Recruiting: Wider nets needed to catch prized recruits

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 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

and brightest.

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

has begun.

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

happening now.

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

people excited.’

’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.

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