It happens every year. As soon as the leaves begin to fall on the pristine campuses of elite colleges nationwide, representatives from the top management consulting firms descend upon the schools to woo the best and brightest.
It happens every year. As soon as the leaves begin to fall on the
pristine campuses of elite colleges nationwide, representatives from the
top management consulting firms descend upon the schools to woo the best
The firms hold information sessions, which are invariably followed by
schmoozing sessions where the students are plied with munchies and
They get the chance to speak with recent grads (and happy interns) about
the challenging and rewarding environment of management consulting.
Resumes are exchanged, interviews follow, and the recruitment process
Sounds simple. So why can’t PR firms do the same?
A recent study sponsored by the Council of Public Relations Firms and
Fleishman-Hillard examined the recruiting and retention practices of top
management consulting firms in an effort to improve the strategies
employed by PR agencies. Since the study found that none of the leading
consulting firms do much to actively retain talent, the issue of
recruitment was brought into sharp focus.
Conducted by NY-based search consultancy Pitcher & Crow, the survey
polled firms like McKinsey, Bain and Watson Wyatt, which place an
enormous emphasis on the ’front-end acquisition of talent,’ or campus
recruiting. Indeed, one respondent from McKinsey said the on-campus
effort ’is overwhelmingly most important ... get this right or nothing
else really will matter.’
Contrast that with PR firms who, ’when it comes to recruiting, are polar
opposite to consultants,’ says Pat Rose, Career Services director at the
University of Pennsylvania.
Widening the net
Since its inception, the Council has been pushing to expand traditional
recruiting areas, and given today’s staffing crunch, many firms have
seen the need to widen their nets in an effort to catch quality talent.
PR firms are obviously eager to attract MBAs and Ivy League
undergraduates, but consultants have ruled this turf for years.
’One of the things they do well is establish long-term relationships
with the schools,’ says Kevin Bergin, managing director at Pitcher &
McKinsey has turned the process into a science, authoring a report on
’The War for Talent’ that has become required reading for HR execs.
Although the Council has made some inroads in recruiting MBAs, president
Jack Bergen says he’s fighting a losing battle. ’We were fixated on the
MBA students, but one of the things the study told us is that we
shouldn’t be fixated on someone we can’t get. We’ve got to reorient to
focus on the better liberal arts schools.’
PR firms complain that they are fighting a losing battle with the
consulting behemoths - which have intricate alumni networks at all the
top schools - but those who have witnessed the recruitment battle
firsthand suggest PR firms aren’t fighting at all. The problem is not
that management consulting firms own the turf, but that their dominance
goes completely unchallenged.
Princeton recently held a Career Fair and although the school ’beat the
bush’ to attract PR firms, only one showed up, according to Career
Services director Beverly Hamilton Chandler. ’We had to go looking for
them,’ she says. Adds Rose: ’There’s no PR recruiting here (at Penn),
and that’s sad since there would be a huge interest on the part of
What gives? If PR agencies are truly after the best and brightest,
shouldn’t they be on campuses like Princeton and Penn, where
undergraduates often go into consulting solely because they are
recruited so hard? ’Plenty of people went into consulting simply because
the door was open, and that’s what made the difference,’ Chandler
And inexplicably, PR firms are somewhat reluctant to open new recruiting
doors. Toni Spinazzola, VP of PR at Cunningham Communications, says her
firm concentrates its on-campus effort at schools like Northwestern,
University of Texas at Austin and Santa Clara University. The firm does
not target the Ivy League, but ’that’s not to say we won’t be there.
There’s nothing that’s not on the table for consideration.’ But it’s not
Burson-Marsteller focuses its recruiting efforts on campuses where
valued Burson employees are alumni, according to Celia Berk, managing
director of worldwide HR. The firm formalized its on-campus recruiting
strategy last year, and decided that rather than targeting more
prestigious schools, it has to do a better job at the schools it already
targets. ’It’s not a question of going to the right schools, it’s a
question of what do we do when we get on campus,’ she says.
Spinazzola says students are usually wowed when they hear Cunningham’s
pitch, but aren’t they just preaching to the converted? How can PR grab
talented people who wouldn’t normally consider entering the
’In PR, you need a differentiator,’ she says. ’What’s the attraction?’
Pitcher & Crow’s Bergin says consulting firms ’do good PR for their
company, and PR agencies don’t. They have to do PR for themselves to get
’PR firms are very low profile,’ adds Chandler. ’They may offer job
postings, but it’s the actual visit that’s needed. You have to build
The management consultants all say, ’If you’re bright, we want to talk
to you.’ PR firms need to advertise what their needs are and tell their
own story.’ It’s the shoemaker’s children syndrome all over again.
Give me money
While it’s true that the base salaries consulting firms offer usually
dwarf what PR firms can muster, many college graduates will sacrifice a
higher salary if they really enjoy their job. ’Not everyone is in it for
the money,’ Bergin says. And if competing on salary is a sticking point,
the study suggests fattening the ’total package,’ in the shape of
generous bonus plans, stock plans and the opportunity for some type of
ownership. Many PR firms already do this, Bergen says.
The study also suggested bringing ’hiring pros’ into the HR departments,
and PR firms have made progress in that regard. Burson has hired a full-
time West Coast recruiter, and Cunningham just brought in a recruiting
manager on the East Coast. It’s a step in the right direction, but what
good is a recruiter if the firms won’t change their strategies to widen
the talent pipeline?
’We need to target more undergraduate schools,’ Bergen says. The Council
can provide literature to promote careers in PR, but he adds the firms
have to visit campuses themselves. If the industry is serious about
recruitment, it must stop the vicious cycle of recruiting at the same
old schools and poaching each other’s employees. The survey found that
PR firms can learn a thing or two about ’front-end’ talent acquisition,
and elite colleges are clamoring for on-campus representation from PR
firms. It looks like it’s time to go back to school.