Graduate Recruitment: Keep them keen

How can PR firms ensure graduates will remain in the industry beyond the first year? asks Steve Hemsley.

The competition for graduate positions within the PR industry is as fierce as ever, yet ensuring the most talented applicants are recruited and stay in the job beyond their first year can be a struggle. With such large numbers of graduates still keen to work within a profession they perceive as glamorous and rewarding, the recruitment process must be robust enough to dispel any misconceptions they might have without killing their enthusiasm.

A shortage of account executives, the post most new entrants would expect to hold after one year's training, is being blamed partly on the failure of PROs to adequately explain to potential recruits what their first 12 months will entail. Graduates can become disheartened if they are not using the writing and creative skills tested so vigorously during interviews.

Frustration can set in if they feel they are spending too much time on routine office administration tasks such as mounting clippings, photocopying and phone work.

The IPR is aware of the problem and organises two career days in London and Manchester every year to introduce graduates to the industry. Agency and in-house PROs explain how the business works, what people can expect from their first job and why starting on the bottom rung of the ladder will help them to understand different aspects of a PRO's role and assist their boss in measuring their long-term potential.

By the end of each event some people will have decided they no longer want to work in PR. This helps to prevent people entering the industry and leaving after a few months. The next career day takes place in London on 29 November.

Chairman of the IPR's training and professional development committee Kevin Taylor regularly visits universities. He says PR-related work placements must give students as broad an insight as possible into what will be required when they enter the profession.

'When you ask students about their work experience, there is no middle ground. Either they say it was dull because all they did was make the tea and sent faxes, or you get the other extreme with people full of praise about the opportunities they had,' he says. 'While every graduate needs to know this discipline requires office-based skills, it is the responsibility of PROs to make the work as interesting as possible from day one to retain the most talented and brightest people. Graduates will stick with it if they realise a job is innovative and challenging and they are learning.'

Borkowski PR takes on between six and eight graduates every year and business development director Larry Franks agrees recruits will not mind undertaking mundane tasks if the reasons for doing so are explained.

'The graduate who will join us in October from Cardiff University was a bit shocked to discover she would be starting on reception, but she needs to learn about the firm and who is who, so what better way to do that?' says Franks. 'If I put her on the shop floor straight away she would be eaten alive and I do not want her to be put off in the early months. I want her to eventually work on something she is interested in because that will benefit everyone.'

The agencies that run formal schemes report that while individuals with a PR or related degree tend to have a good grasp of the industry, others can be ill-informed and apply for jobs without undertaking any research.

Five graduates taken on by Fleishman-Hillard are told during the interview process that their first year will involve everyday office jobs. However, it is also made clear that they will receive comprehensive training to improve their writing and presentation skills so they will be ready for an account executive role by the end of year one.

Leading in-house PROs can be extremely demanding regarding the qualities they expect from graduates. Asda head of PR Nick Agarwal lectures at Leeds Metropolitan University and urges students to get as much relevant work experience as possible so they can hit the ground running when they start their first job.

Media recruitment agencies are adamant the industry must take a warts-and-all approach when selling a career in PR. Prospect Resourcing joint-MD Colette Brown says PROs must manage graduates' expectations: 'They might think it is all about champagne parties but we have to stress the writing, creative and administrative sides of the business and the long hours.

'If people do not consider what is involved, they will take the first job that comes along just to get into the industry but then leave within months if the role does not suit them.'

Formal schemes that offer trainees continued learning over one or two years are particularly popular with graduates. At high-street bank Abbey, media relations executive Matt Gentry has just completed his two-year stint on the firm's graduate programme. He has a degree in business studies and says he had to do a lot of research while at university to find information about a career in PR.

F-H account manager Lisa Forni joined the firm's official scheme three years ago, where she gained experience within all the organisation's press departments. 'I studied English and had some PR work experience.

This is a difficult industry to get into so I did not mind the more mundane jobs in the first year. I would get them done and then ask for something else to do,' she says.

PROs need to attract the right calibre of graduate but it is in everyone's interests that those joining the profession are under no illusions of exactly what a career in PR involves and what will be expected of them.

THE IN-HOUSE PRO

Surprising as it might seem for an organisation whose name jumps out from any job applicant's CV, the BBC can struggle to attract the calibre of graduates it wants. According to BBC head of press Donald Steel, research has shown that many graduates think it is not for them because they feel they do not have the right social background.

The BBC does not have a formal graduate recruitment scheme but it does operate a programme called Press and Publicity Assistant Rotation (PPAR).

Naomi Luland was a social studies and economics graduate from Manchester University when she joined PPAR in 2001: 'I thought I would need loads of media experience, but it was more important that I loved TV and believed in what the BBC stands for globally. The rotation scheme gave me experience of different broadcast genres. I initially went into entertainment where, as well as photocopying and checking cuttings, I was also working alongside people involved in programmes such as The Office.

'After six months, I was made assistant to the publicist working on Top Of The Pops before moving to kids' TV and helping with the launch of the CBeebies channel. I also spent eight months in the corporate press office,' she says.

After getting a job as assistant publicist in the factual department she moved to her current role as a member of the BBC's front-desk media team. Her next aim is a publicist's role.

THE AGENCY PRO

Louise Burns joined Golin/Harris's graduate training scheme at the start of September, having completed an English degree at York University.

While studying she worked on the university's newspaper York Vision, starting life as arts editor before being promoted to deputy editor and then editor.

In 2003, the newspaper won The Guardian Student Newspaper of the Year Award and the Daily Mirror/NUS Student Newspaper of the Year Award.

'From my experience working on the paper, I decided to follow a career in PR rather than journalism. It is the variety involved in PR that appealed to me and my writing skills certainly helped me to get the job,' she says.

'I knew quite a bit about Golin/Harris before the assessment day because I had looked at the website and discovered the type of clients it had.

We also had copies of PRWeek at the university so I was aware of industry issues.'

After her first couple of weeks, Burns says the job has matched her expectations but adds: 'When you start a career you have to begin at the bottom so you can learn to do things well.'

Golin/Harris human resources manager Katherine Allison says there were 150 applications for the two graduate places available this year: 'Louise had a relevant degree and her understanding of PR, her writing skills and her performance on the assessment day made her the right choice.'

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