PR TECHNIQUE: Recruitment - Getting a head: how to tap a top-levelpro. Filling a company's top PR post is a matter of sticking to certainbasics while being open to new sources, says Thom Weidlich

If you think the down economy has made it any easier for companies to recruit a head of communications, or other high-level PR spot, think again. It's never easy to find an A-1 communicator, and the economy is making those in secure jobs - the kind of candidates companies typically want - only more skittish about making a move.

If you think the down economy has made it any easier for companies to recruit a head of communications, or other high-level PR spot, think again. It's never easy to find an A-1 communicator, and the economy is making those in secure jobs - the kind of candidates companies typically want - only more skittish about making a move.

"Finding top talent is tough no matter what,

says recruiter Ted Chaloner, president of Chaloner Associates in Boston.

So what's a company with a vacancy sign outside its corporate communications office to do? Stick to some basics, experts say, but also be aware of recent trends.

Ben Long, president of Travaille in Washington, DC, says clients typically like to recruit from their own industry, but he advises them to widen their view, especially if they are undergoing a change.

For example, United Airlines is currently searching for a director of media relations, but is not looking within the airline industry. "We're looking for some new perspectives, some new outside thinking,

says John Kiker, United's VP of worldwide communications. "Looking outside the industry is the way to go about getting that thinking."

"In the last three or four years, the marketplace has become more open-minded,

says Smooch S. Reynolds, author of Be Hunted and president and CEO of The Repovich-Reynolds Group in Pasadena, CA. "Five or 10 years ago, if you were in technology or healthcare, you only hired communicators from those industries."

In April, DuPont brought on Anne McCarthy from Polaroid to be internal communications director. "DuPont is a very diverse company, so we looked at candidates from a range of industries,

says Kathy Forte, VP of public affairs. There was also diversity in that Dupont looked at people with internal communications specialties, along with more generalists like McCarthy.

But what about looking outside the corporate world? Experts say in-house PR leaders are coming from PR firms more often than in the past. "Agency people have become very desirable to clients because they can multitask, serve a lot of masters, and mobilize resources,

says Jean Allen, of recruiter Whitehead Mann in New York. "They worry about the transition, but the risk is worth the reward."

Earlier this year, Oracle hired Dave Samson from Ketchum as VP of international PR and executive communications. James Finn, the company's VP of worldwide PR, says Samson was his only candidate for the job because he had "known and respected him for years."

It's not unheard of to hire a journalist for a top-level PR job. One recruiter told of a consumer goods company that hired as its head of communications a journalist who had come in to interview the CEO for an article. "Those situations usually don't work out,

this recruiter adds.

More common is hiring from government, though preferably someone with company experience. In October last year, Jake Siewert, the final press secretary of President Clinton's administration, became VP of global communications and strategy at Alcoa. And in November 2000, his predecessor at the White House, Joe Lockhart, became SVP of public affairs at Oracle (although he left last year).

But going for a high-profile PR star may not be the best solution, especially with so much hidden talent out there. "The analogy I like to use,

says David Moyer, of New York-based recruiter Moyer, Sherwood Associates, "is whoever advised NBC on whether to go with Leno or Letterman. The brilliant guy was the one who said, 'Let's try Conan O'Brien.'

Moyer says those people often come from regional rather than national offices. Look for good communications work and find out who's responsible for it.

When filling a post, most companies first try to promote from within and then rely on employees' networks for candidates. To cut down on the cost, Kiker is eschewing a headhunter and instead is working with United's HR department, which is relying heavily on job websites. And, of course, he's tapping personal contacts. "Some resumes I think are at the top came from people I know in business,

he says.

When turning to outside help, recruiters say it is crucial they have access to company insiders and that they receive feedback after each interview.

Searches should begin with a description of the required skills. They may change if, for example, during the search the company does a merger and needs a PR person who knows internal communications, but generally the list of requirements should be stuck to.

Robert Woodrum, managing director at recruiter Korn/Ferry International in New York, says that companies often fixate too much on the shortcomings of the previous person in the job. "I've done over 400 searches - half for the top PR job - and I'd say in 95% of those, the client focused on the failures of the last person. And that's a bad thing to do."

Woodrum also suggests making sure the candidate has taken advantage of changes in the market. For example, right now that would be someone who can show how he or she used the internet as a communications tool, and who played a role in shaping the company's response to the SEC's "full disclosure

requirements.

Chemistry and culture can be just as important as skills. In April 2001, The New York Times hired Toby Usnik from Razor-fish as its PR director (he'd also been at American Express). "We wanted to make sure it was someone who would fit in with our environment, which is actually very collegial and collaborative,

says Catherine Mathis, the Times' VP of corporate communications. "He also had a lot of the skill sets we were looking for, such as the ability to write strongly and do strategic PR."

In December 2001, Woodrum placed Jack Bergen from the Council of PR Firms as Siemens' SVP of corporate affairs and marketing for its US operations.

"They were looking for someone who not only had all the skill sets to run a corporate communications function, but who could work with the parent company in Germany,

says Woodrum. "It had to be someone with a broad world view who could bridge cultures and help the company socially, economically, and politically. Jack lived in Germany, spoke German, and worked in politics. I've known Jack for a long time. His was the first name that came to mind. But a search like that is very unusual because it's such a narrow category of people."

TECHNIQUE TIPS

1 Do consider looking outside your industry for a PR leader, especially if your company is going through changes and needs fresh ideas

2 Do interview higher-ranking agency people for the job if they've had in-house experience, understand company politics, and will be happy working for one client

3 Do look for talent that may fall below the PR-stardom radar screen. Often these will be people in regional rather than national offices

1 Don't simply turn over hiring to a headhunter. A successful search requires working closely with the recruiter and giving constant feedback

2 Don't focus strictly on what the previous head of PR lacked. Make a list of job requirements based on what the company needs and where it wants to go

3 Don't waiver too much from the requirements list you've made. Yes, you must be flexible, but if you drop a requirement for one candidate, you should drop it for all of them.

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