It’s that time of year when final year undergraduates begin
to seriously consider their future, and when the larger PR
agencies begin looking for their next tranche of raw
Research has shown that PR is a highly popular career choice for
today’s students and this is reflected by an increasing number
taking specialist PR degrees or postgraduate qualifications in
the subject. Fortunately, in recent years this growing graduate
enthusiasm for PR has coincided with the industry’s increasing
demand for new talent.
’We’re taking on 16 graduates this year, our highest number
ever,’ says Susan Croft, senior consultant and head of graduate
recruitment at Hill and Knowlton.
Hundreds of CVs drop on Croft’s desk each year and the search has
already begun, with interviews planned for June/July and intake
set for late September.
’Of 100 CVs, 30 will go straight in the bin because of the way
they’re written or misspellings. We then ask 70 to write an
article on a subject of their choice. Only around 40 respond and
half of these will progress to the next stage,’ says Croft.
This is the Hill and Knowlton selection day which gives
candidates the chance to meet their prospective peers and make
’We’re looking for articulate individuals who have the ability to
put forward a viewpoint, are comfortable in teams and have a wide
understanding of current affairs,’ adds Croft.
She also talks of an ’X’ factor, ’a certain sparkle or wit that
sets them apart from others’ although successful candidates are
also showing a trend towards having either travelled or lived
Countrywide Porter Novelli is another agency finding that it
needs to step up its selection process. Last autumn it recruited
five graduates using what it describes as a ’highly rigorous and
thorough’ new selection process. This was developed by Barry
Winter, the agency’s new director of training and development,
who is also a professional psychologist.
’PR is particularly attractive to graduates which creates a big
problem in selection,’ explains Winter. ’You need a very
systematic procedure to cope with this.
’The sort of people attracted to the industry also tend to have
high verbal reasoning ability and are extroverted, which can
create an impression that interviewees are better than they
really are,’ he adds.
Countrywide now runs two assessment days, inviting a dozen
short-listed candidates to each. During the day candidates are
interviewed and given practical and psychometric tests, followed
by a panel assessment in the evening.
’We are not looking for PR knowledge but for personal
attributes,’ says Winter.
His six essential criteria are: creativity; a continual
willingness to improve; an ability to challenge existing ways of
doing things; initiative; personal presence; and the ability to
’tune-in’ to people.
So if those are the turn-ons, what are the turn-offs?
’Poor writing skills in applications and people who have not
bothered to tailor their CVs or covering letters,’ says Carol
Yapp, personnel and development manager at the Argyll Group.
’I am also wary of great leaps in consciousness, where people say
they’ve always wanted to be in PR but their experience tells a
different story,’ she adds.
Yapp says it all eventually comes down to personality.
’Candidates should be able to sell themselves. PR is all about
this ability and the interview is the only chance they have to
prove to us they can do it,’ she says.
Of course, in-house departments also take on trainees. The Body
Shop recruits on average one graduate a year to its PR
’We have a formal process for recruiting graduates, although in
reality they tend to come from elsewhere within the
organisation,’ says Blair Palese, The Body Shop’s head of PR.
’The most important thing that I am looking for is enthusiasm and
a willingness to take on anything as we get the most peculiar
calls coming through to the press office. They also need the
ability to solve problems, to be independent and to be a
self-starter,’ says Palese.
For the glut of graduates flooding on to the still-tentative job
market, there’s no doubt that standards are high and competition
stiff. So why are they so keen to fight the odds and forge a
career in PR?
’While marketing is narrowly focused, PR encompasses the whole
corporate image. It umbrellas other disciplines,’ enthuses Lucy
Jones, a final year undergraduate on the PR course at Leeds
’I know the industry has a bad name but on our course we are
taught best practice and can see campaigns from a strategic point
of view. It is a young industry and I believe we can change
public perceptions,’ she says.
Jones has already done a month’s placement at the Quentin Bell
Organisation and would like to work in consumer PR. She expects
to start as an account executive on pounds 12-14,000, progressing
to account manager within three years.
Rather than running a formal recruitment scheme, agencies or
in-house departments may prefer to outsource their recruitment to
consultants but in reality, few headhunters are willing to take
on fresh graduates. One that does is Executive Creative and
’We will take on candidates as long as they have demonstrated a
clear commitment to PR,’ says ECM managing director Maria
She tells of one student who was so determined to get into PR
that he funded himself to do an MSc in PR at Stirling University
by working at a consultancy in the day, on a local paper at
weekends and as a waiter in the evenings, eventually landing a
job at Firefly.
’It may take several months, but very few graduates are actually
left on the shelf. The more flexible the candidate is, the better
their chances of finding a job quickly. Geographical flexibility
is particularly important, ’ says Wilson.
’It’s an employer’s market,’ agrees Erica Evans, personnel
manager at Edelman PR. ’We get six or seven hundred graduate CVs
a year, so we don’t need to actively recruit at all.’
But Evans has some encouraging words for those graduates who feel
they have the right stuff but are under-qualified in PR terms:
’We don’t really mind which degree candidates have. We’re looking
for people whose personality fits in with our enthusiastic,
She says her managing director Abel Hadden has an analogy for the
type of people he is looking for: ’He says they’re like pots on a
stove; we want the ones you need to put a lid on, rather than
ones you need to put the gas under.’
PLANS OF ACTION: SCHEMES TO PROVIDE ’REAL-LIFE’ EXPERIENCE
Agencies have a tendency to talk up their graduate recruitment
schemes but how are the new wave raft of PR recruits finding
reality compares to their pre-career expectations?
Lisa Nilsen, 22, joined Hill and Knowlton’s healthcare division
last autumn having taken an MA in PR at Manchester Metropolitan
She is not alone in sounding breathlessly positive:
’My experience to date has been a little different than I
expected. I have had the opportunity to sell-in stories and put
journalists in touch with case study patients for health articles
and contribute to strategic client programmes. So I’ve had far
more hands-on experience than I could have hoped for. I’m aware
that this is not always the norm but I’m glad to have had the
chance this early on.’
Another Hill and Knowlton trainee, Sophie Maunder, has worked in
the company’s corporate division for four months. She says: ’My
views of PR have changed dramatically. I’ve experienced a wide
variety of things, very few of which have been the typical
photocopying job that every graduate dreads but expects.’
Jody Hall, 23, joined Edelman in July last year on work
experience and was made a full time executive assistant in
December. She had graduated in French and Spanish from Cardiff
Hall already works across four accounts, two of which she says
she operates virtually single-handed and says she was calling
journalists on her first day: ’I was terrified about selling, but
now I’ve worked out how you can build a relationship with
journalists and this has really helped with my confidence levels.
A lot of people move around in this industry but I’d like to stay
here and specialise in arts PR.’
Mark Ellwood, also of Edelman, took to the work so quickly he
passed the assistant stage and went straight from work placement
in November 1996 to his current position of account
’PR can have an unfortunate image but I’ve found everyone to be
very professional. I’ve also been pleased to find that clients
are responsive to your ideas,’ he says.
He is working on Ericsson Mobile Phones and NCR Financial Systems
while attending monthly training sessions. He adds: ’I don’t want
to specialise yet as I’m still learning and want to keep my
experience as broad as possible.’
INVESTMENT: ADDRESSING THE AGE OLD QUESTION OF MONEY
Increasing investment in staff of the future is seen by many as a
one of the main priorities facing the PR industry. Agencies have
been widely criticised for failing to do this in the past, the
result being a current shortage of middle management
PR Week’s 1996 Agency Report revealed dramatically varying levels
of spend on staff training and development. So how are agencies
training their new recruits?
’We’ve had a graduate recruitment scheme every year since we were
established in 1978,’ says Sam Rowe, consultant director at Biss
Lancaster, ’although we’ve now combined the recruitment of
graduates and secretaries into one scheme for account trainees on
an ’as need’ basis.’
Rowe says the five or six trainees brought in each year receive
both on-the-job and external training. The latter includes
writing courses provided by the NUJ, marketing courses from the
Chartered Institute of Marketing and personal effectiveness
courses from taining company Management and Skills Training
’As staff become more senior, we also introduce courses on
management techniques and influencing and persuading,’ says
After their induction programme, graduate recruits at Biss
Lancaster get a three month review with managing director Isabel
Greenwood and appraisals after six months. A year down the line
they would be expected to reach account executive level.
Rowe says the agency’s total training budget is pounds 50,000,
with graduates receiving in the region of pounds 1,000 individual
investment in their first year.
Clare Shephard at Abacus, an Argyll Consultancy, says the group
provides a personal development programme which starts at
recruitment stage and continues throughout an employee’s time
’This is based on psychometric analysis for team-building,
communication and training purposes, and a quarterly personal
review which measures performance against objectives developed by
the individual,’ she says.
Shephard claims Argyll invests eight per cent of its annual
payroll in training and development which compares with a PRCA
average of less than 0.5 per cent.
The Shandwick group of companies has no formal policy on
graduates, although there are annual induction programmes run on
a company-by-company basis.
Marketing manager Daphne Luchtenberg says the group invests
around pounds 300,000 a year on training and development and that
all its agencies are required to achieve Investors in People
accreditation by the end of 1998.
’Each office has its own system for training graduate recruits
but we make sure there is an adequate budget set aside and
encourage a ’mentoring’ system, whereby those who attend courses
are allocated someone on the account side who will work with them
in practice,’ says Luchtenberg.