Multicultural PR: Hunting top talent

Multicultural agencies are caught in the middle of a talent crunch

Multicultural agencies are caught in the middle of a talent crunch

Multicultural PR is a hot area of growth, especially on the Hispanic front. While companies are clamoring for novel ways to reach out to America's changing demographics, multicultural firms are facing a more pressing problem: finding enough talent to service their growing client rosters.

"This has been the worst year in HR in my 15 years of business," says Kim Hunter, head of LA-based Lagrant Communications, which specializes in African-American and Hispanic PR.

Hunter is far from alone in his quest to hire. Across the country, in big agencies and small shops, desks are lying empty, and billable hours are being lost. The fact is simply that there is a greater demand for these services than there are practitioners to do the work. And the situation is growing worse as large agencies continue to build their own in-house Hispanic and multicultural capabilities, further depleting an already taxed talent pool.

"We're trying to grow our company from 45 to 60," says Bill Imada of LA-based IW Group, an Asian PR specialty shop. "We have a lot of openings, but almost every week somebody comes into my office and tells me they are offered more money, a better title, the ability to work from home. I mean, you name it. It's unbelievable what people are doing to attract talent."

Recruiting challenges

While it is clearly an employee's market when it comes to these specialized segments of the business, those hiring multicultural talent say a lack of r?sum?s crossing their paths isn't the problem. Instead, it's the lack of qualified candidates. While hiring a good PR pro can be a challenge, even in the general market, hiring for a multicultural spot is even tougher because the list of qualifications is much longer, but also less concrete. In addition to written and oral language skills, these niche players also must understand the diverse cultures they are hired to speak to.

"For example," says Deborah Charnes Vallejo of Texas-based Bromley Communications, "we are US Hispanics, but we still have to have a good enough understanding of the homeland and the culture and the current events to be able to better understand our consumer."

It's a problem not unique to the Hispanic sector. In fact, Asian PR faces an even greater challenge in this area, as many shops try to target people from East India, China, and Korea, all of whom fall under the Asian umbrella, but might share little else in common.

"We need people that can first of all be able to write and read effectively in English, and it would be useful in Chinese Mandarin, Chinese Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog," explains Imada. "If you think about it, how very rare is that?"

Debra Nakatomi of LA-based Nakatomi & Associates agrees, adding, "We are not just looking for language skills. We [want] some really strong background and understanding of the complexity of the community, the market, and the immigrant experience."

Language and culture aren't the only issues. In addition, hires need to have the skills any other PR practitioner would have when it comes to crafting campaigns, pitching, and thinking strategically.

Roxana Lissa, president of LA-based Hispanic boutique RL PR & Marketing, says that this can be an even bigger challenge than finding a Spanish-speaker.

"Bilingual is a plus, but they also have to be smart," she says.

Despite the challenges, Asian and black PR shops say they have it a bit easier than their Hispanic counterparts. On the Asian front, Nakatomi points out, the large agencies aren't as interested in building up this practice area in-house.

"Fortunately [for small firms]," she says, "it's a very difficult practice to develop, simply because of the diversity within the Asian community and the Asian market."

For African-American shops, there is a larger talent pool to draw from.

"It's always easier for us to get an application on the African-American side," says Hunter. "We've been in the system for longer, and we've been exposed to it longer, so there are going to be more of us who apply for the job."

Vallejo says she sees a similar trend on the Hispanic side as the practice area matures, lending more senior-level people to the discipline.

"There is a much bigger pool of trained, talented bilingual people who have experience," she points out. "In the past, I think, there was a lot more step-by-step training."

But while multicultural practitioners agree that their ranks are growing, most say it is still a close-knit community with far fewer than six degrees of separation.

"It's a very small network of people, and the job mill is well circulated," says John Echeveste of LA-based Valencia, P?rez & Echeveste. "So everybody knows who is looking. People just know what's going on in the agency and corporate worlds."

That proximity means that networking is the favored means of finding fresh talent. Most multicultural pros say that when they set out to hire, the first step is calling everyone they know to see who is looking.

"I picked up the phone and called 17 people that I knew and said, 'I have a position open,' and 'Do you know who may fit?'" says Hunter of his latest attempt.

The poaching problem

While networking might draw in prospective hires, it is also turning into a very sore spot in the industry as competition heats up and shops cross the gray line from networking to poaching. More and more, small shops are complaining that the larger agencies are becoming overbearing in their attempts to hire away trained talent.

"We're partially owned by Interpublic, and, believe it or not, one of the Interpublic companies took one of our people," says Imada.

Lissa has had a similar experience.

"Recently, one of the largest independent global agencies approached us to partner for new business. And the next thing I know, they are aggressively recruiting my staff, and I never hear from them again," says Lissa. "This does not meet our need for professionalism within our industry."

While Lissa might not like such deceptive tactics, others in the industry say they are facing them - and using them - as well.

"We've pilfered people from other agencies, including our competitors," admits Imada.

And the worst talent poachers might be the ones agency heads are least able to defend against: their own clients. Across the board, multicultural agencies say it's not uncommon for their corporate contacts to hire away those who have worked on their accounts. Imada gives a laundry list of corporate defectors, including people who have gone to such clients as Nike, American Express, and Merrill Lynch.

Echeveste says that his firm also has been a victim of the trend, losing people to clients including McDonald's and Disneyland. But he is more sanguine about it, pointing out that the corporate move often offers staffers a chance to make more money and wield more influence.

"The benefits package is better, and they probably have a bit more power," he says.

These kinds of pressure-cooker conditions are forcing some firms to be more creative in their talent searches. Some PR shops say the only place they can find qualified talent is overseas, and they have started bringing in hires from Latin-American and Asian countries on H1-B visas, paying their legal fees and housing while they obtain green cards.

"A lot of them are eager to come to the states," says Imada, whose firm has brought people from Taiwan and other places. "We've found it's fertile ground for recruiting."

The trend also can be found in Hispanic shops. While Lissa says that she hasn't obtained visas for hires, she has hired from countries like Argentina, where, she says, there are many more qualified communications professionals seeking work.

"The job market is tough overseas, but there are a lot of people going into communications-based careers," she points out, meaning people are often wiling to move.

Other shops are taking advantage of immigration waves in places like Miami, seeking out talent that hasn't made it into the network yet.

"Miami has had a huge influx of recent immigrants that are very qualified," says Vallejo. "So I will see very qualified r?sum?s from people throughout Latin America that have just arrived in the states."

Despite the talent crunch, one thing is certain - it's going to get tougher before it gets better because the clients just keep coming.

"We are so busy," says Imada. "There is tons of work."

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Keeping the talent you have

Hiring multicultural talent might be tough, but keeping it is even more of a challenge. As the competition for skilled Hispanic, Asian, and black practitioners continues to heat up, agencies are going to great lengths to avoid hearing that dreaded phrase, "I got another offer."

"We have to retain employees, and we have to be creative in how we do that," says Roxana Lissa of LA-based RL PR & Marketing. Her shop has begun profit sharing with senior-level employees, and she plans to expand the program to staff that have only been with her a few years.

"We need to be proactive," she says.

Other firms aren't far behind when it comes to getting creative. At Southern California-based Valencia, Perez & Echeveste, children are becoming part of the team.

"Most of our staff is female, and they can bring their children into the office with them," says John Echeveste, adding that one staffer had a playpen in her office for her 1-year-old until recently.

Others say that it comes down to the money, and, without competitive paychecks, staffers will always be lured away.

"We pay more than our competitors," says Bill Imada of IW Group. "And we allow them to work on multiple pieces of business, so they don't get bored.

Like Imada, Debra Nakatomi of LA-based Nakatomi & Associates sees her client roster as its own draw. She says that, while big agencies might attract younger talent with glamorous accounts and bigger salaries, more seasoned professionals will appreciate the socially minded and community-based campaigns that they can do at smaller shops. "People who have been in the field for a while are looking for some kind of meaning in their work," she says. "And with us, they are finding this resonates with them."

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