Media: School’s out: PR agencies reach out to campus kids - The tight labor market has forced public relations agencies to rethink their recruitment strategies, and it starts from the bottom up. One obvious port of call is the college. Marc D. All

Back in April, Jack Bergen traveled to the University of Virginia at Charlottesville to tell students about the opportunities for careers in PR. The school doesn’t offer a major in PR, but that was exactly the point.

Back in April, Jack Bergen traveled to the University of Virginia at Charlottesville to tell students about the opportunities for careers in PR. The school doesn’t offer a major in PR, but that was exactly the point.

Back in April, Jack Bergen traveled to the University of Virginia

at Charlottesville to tell students about the opportunities for careers

in PR. The school doesn’t offer a major in PR, but that was exactly the


That day, in front of an overflow crowd that required moving the meeting

to a larger room, Bergen addressed more than 100 economics, philosophy,

history and other majors - students with communication skills who might

do well in the PR field.

Bergen, president of the Council of PR Firms, walked away with resumes

from nearly everyone and a feeling of certainty that recruiting from

nontraditional majors will benefit the burgeoning industry. ’Those

people in schools that have PR programs already know about PR,’ says

Bergen, whose organization represents 120 member firms. ’We believe we

can help the profession most by going out to good schools that don’t

have any PR programs and getting liberal arts students to think about


Over the years, Bergen says, ’the recruiting effort by PR has been

relatively haphazard compared to accounting firms and management

consultants and law firms.’ But that’s changing in a big way. As the

battle for top talent has intensified, PR agencies are taking new,

aggressive recruiting measures to make sure they’re well-staffed in the

21st century.

Hungry students, empty booths

The effort isn’t perfect yet. Consider last year’s PRSSA conference in

Anaheim, CA, where lots of hungry, ambitious - and jobless - students

found to their dismay a number of agency booths that went unmanned for

hours on end.

’What I hear,’ says Flora Beal, vice president of PR for the PRSSA, ’is

that agencies are claiming that there aren’t enough quality people out

there to fill their entry-level positions. Then again, they’re not

recruiting. So it seems to me, you’re complaining, but what are you

doing to solve the problem?’

Here’s what: beyond the usual attendance at job fairs and posting of

openings at career-services offices, PR agencies are hosting receptions

for prospective candidates. Bergen says the council just did its first

reception in Boston - renting out a hall, bringing in agency

representatives and advertising the event to students - and plans

another this year in Chicago.

The agencies are also making classroom presentations, which may include

anything from speaking to students about PR careers to presenting case

studies, offering an idea of what they’ll face in the working world.

Angela Scalpello, senior vice president for employee development at

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and adjunct professor at the extension

division of Cornell University’s School of Labor and Industrial

Relations, even set up an event where visiting students from Oklahoma

State University were able to spend the day at the school with Ogilvy


The war for talent

’One of the key trends of this new global economy is the war for talent,

and the war for talent is more real than anyone has even seen yet,’ says

Matthew Gonring, ex-managing partner for marketing and communications at

Arthur Andersen in Chicago, who later this month will become VP of

corporate communications at biomedical giant Baxter International. ’The

competition for key talent is fundamentally changing agencies’

approaches to seeking out talent. They are becoming much more


’The competition for talent is having some pretty profound effects on

what’s occurring in the marketplace,’ Gonring says. ’When students are

within months of graduation, they’re getting offers. You’re seeing some

dynamics occur there that you didn’t see in the past. The PR agencies

have always had a glut of talent. Now there’s not a glut of talent.

There may still be a large pool of talent, but the good ones are that

much harder to find.’

Celia Berk joined Burson-Marsteller in 1997, a time when the agency had

relationships with a number of colleges but wasn’t necessarily actively

recruiting. Now Berk, who is managing director of human resources

worldwide, and the rest of the HR team visit 15 to 20 colleges regularly

to get the best recruits. They start working with junior-year students,

setting up internships and giving them a feel for the profession. Those

students then serve as ambassadors who talk up their experience to

fellow undergrads.

Burson-Marsteller’s local offices tend to deal with schools in their

areas - the Chicago office works with Northwestern University, for

example - but sometimes a successful hire will return to his alma mater

to tout his employer.

Breaking the color barrier

The agencies are also developing relationships with faculty and students

at historically black colleges. Burson’s recruitment at African-American

schools is led by an HR person in the New York office. That effort also

began in 1997, and it didn’t yield immediate results. ’They kind of

looked at us like, ’Who are you and what are you?’’ Berk remembers.

’They were used to seeing the Fortune 500 companies. So the first trip

was fascinating for me to figure out what was the right way to explain

what we did and why some heavily courted minority students would want to

pick a career in public relations.’

The first attempt was a failure. But the Burson-Marsteller crew learned

from its mistakes. Representatives started going to the schools early

and often. The next year, they signed up a number of students for summer

internships. Those students returned to campus with positive stories

about PR and their experiences at the agency.

’They had a successful story to tell, and the career-placement office

started to get what it was that was attractive to these students about

public relations,’ Berk says. ’We are now welcomed, we have a

relationship with them and we made our first mid-level hire from a

historically black college - not just interns - about three months ago.

But this took three years to do.’

Edelman Public Relations can trace its recruiting effort back at least

10 years, when it began awarding the Daniel J. Edelman Outstanding PRSA

Student Award. ’We’ve always had involvement with reaching out to

campuses, but now we’ve been more proactive,’ says John Edelman,

managing director of global human resources.

That became apparent two years ago when Edelman took charge of its own

recruiting. Instead of enlisting an outside firm, the agency hired six

recruiters. This freed up senior managers and supervisors, who’d been

devoting 30% of their time to screening and interviewing, and resulted

in a financial windfall.

’It’s a commitment we made because the individuals who are recruiting

represent Edelman to the world,’ the HR director says. ’We’re dedicated

to getting the best people for Edelman, and we think the best way to do

that is by having Edelman people recruit them. In terms of outside

recruitment fees, the company has saved over dollars 2 million the past

two years.’

Edelman has also increased its number of interns - the agency had 75

this summer at its 12 offices - and set up an online program on its Web

site so students can apply directly to the Edelman Public Relations

Worldwide Career Center.

The World Wide Web is a favored spot for Ogilvy, which has done virtual

recruiting through and Scalpello

says that while the agency can’t have HR people at every campus, ’this

was a way to cover the waterfront and to literally not have to be

anyplace physically but near a computer screen.’

In another move, Ogilvy developed a CD-ROM for recruiting purposes.

’These college students, long after they’ll hold onto paper, might put

that into a CD-ROM player on their computer and will be able to view our

capabilities,’ Scalpello says.

The common thread among all these efforts is focus - honing in on

specific tactics to lure qualified job candidates. Like Burson and

Edelman, Ketchum had once gone after recent graduates using different

approaches, depending on the office. Ray Cuciniello was brought on about

two months ago as global director of human resources to create a more

formal campus-recruiting program.

’As a profession, public relations and communications needs to create a

greater awareness on campus as to what we do and what the future holds

for careers within PR,’ he says. ’It’s touted as one of the

fastest-growing fields around now, but there needs to be a certain level

of education or awareness about this profession created on campus.’

Majoring in Phys Ed? No problem!

So Ketchum, like the Council of PR Firms, will be seeking students who

may not have a traditional PR education. ’There are a lot of

transferable skills and a lot of liberal arts majors and maybe even some

applied-science majors that, if made aware of our industry and the

upside to being in our industry, might be interested,’ Cuciniello


To that end, the Council of PR Firms plans to recruit at 25 liberal arts

schools - including Princeton University, the University of

Pennsylvania, Williams College and Stanford University - that don’t have

PR majors.

(In September, the council will issue a workbook for its members

detailing contact information, the dates of career fairs and how best to

recruit at these schools.)

In addition to focus, an important aspect of recruiting is


For example, the College of Communication of the University of Texas at

Austin is one of those programs where recruiting is a constant. Through

job fairs, internships and on-campus interviewing, PR firms in central

Texas are always on the lookout for qualified UT students. The effort is

still small compared with what goes on at the university’s business

school, but it’s there.

’Where I’ve seen the best efforts is where there’s a longer-term

strategy,’ says Matt Berndt, director of communication career services

for the college.

’I have seen folks get frustrated who just want to do quick hits, want

to get a couple of good candidates, want to spend a day, screen some

resumes and interview some folks and don’t want to invest a lot of time

or effort.’

But Berndt says that he also sees agencies with a long-term view: ’They

decided there are a few universities where they know they can get good

talent from, and they want to build relationships over the course of

time. They want to get to know faculty, they want to get in front of

classes and they want to be there to provide information sessions. They

want to be there to recruit.’

Not every school is in that situation. At Florida International

University, ranked as one of the Top 23 PR schools in the nation in a

1999 Marquette University survey, associate professor Bill Adams says

there’s no formal recruiting. He just gets the calls and places his

students in internships and jobs. (See sidebar.)

’It may well be that agencies over the years have simply been calling

people like me at the various schools and saying, ’Send me some kids,’’

Adams says. ’It may be in some parts of the country much more formalized

than it is with us. With us, we just get the calls. And it’s all the


Not that he’s complaining, but Adams would like a more formal system - a

request that seems likely to be honored given the PR industry’s sincere

(if relatively late) entry into the intense recruiting atmosphere.


No one recruited Nicole de Lara when she graduated in April from Florida

International University. She’s not upset - she had four job offers

through her own efforts and ultimately decided to join Ryder System in

South Florida as a communications specialist.

Still, having watched the recruiting frenzy at FIU’s business school,

the 21-year-old Miami native would like to have seen a similar effort by

PR agencies and businesses hoping to find top talent.

’I have several friends I graduated with who are not doing anything,’

says de Lara, who got her job after her teacher, Bill Adams, told her

that Ryder had an opening in the PR department. ’They’re waiting around

to see what bites there are. They’re relying on ads in the newspaper and

jobs on Web sites like But the majority of good jobs aren’t

even listed. I think I have a lot of friends who could have benefited

from some good recruiting efforts.’

Such is the double-edged sword of recruiting. Do PR agencies want to

find people who are ambitious self-starters like de Lara, or should they

make applying as easy as possible (by doing such things as having online

recruiting)? In a seller’s market, it may have to be the latter.

De Lara had done internships at the Miami aquarium and the local

Fleishman-Hillard office, so she had some experience to offer

prospective employers.

She wasn’t looking to be wooed. She says she wanted an opportunity to

grow, a competitive starting salary and a chance to do the kind of PR

work she likes, such as writing and media relations. But recruiting

would have come in handy, she says, in giving her a better sense of what

working for a prospective employer would be like.

She’s now been at Ryder since early July, writing press releases,

biographies, publications for stockholders and clients. She is also

doing some media pitching to get the word out that the company is no

longer the renters of those yellow moving trucks to consumers but is a

more traditional business-to-business trucking company.

’Not to sound overly confident,’ de Lara says, ’but I think I’ve had the

opportunities I’ve had because I put myself out there. In a city like

Miami, I don’t know necessarily if they have to recruit, because there

are several universities with PR and advertising programs and there are

a lot of job openings. What I think is, there’s a lack of good people to

fill them. But I think if they went to recruit, they would find better


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