’It’s immensely hard to find senior people of any quality,’ says
Crispin Manners, chief executive of The Argyll Consultancies.
The fact that senior positions in the public relations industry are
remaining vacant for months - Ogilvy Adams and Rinehart has been looking
for a European CEO since Fiona Driscoll left in February and Shandwick
Consultants has been looking for a CEO since Chris Matthews’ departure
in February - gives weight to Manners’ view.
For once, the industry appears unanimous in its view - the shortage of
quality candidates is a fact of life.
Neville Price, managing director of recruitment consultants
PriceJamieson, agrees. ’There’s always been a shortage of good people.’
While the recession is acknowledged to have exacerbated the situation,
it is in attempting to explain this drought of quality players that
opinions begin to diverge.
’We are a ’people business’ but we don’t invest in our single most
important asset,’ says Manners.
He says that although the industry attracts bright people, a lot is
expected of them at an early stage and without much training or support.
’They end up burning out and opting out. They can’t handle the stress of
handling hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of accounts without
According to the PRCA, the average investment in training is less than
half a per cent of the pay roll. In-house, more than half of all staff
have no structured training, while in consultancies that level rises to
Whether through early burn-out or disillusionment, the industry is
losing some of its brightest people at a relatively early stage. Add
those people who chose to go free-lance or start up their own agency
into the equation and the choice of senior people later on is even more
Mark Madsen, chief executive of head-hunters MacNeil, says the industry
also fails to build good managers. ’It creates good operators, but when
you are looking at senior levels there is a shortage of good
The ’women phenomenon’ is another factor which contributes to the lack
of senior candidates.
’In an industry which is dominated by women it’s ludicrous that people
are allowed to walk out the door because they are having a baby,’ says
Jonathan Simnett, group director of A Plus. He argues that companies
should be prepared to pay generous maternity packages and returners
bonuses to women they want to keep.
Lynn Beaumont, managing director of search consultants The Foundry,
’Women want different work patterns and employers need to be more
flexible.’ Beaumont says a lot of women leave their jobs because they
have to make a choice between having a family and working.
Part-time work, which could be a solution for some women, is still
treated with some suspicion at senior levels, manifested in concerns
that client service may deteriorate in comparison with a full-time
The search for the right senior person can be an expensive one -
mistakes even more so. Choosing the wrong person can cost as much as
pounds 100,000, once head-hunter fees and the probationary months’
salary have been paid, temporary cover arranged and, in a worst case
scenario, business lost.
The attempt to avoid costly mistakes is reflected in the increasing
rigour of the selection process, with more interviews and more tests.
Even with a shortage of candidates, employers are prepared not to
appoint, rather than ’make do’.
Another response to the lack of quality senior candidates is an
increasing tendency towards bringing in top level staff from outside the
However, this choice does carry a health warning.
Ros Kindersley, managing director at recruitment consultants Judy
Farquharson, says: ’I would feel very anxious about putting in someone
who didn’t have mainstream PR experience. A senior journalist can do a
terrific job as a head of press, but may know very little about
marketing in a broader sense.’
’If you are working for someone with no experience of public relations
it places an immense burden on the people below,’ says Kim Fernihough,
head of PR and communications at cosmetics company Avon.
’When you feel you know more than your boss, it puts you in a difficult
’Journalists don’t necessarily bring an understanding of internal
company politics. That’s one of the vital skills that a senior PR person
develops - the ability to explain strategy that is going to support
board objectives, and the PR implications of company decisions.’
Denise Lewis, who joined telecommunications company Orange as head of
public relations and sponsorship in August, after the post had been
vacant for a year, believes that most senior players will have
communications experience whatever their background.
’It’s important to be open-minded and flexible in terms of bringing in
expertise,’ she says. ’The worst way to look at communications is as
some kind of ghettoised function. However, I would need to be convinced
a candidate had an understanding of the immediacy of communications
In certain sectors, such as financial and healthcare, an understanding
of the industry’s problems and products is just as important as
communications experience if the senior communicator is to carry any
credibility with those they work with outside the communications
Whether a company is looking for a PR specialist or for someone with
outside experience, what does it take to tempt staff away from a job
they are happy with?
Although salaries and bonuses play an important part, the
responsibilities and autonomy the role includes are what really gets
On the consultancy side, the opportunity for international work, heading
up a large team, the type of clients, the chance to shape the business,
and the reputation of the agency, are all important factors.
The most vital factor for in-house roles is access to top people within
the organisation - the closer those links are, the more seriously the
company is seen as taking communications. According to PR Week’s
In-House Survey 1997 (22 August), more than 53 per cent of in-house
heads of PR now report to the CEO or chairman and 43 per of in-house PR
people are represented at board level.
’People want to report to the CEOs and chairmen. They want a seat on the
board,’ says Neville Price.
Autonomy also helps to attract senior people - especially if they have
the chance to create their own role.
’Not having to take over someone else’s game has been really exciting
for me - I’ve relished starting from scratch,’ says Fernihough, who
joined Avon from Boots in April.
While the challenges of finding senior players are acknowledged
throughout the industry, there is optimism that a solution to the senior
staff drought could arrive in the next few years.
Madsen confirms this: ’The communications sector is broadening out as
the lines between management and marketing consultants and the PR
industry blur. We’re going to be able to dip into a broader cross
section of people in ten years.’
Beaumont thinks that by starting to bring in bright graduates and
avoiding the ’gin and tonic brigade’ mentality of ten years ago, the
industry has set in motion the solution to the shortage of senior
people. ’The next generation of public relations professionals in their
early to mid-30s, who are not quite ready for senior posts yet, will
mature in the next five years.’
Who knows? In ten years time the industry could be facing a glut of
REDUNDANCY: NO LONGER THE END OF THE WORLD
Attitudes towards redundancy have shifted in the last decade to the
point where it is rarely seen as a stigma.
’Twelve years ago it was seen on a par with getting fired,’ says Ros
Kindersley, managing director of recruitment consultants Judy
The shift in working practices in the last two decades has been well
documented and a ’job for life’ has become something of an
The recession made redundancy commonplace enough for it to become
Employers and employees alike understand that redundancy does not mean
’The biggest hurdle to overcome is yourself and your attitude,’ says
Chris Davies, director at Grayling, Bristol. ’Even if you saw it coming
and know it’s nothing to do with your abilities, there’s a little voice
that says ’Oh my God, I’ve failed’. You have to recognise that’s a
perfectly natural reaction.’
Davies was made redundant from his job as director of government and
public affairs at pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb in June.
Within weeks of his redundancy he had been snapped up to head Grayling’s
’There’s a lot less stigma attached to being made redundant than I
expected,’ he says. ’What’s important is one’s own reputation and what
Davies theorises that as the corporate communications role becomes more
senior the possibility of redundancy may be heightened.
’If you want to be professionals at the heart of things then the buck is
stopping with you. ’He also points out that it is easier to shift a
person in a more junior role to another position, than to slot a
director of communications into another department or job.
Neville Price, managing director of recruitment consultants Price
Jamieson, says that the advice offered by recruitment consultants can be
’We can make it clear to those made redundant that they are not alone
and it happens to lots of people.’
While Price agrees that redundancy has little stigma attached to it, he
adds a warning. ’It does depend on how old they are and how long they
have already been out of work following a redundancy.’
Claire Stern, personnel manager at Countrywide Porter Novelli, says age
can be a problem if redundancy comes late in a career, but it can also
be an advantage. ’If someone is going to be dealing with the senior
level clients then someone with a bit of gravitas and maturity can be an
PYSCHOMETRIC TESTS: WHEN MIND REALLY MATTERS
The use of some kind of psychometric testing has increased in recent
years and while some remain suspicious as to the scientific value of the
tests there is now a reluctance to dismiss them out of hand.
’While it’s useful in some instances, I’m not a great advocate,’ says
Denise Lewis, head of PR and sponsorship at telecommunications company
Developed in the US in the 1930s, psychometric testing is now used in
over 70 per cent of UK organisations, at all levels of recruitment.
Tests usually take the form of multiple choice questions, where
candidates are asked to select words that best describe their
Some companies use it as a way of selecting candidates for interview and
others as a method of confirming opinions already formed during the
Claire Stern, personnel manager at Countrywide Porter Novelli, explains
how the agency uses psychometric testing at the beginning of their
selection process. ’The main aim is to see how the candidate approaches
problems, tasks and people and to test how they motivate themselves and
Jonathan Simnett, group director of A Plus, says: ’Psychometric testing
should only be used to confirm what you already know from a complex
interview and you have to know why you are doing it.’
Andy West, board director of Text 100, is typical of those who still
treat psychometric testing with caution. He says: ’I would not like to
see the day in our business when someone is appointed on their ability
to pass a psychometric test.’ While psychometric testing is usually used
to substantiate opinions, its influence in the decision-making process
should not be under-estimated.
Recruitment consultant Neville Price remembers one occasion where the
client was very impressed by a candidate. However the results of the
personality test revealed some ’extremely volatile tendencies’ which led
to the rejection of the candidate.
Perhaps the worrying moral to this story is either how the interviewing
process could have failed to pick up on the candidate’s tendencies, or
whether the test was sufficient to disregard all the other evidence.
INTERVIEW PROCEDURE: GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Methods of selection are increasingly rigorous and candidates have to
jump through more hoops - although the ’chat in the pub’ approach is
Jonathan Simnett says: ’Companies don’t know how to interview
At A Plus everyone is subjected to two two-person interviews to see how
they perform under pressure. We also give people a written test to check
they can handle a brief quickly and express themselves clearly.’
Many candidates are now asked to spend a day under assessment, whether
applying for a senior or junior post. Tasks can include writing briefs,
doing TV interviews, giving a presentation, and psychometric
On top of this, candidates are usually put through a series of
’It has got harder in the last six or seven years, but that’s a good
thing,’ says Neville Price, managing director of PriceJamieson. ’It
gives candidates a much better feel for what the working environment is
’We would advise clients against appointing someone who they’ve only
spent an hour with - it’s like getting married after one date.’
However, selection techniques vary from organisation to organisation,
and also depend on individual circumstances.
Ian Haworth, head of consumer division at Text 100, joined the agency in
March this year. The agency had been on the look out for someone to fill
the role for two years and the selection procedure was less formal.
’They knew exactly the kind of person they were looking for. Andy West
(board director) and I went for a bite to eat and talked for over two
hours,’ says Haworth.
He also had an interview with managing director Katie Kemp and an
informal meeting with the consumer team.
’I didn’t see the offices until I started - I think it’s the people that
are important and I got on with the team.
’There’s got to be formality when you are recruiting down the scale but
for the bigger jobs it’s down to the chemistry, and you wouldn’t get to
that point if you hadn’t got through the head-hunters first,’ says
Andy West agrees. ’The decision on Ian’s appointment was made on the
basis of a gut feeling.’ West takes the attitude that if a candidate has
got as far as the interview, then they will have the necessary
experience and skills.
For his previous job, Haworth was interviewed five times and had to sit
a number of tests - having experienced both methods, he prefers the
informal approach, finding the formality ’patronising’.