburn-Hedges

'I studied French and history at Sheffield University and graduated in June 1999. Up until my final year I had not decided what career I would like to go into but finally settled on PR, which I thought would suit my skills -- I'm a good communicator and a good writer and have an interest in how companies manage their reputation through good communications.

'In my final year, I did three weeks' work experience at a small agency in Sheffield.

'My perception of PR used to be what I imagine a lot of people's to be - of the Absolutely Fabulous school, but when I sat down with a careers adviser at college the record was put straight.

'After university, I worked in the press and PR department at Manchester Airport where I did a lot of public affairs work, an area of PR I am especially passionate about. I finished the job last month and moved down to London ready to start at Fishburn-Hedges.

'My first interview at F-H involved about 500 applicants, of whom only three ended up with jobs.

'The training at F-H takes place over my first year of employment and involves learning about how the company works, PR skills and tools, then finally reviewing all that has be learned and looking at moving into a specific area within the company.

'The ethos at F-H is that you work very hard and are committed to achieving goals, but that there should be a balance between that and having a life outside of the workplace.

'In a couple of years from now I see myself knowing the industry very well, having worked across different PR disciplines and being in a position to give relevant advice to organisations and accounts.'



GERALDINE CORDEIRO - SSAFA

'I studied media with communications and cultural studies at Trinity and All Saints, part of the University of Leeds , then almost immediately started work as the in-house PR officer at charity SSAFA Forces Help (Solders Sailors Airmen and Families Association).

'My ambition has always been to become a PR officer. My perception of the industry was that it can provide a challenging and rewarding career.

I have always loved writing and speaking and meeting new people.

'The real buzz I get from working in-house for a charity is that at the end of the day I'm helping people. SSAFA supports servicemen and ex-servicemen and their families. It does social work, offers financial support in the UK and overseas.

'As part of my degree I did work experience for Manchester University's PR department and worked for a small Leeds-based agency. My degree gave me excellent background knowledge and the skills I needed to do PR, but what it didn't give me was direct experience of working for an organisation and the challenges that represents and rewards that can be reaped.

'I work in a team of five. We are all very close, and teach each other a lot. There is a lot of work but what I find particularly rewarding and hadn't really anticipated before is the buzz at having achieved something for the company. We recently organised a fundraising event at the Tower of London where I met Kate Adie, which was great.

'SSAFA give s us training - I'm about to go on a radio media training course and also a case-workers course, where I'll learn more about the charity.

'My ambition is to improve my skills, and build up my knowledge. I plan to go on a communications and marketing course at one of the universities to further my skills.'



KATHRYN ANDREWS, MATT ESTWICK, ANGELA DONOGHUE - Kaizo

As part of our look at graduates' expectations, we talked to three recent additions to Kaizo's team to see how they progress within the same structure. We will go back to them in a year to see how they have got on, whether inside or outside the consultancy.



KATHRYN ANDREWS

'When I started, I had a very broad overview of PR and what is was. I knew that it wasn't a nine to five, but what I didn't realise was the impact good communication can have and the strength of building brand awareness.

'I decided on PR because I became more aware that consumers and businesses demand greater purchasing choices and basically there's a need to communicate a point of difference.

'After leaving Liverpool University, where I studied history, I took a two-month business course, learning to touch type and to use different computer applications. I wanted a media-focused job and, living in London, I met a few people who worked in PR and talked to them.

'After applying to a variety of agencies, I decided that I could benefit from some work experience. I approached a large consumer agency which said 'yes' and after three weeks I was offered a job.

'I quickly realised that the consumer sector was not for me. I applied to a number of consultancies, including Kaizo.

'I've always wanted to work for an agency as I think it's a lot more challenging and varied than working in-house.

'One of my strengths is that I'm really adaptable and can move quickly into different roles. My knowledge of technology was quite basic, but now I feel confident about asking questions and talking about different aspects. My writing skills are good and preparing pitching documents and company backgrounds on a daily basis means that they've become a lot stronger.

'So far, I've been on at least five training courses, covering topics such as writing press releases, keeping the minutes of meetings and technology.

'In a year's time, hopefully, I'll be a senior account executive looking at more strategic parts of clients' accounts, like organising launches and business pitches.'



MATT ESTWICK

'It was only towards my finals that I looked at PR as a career. It seemed to be about constantly working with people, where you have to be adaptive, but can also be creative.

After university, where I studied psychology, I wanted to assess things and having not had a year out after school, I didn't want to go straight into a career. So I moved to Brighton, where I got a job with Ericsson and then moved to Cable and Wireless, where technology training was offered.

'Then I got hit by a bus. That gave me the kick up the bum to ask 'what do you really want to do?' and then go after it whole-heartedly.

'I started doing a course in marketing and PR, which involved three evenings a week and some Saturdays, on top of work. It was a free course which guaranteed a job at the end of it. I was put forward for a few positions and I ended up applying to Kaizo.

I started here roughly a year after finishing university.

'I was pretty realistic and I knew it would be hard work. I also realised that as an account executive there would be a fair bit of media relations, but actually there's a lot.

'I like working under pressure, but last week I stayed in the office pretty late and the next morning one of the directors told me that I shouldn't be doing that. So I had a chat with my career coach about time management.

'Having a career coach is great as it gives you the guidance you need in order to progress through the ranks. I've set myself the target that I want to be a senior account executive within 12 months and a director within five years.'



ANGELA DONOGHUE

'From my interviews here, I knew that I wouldn't just be a number, but have responsibilities. The other good thing was the career coaching, because I wanted a career, not a job. Now it means there's somebody to pick out my faults - without completely slating me - then set four-monthly objectives to help me work them through.

'Before I started in PR, I thought it would involve a lot of going out and meeting people, but with the idea of putting clients in front of as many people as possible. Now, I realise that there's not so much face-to-face work, and it's more having loads of contact with people while sitting in front of a computer.

'When I left school, I worked in insurance for a few years, which I found totally boring, so I became a mature student and studied leisure. I wasn't too sure what I would end up doing, but I knew I wanted to work with people in a communications environment. After graduating from Leeds Metropolitan University in 1998, I went travelling around Australia and South-East Asia for 16 months. That gave me the opportunity to talk to people from different backgrounds, including PR, and question them about what they did day-to-day.

'When I got back, I signed on with a graduate recruitment agency, which is how I got the job at Kaizo.

'I've only been here three months, but so much has changed already. I'm ambitious, and I want to go places, not stay an account executive for the rest of my life. In 12 months, I'd like to have moved up a position to senior account executive. Longer term, I'm not sure of all my options - but it would be nice to be CEO!

'I'm very personable and very confident, which I think are important traits in PR. One of my weaknesses is attention to detail.

'Kaizo's a young company and everybody's really upbeat. Also if the CEO wants to ask a question about my work, he comes straight to me. I like that a lot.'





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