FOCUS: GRADUATE RECRUITMENT - Rising to the post-university challenge/PR remains one of the most popular career choices for outgoing graduates. Consequently, in-house departments and agencies have made their recruitment procedures more rigorous Danny Roge

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 recruits.

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

Metropolitan University.

’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,

hard-working culture.’

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.’


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.’


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.

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