An agency is only as good as the talent it can offer its current and perspective clients. And while having staffers with traditional PR agency or corporate experience is important, firms are finding that hiring people with non-traditional backgrounds can also be an asset.
While it happens in several of his firm's practices, MWW Group CEO Michael Kempner most often sees this non-traditional hiring approach in MWW's corporate or public affairs divisions.
"I've always felt you [should] combine people with deep, strong PR backgrounds and people that bring other life experiences and skills from outside the PR industry," he explains, adding that his firm counts former lawyers, investment bankers, paralegals, and journalists among its employees.
Kempner adds that having such pros on staff brings a great deal of value to both the firm and clients.
"They bring a deep expertise and have a true understanding of what it's like to be standing in the shoes of the client or other partners we may work with," he says. "They bring great comfort to the client because the client understands that they know what they're talking about from a very specialized basis. They bring a very different perspective because they've actually been in the trenches doing the actual job."
Micho Spring, chair of Weber Shandwick's corporate practice, says that over the past 10 years or so the firm has ramped up efforts to hire non-traditional communications experts. WS currently has 12 lawyers in its corporate practice, though Spring says it was not deliberate. Still, she acknowledges that having professionals with law backgrounds in the practice has provided a competitive advantage.
"Because of Sarbanes-Oxley and the increased scrutiny and regulation, it's been a natural progression that companies want agencies to be as knowledgeable and as sensitive to regulation and legal processes as their own internal staffs," she notes. "It's enormously useful because we often work with the general counsel of the companies with which we're involved. It's reassuring for them to know that the agency is knowledgeable and understanding of the legal context in which we're communicating."
Both Kempner and Spring say that having such a varied group of pros provides an additional selling point in a new-business pitch.
"When you can walk into a turnaround or a crisis and on your staff you have former lawyers, former investment bankers, or former reporters, it brings a whole level of credibility to the firm and the expertise that you are offering," Kempner says.
Not all non-traditional hires need to be at the executive level. Kori-Ann Taylor, an SAE in Ketchum's corporate practice, spent several years in government communications working for former Gov. George Pataki's (R-NY) administration before she joined the agency last month. She says several aspects of communicating for political and government clients can now be translated to her work for her corporate clients.
"The one thing similar in both is reputation management," she says. "You're always trying to do things in government that reflect well on the executive and trying to promote their policy in a positive light. It's similar in corporate practice because you're also focused on reputation management."
Non-traditional hires bring added value to an agency's offerings
Having ex-lawyers on staff in a corporate practice is very useful given recent regulatory changes
Non-traditional hires can come from all levels of experience