Help wanted

Recruiting the right people in a seller's market requires a sophisticated approach.

Recruiting the right people in a seller's market requires a sophisticated approach.

Across the country, the story's the same - good talent is hard to find.

In Los Angeles, PR pros bemoan not being able to find enough people to fill those mid-level jobs, while some feel that the 20-somethings entering the PR job market aren't motivated enough.

In New York, there are complaints about writing skills, or the lack thereof.

Some PR professionals in Chicago are looking to staff their teams with people who have a bit more experience under their belt, while in San Francisco the region is scrambling to staff up after the dot-com bust scared many people away.

As the economy improves, the best and brightest talent find they have a plethora of choices as to where to send their r?sum?. Yet agencies and in-house PR teams have raised the bar in terms of their standards and the specificity of what they are looking for. Seat warmers of the dot-com era need not apply.

So at this crossroads of PR teams being pickier and job seekers finding more opportunities, recruiters acknowledge that a simple "help wanted" ad by itself just won't cut it anymore.

The impact of networking

"It's about sheer networking," explains Julie Biber, Edelman's director of recruitment in the US and Canada. "We talk to our employees, key players in certain industries and regions, and people who used to work for us with whom we've kept in touch."

Edelman doesn't focus much on branding itself to potential employees, as the company already has a strong reputation. For Biber, it's making sure that the people she entrusts to spread the word highlight those attributes for which Edelman is known, which ideally will attract the right candidates to the job.

Biber's belief in networking echoes similar sentiments of other PR recruiters. When it comes to finding tomorrow's next employee, it's who you know today that matters.

Paula Davis, PR director at Siemens, also relies extensively on networking, talking to peers inside and outside the company. Having someone within her network recommend a potential candidate provides a personal endorsement, and gives some credence to that person's past performance and work ethic, something you can't always see in an interview, she says.

And those people within that network also act as brand ambassadors for the employer. Not only can that provide an endorsement of the potential employer, but that person from the recruiter's network can talk up the key attributes of what makes this company or that agency a great place to work.

"There's a lot of competition right now in hiring," adds Davis. "The market is really good right now, particularly for someone with five to seven years' experience. But we're also looking for people with more specific skills, a hybrid of marketing and PR, people who have interacted with sales teams."

Perhaps the biggest challenge - next to finding the right person - is that everyone is competing for that same talent pool, says Sheldon Lamphier, MD of human resources for Zeno Group. The seasoned AE, with about three to five years of experience, is particularly hard to find.

Zeno relies upon its own network, as well as peers outside the agency, for recommendations. It even has a $2,500 to $7,500 referral bonus if employees refer someone the agency hires.

"We figured that if we pay recruiters, why not pay our own employees," explains Lamphier.

Because job seekers do have an increasing array of choices, branding is becoming more important for employers. A company's or agency's brand is the first thing a potential employee sees, and that brand needs to resonate with them, adds Lamphier. Zeno also places ads because it's important to keep the agency's name in front of local PR communities.

But an ad can only convey so much about an agency's culture. Keeping a company or agency in the local PR community's mind means practicing what PR people preach, which they are often quick to admit they don't do a very good job of. Still, some are better at it than others.

At HomeBanc, VP of marketing Mark Scott keeps the company's brand prominent in the local PR community by sponsoring the Atlanta Press Club's holiday party, as well as making sure the company gets positive and consistent coverage in the local media.

"We are very big on positioning ourselves in the media as a workplace of choice," explains Scott. "We were on Fortune's list of the best places to work. We do press around that and keep that buzz going in the local media."

Scott points out that companies' public relationships with their staffers can help or hurt their ability to attract new employees. He pointed to the struggling airline industry, which he said is asking for concessions from employees, something that he suspects hurts their ability to attract new ones.

When using her network, SheaHedges Group VP Reggie Kouba makes sure those within that network are up to date on the agency's latest news, such as new hires or account
wins, and have an overall familiarity with the firm's culture. Those are the kinds of intangibles, particularly the intricacies of an agency's culture, that are difficult to get across in an ad, says Kouba.

With the job market getting healthier, and competition for top talent fierce, there aren't as many people knocking on doors looking for jobs, adds Kouba. Recruiting is an active task, not a reactive one. And that means having a strong brand is not enough. PR teams need to aggressively keep their name out there, but also make sure their networks that are making recommendations know exactly what that brand stands for and why.

Innovation isn't synonymous with recruitment, argues Stephen Boehler, founder of Mercer Island Group. Be it ads or relying on a network of peers, the tools largely remain the same. Local or industry rankings of good employers are important to highlight, he says, as is an agency's reputation for diversity. Candidates are bound to know a company or agency from what they read in the news or trade media. But for intangibles such as culture, a company needs to work harder to convey those merits to potential employees.

"It is hugely important to make sure that your company is visible and that people understand the brand," adds HomeBanc's Scott, arguing that it's the brand that will often interest a candidate to learn more about an opportunity. And that is vital in order to attract not only someone with the right qualifications, but also someone who is the right cultural fit.

"You can get résumés all day long, but you only know about the person's qualifications, not their personality, nor whether they're a good fit with the culture," says Scott. "But if I have 25 people in the community who I know well, and know us well, then they speak on our behalf. And it's more credible coming from that person than from an ad, whether they're talking about flexible work hours or access to senior executives."

Help on the internet

Companies have also improved the careers sections of their websites, says Smooch Reynolds, president and CEO of The Repovich-Reynolds Group. She describes those pages as more user-friendly, as they provide richer and more detailed content about a company's culture and work environment. Previously, companies would rest on their brand, thinking that buzz was enough.

But the brand needs to stand for more today. And that's why agencies and companies are relying so heavily on their personal networks that can talk about the company and the brand, but also dig below the surface to highlight the attributes and culture that make that company an attractive potential employer in the first place. While some people, such as Kouba, also use resources such as Craigslist, which she says attracts a more qualified pool of candidates, it's that personal connection that can really help sell a candidate on an opportunity.

As PR people are apt to tell you, their business is all about personal connections. Recruiting the right job candidates is no different.

"The biggest challenge is finding someone who has the talent you need, and the attitude to fit the culture of the organization," says Scott. "There are always plenty of talented people around. The question is, are they the right fit?"

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