MARKET FOCUS: Talent count

As the industry demands greater intellectual capital, employers are taking it upon themselves to train new hires.

As the industry demands greater intellectual capital, employers are taking it upon themselves to train new hires.

There's a lot of talk these days about "the talent deficit" in PR, an alleged lack of qualified professionals to fill what scant positions are available. Certainly there's no shortage of applicants - two solid years of industry layoffs have seen to that. But insiders complain that the quality and skill level of those applicants just isn't up to snuff. "We have positions to fill," says one agency head, "but it's challenging finding the people with the skills and the experience we need." But is the talent deficit a matter of fact or perception? Could it be possible that all the people laid off in the past few years really were victims of their own incompetence? Was the need for warm bodies so dire in the late 1990s that the industry pulled aboard all manner of professional flotsam that now deserves to be tossed back? Or is there something more insidious at work? The fact is, if you talk to industry recruiters and HR heads, you're unlikely to hear any mention of a talent deficit - unless they're quoting a senior partner. What you will find are stories of employers who "want more bang for their buck." The talent in the industry hasn't dipped, they say, but smaller budgets and a stubbornly soft market for new business have pushed standards higher, even for entry-level positions. "I think what we have seen is that the searches themselves tend to take longer because clients are so concerned with making sure that they get all the ingredients they are looking for," observes Bill Heyman, president of recruiting firm Heyman Associates. "If they have a laundry list of 10 vital things they want in a person and you show them someone who has six of those 10, they're just not interested. Three years ago, when there were so few talented people for so many openings, six out of 10 was fine." Industry jobs are more plentiful now than at any point since the tech bubble burst, but overall head count is still down. Employers who are hiring again are doing so cautiously. Smaller budgets don't allow for "dead weight," or workers who are highly specialized in one area such as writing, but aren't competent in others. The fact remains that it's harder than ever to find PR staff with the desired skill level. Which is just one reason why in-house training is back in style. "I see people who had shut down their training programs during the recession because basically there was more than enough talent inside to fill their needs," says Travaile Executive Search firm president Ben Long. "I'm seeing those training programs started back up." Those programs are how corporations and PR firms mold their workers - new and not-so-new - into the professionals they need them to be, with the skills they need to have. With a solid training program in place, the hiring process can be considerably less daunting. Potential over skill Fred Hill, EVP of marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase, has remarkable faith in his training programs. Enough that he feels free to focus more on applicants' potential and less on their current skill level. "Our secret has been that we look for people who have three important elements," he says. "Good people skills, good communication skills, and a strong work ethic. I think that's the key to hiring successful talent." It's only after these prospects join the JPMorgan Chase team that they truly learn the skills that make them qualified to be there. "The way to do it is to get them involved in real high-profile stuff, so they have a chance to learn by watching," says Hill. He compares the experience to training to become a trial lawyer. "The way to become a really good litigator is to sit there for a while and watch a strong trial lawyer at work and help them build their case. To some extent, it's the same with developing young talent in the media-relations business." To be sure, Hill is hardly working with blank slates. He gives credit for much of his young staff's expertise to the agencies that gave them their start, often as interns. "I think there a lot of media relations firms that are very good at training younger people," he offers. Indeed, programs like Fleishman-Hillard University, BMU (Burson-Marsteller), Ketchum College, and Edelman University have been preparing the industry's young hopefuls for years, and are more important than ever in 2003. Agency training programs tend to rely on senior executives to impart skills downward, helping young workers intensify the focus on their chosen practice, and producing employees who embody the firm's culture. Celia Berk, Burson's managing director for HR worldwide, explains the thinking behind BMU: "We're telling clients all over the world that we provide seamless service, that you will find a 'Burson person' wherever you go. How do you make that happen?" One way is to flout geographical obstacles by using the web as a training tool. Burson groups employees from around the globe into teams, then has them tackle realistic crises together. They never meet and "they never get to know each other," Berk says. But the training is invaluable, because it closely simulates the kind of global strategizing capability Burson needs from its people. Ketchum recently created a chief learning officer (CLO) position as the first step toward ramping up its training efforts. A number of new initiatives have been introduced, including one that may surprise some. "Everyone takes it for granted that we're a PR company, so we have great media relations capabilities," says CLO Robert Burnside. "What we find is that many of the newest people in the organization are doing a lot of the most direct media contact, and they haven't been trained properly." Exposure to journalists Ketchum is finding new ways for young staffers to learn how to deal with journalists - beyond cold calling. "We just had Take a Journalist to Lunch Week," he reports. Lunches are followed by internet sessions/ debriefings with in-house instructors. Fleishman also takes pains to integrate the media into its extensive training program. Fourth Fridays with the Fourth Estate, a staple of the Washington, DC office, brings a noted journalist in-house once a month to talk to the junior staff. "They have the ability, because of their location and contacts, to bring in some big-name folks," says chief talent officer Agnes Gioconda. David Broder, Helen Thomas, and George Stephanopoulos are among those who've taken part. But arguably the biggest sign that the industry is renewing its focus on training is the program launched in July by holding company WPP. Entitled Maestro, it's been designed jointly by the various PR shops with an eye toward honing the skills of senior leadership. "What does it mean to be a trusted advisor?" asks Berk, who attended the maiden class. "This is a week-long program designed around a case to show the complexities of a senior partner-client relationship." ----- Where's the talent coming from? According to headhunters, recruiters, and HR heads, one thing seems certain - the people getting the PR jobs in 2003 are the ones who can bring something extra to the firm, whether those candidates are straight out of graduate school, poached from a competitor, lured from a client, or plucked from a different vocation entirely. "The kind of candidate we like is the kind of candidate who has dual experience," says GCI president Tom Reno. "We like people who have communications agency backgrounds, but have also worked in another industry. We want people who have an additional layer of experience who can provide a deeper level of counsel. Reno echoes many of his colleagues when he cites a preference for employees who know their way around a PR firm, but who can add value by bringing intimate knowledge of a client's industry. "We have someone who is a financial communications worker at our firm, but at one time was a medical researcher," he offers. "We also have a number of ex-lawyers on staff." Jean Allen, partner at recruitment agency Whitehead Mann, sees employers looking for candidates with ability to lead. "These days, my clients put a premium on communicators who combine strong fundamentals with the leadership skills to inspire others and help navigate the enterprise in changing times," she says. "Common sense, humor, and nerves of steel have moved way up the list - on both the client and agency sides." Meanwhile, Bill Heyman, president of Heyman Associates, sees the down economy fostering an aversion among agencies to hire from the corporate side, because corporate communicators have never been taught to sell. "Agencies tend to get people out of the best schools or other firms," he observes. "They're not recruiting people out of corporations because agencies are really relying on their people to be salesmen. They don't feel corporate people have that kind of experience." The debate continues as to whether a master's degree in PR is something employers actually value, but as far as Reno is concerned, it's just another something. "I don't think it's a negative," he says, "but if you show me someone with a graduate degree in PR and someone with an MBA and more business experience, I'd rather have the person with the MBA." "After all," he concludes, "we need to understand our clients' business. In the end, we're business consultants with an expertise in communications."

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