HR Roundtable: A hire view

From generational considerations to new media, PRWeek's HR roundtable looks at various recruitment and retention issues

Staffing Challenges *

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What is the most challenging experience level in terms of hiring and retention?

Steve Seeman (Makovsky & Company): The three- to eight-year experience level is still a hard one to maintain, but in terms of recruitment, the senior level has become more difficult.

Zelda Freud (RF/Binder): The biggest challenge is finding the right people for certain industries. It's harder [for the corporate practice] than the consumer side.

Seeman (Makovsky): What we're seeing more than ever – even at the younger levels – is specialization. Younger pros are reaching out to me to say, “I want to focus on financial services clients. I want to focus on professional services or specialty pharmaceuticals.”

That's great. We need people who are passionate and willing to delve deeply into their clients' business.

Mike Marino: Whether it's years or specialty, I think many firms don't nurture talent as much as they should. So it's no surprise that the mid-level people leave an agency, or even the profession.

Back to Steve's point... people in the 10- to 15-, even 15- to 20-year range, they are the ones who are harder to find. They've left PR [because it's] a little behind other industries in terms of being employee-centric.

Mindy Gikas (Ogilvy PR Worldwide): The mid-level people are the most heavily recruited and the competition for them is great. As for senior people, we need people who can run and win business. Many want to run the business, but not go out and win the business.

Deborah Levy (MS&L): We lose people to in-house posts at that level.

Marino: The feedback I've gotten from the candidate side is: “They want me to run the business and win business, but they're only going to pay me so much.”

Gikas (Ogilvy): It's not so much cold-calling and finding leads. It's the ability to take that RFP and turn it into business, then develop chemistry with the client.

Gary Platt (Strategic Recruiting [SR]): It's difficult to find people who possess the broad skill set and leadership qualities that agencies require for senior-level positions. Most people in our industry never master all of the necessary areas. Another challenge is that senior-level people often look for a better work-life balance and this isn't always possible in a service-driven business. In terms of retention, training and development is the best way to keep employees long-term and to groom them for senior-level positions.

Seeman (Makovsky): At an early stage and through each phase of a person's career, you must engage employees, challenge them, and show a path to growth.

Beyond that, the most important retention tool – no, it's not salary – is client challenges. As people become more senior, they stay because they like what they are doing for their clients.

Freud (RF/Binder): Younger people bring up the work-life balance issue in first interviews.


Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Isn't it a bit off-putting for someone just entering the industry to focus on this aspect?

Platt (SR): This is an issue I have been dealing with for a while. What many people starting out in PR don't understand is that it's a service-oriented business and that long hours are generally expected. It's not just the hours though, it's that junior-level people are anxious to do senior-level work and can sometimes get ahead of themselves.  

Gikas (Ogilvy): Like it or not, we must account for these generational factors. You can't tell a 22-year-old that you want them to work for 10 or 11 hours. But if you keep them busy for those 10 or 11 hours with meaningful work, they'll work as long as it takes.

The key is making it worth their while. This generation doesn't have the same loyalty many of us had growing up. They are very “me”-focused.

Marino: Speaking of making it worth your while, it must be noted that an area PR still lags in is compensation. You have many junior people going from place to place simply to make that extra $3,000 to $4,000.

PR is isolated, it seems to me, in that many other industries have individualized compensation incentives, whereas PR, that's not as clear to me.

Platt (SR): One of the first questions I'm asked from candidates is in regard to the salary being offered. It definitely factors into whether someone pursues a position or not.  

Freud (RF/Binder): We try to give them meaningful work, but this generation differs from others in that it looks for what's next after six months. You must be so hands-on to figure out how to make this work. What can I do as an HR head to make this person stay?

Levy (MS&L): This is actually the first time we have four generations present in the workplace. There's a big disparity in work ethic and motivation. Managing the [various] expectations is a big challenge.

Seeman (Makovsky): Client focus and learning is what it's all about with us. Yes, being a midsize firm helps in this, but we are growing, yet still will keep that culture. Any firm can instill those kinds of values.

Platt (SR): Our industry could really benefit by looking at trend-setting companies outside of PR like Goldman Sachs and Google to see how other industries approach recruiting and retention. Looking at different compensation models and the way employees are treated, trained, and engaged. I work with a few PR firms that have been extremely successful by taking a different approach to motivating and rewarding their people. They have also benefited in employee retention. 

Levy (MS&L): It's not really possible for us to model certain programs after companies like Goldman Sachs. We simply don't have the same budgets.

Marino: However, you are competing for the same talent pool. You're not competing with people who work in PR only. You are competing for people who can, in theory, go to Google. So if the firms can't pay the same salary, they must offer something else.

Seeman (Makovsky): Salary is the first question, I concede, but it's not necessarily the primary concern. There's a difference. People at my firm get calls every day saying, “You can come here and make X amount of money.” Our people, at that point, can certainly probe further about everything from the culture to the work.

Levy (MS&L): People sometimes realize the extra $3,000 wasn't really worth what they gave up to go.

Seeman (Makovsky): Ultimately, you need to have something to look forward to when you get up in the morning, be it your colleagues, your work, etc.

HR concerns

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What are some unique staffing challenges that agencies of different sizes face?

Seeman (Makovsky): Students learned about the major agencies in school. The challenge for smaller firms is getting young people to know our agency when kids want to work for a major name.

Levy (MS&L): What must differentiate us from the other big agencies is how we keep our talent happy.

Platt (SR): Many of my clients are midsize and small agencies that have unique challenges in recruiting and retention. They counter the name-recognition problem by thinking outside the box. Smaller agencies have to be different to compete for the best talent.   

Freud (RF/Binder): For us, it's a more family-oriented environment than a larger firm. We have younger people who work on a daily basis with the CEO, who is very much involved in all the client work.

Larger firms have more resources, but I strongly support younger people having experience in both types of firms so they can choose which best suits them.

Social networking


Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How is social networking impacting talent recruitment?

Platt (SR): It's huge! It's become our main resource for finding and connecting with talent.   

Seeman (Makovsky): Even at junior levels, recruiting has become almost purely a relationship-building effort. In the past, you'd run ads, get résumés, and interview people. Now you speak to them, have a phone conversation, you link to them on LinkedIn, Facebook, and various other sites, and you exchange ideas.

Levy (MS&L): This new landscape enables us to investigate them as much as they can investigate us.

Seeman (Makovsky): I'm sure every last one of us, once we've completed an interview with a candidate at any level – perhaps even before – Googles them.

Levy (MS&L): We go to their Facebook pages. You can see the kinds of images and information they put up there. It speaks to the kind of judgment they have. That also plays a big role in recruiting.

Seeman (Makovsky): Many people send us comments on our blogs. That's great feedback for us.

Levy (MS&L): And when we're recruiting, we look to see if the candidates have blogs, what they write about.

Marino: I think it's great how we scrutinize the applicants, but they get to scrutinize the firms, too. I see some firms using this kind of data to screen out young people who, maybe, have a frat-party image on their page. However, that's really what they do on sites like Facebook, so if you really have a problem with that, you could lose out on a lot of young people.

Platt (SR): There is a transition that's made when people enter the professional world. Your career is very much about your reputation and you want to protect it as much as possible. It follows you through your career.

Levy (MS&L): These people know they are looking for a job. They sent us a résumé. When I bring someone in, I expect them to know about us [and] realize that I will be looking into their social media presence.

Freud (RF/Binder): Not all young applicants show poor judgment. Why would I choose the ones that do?


Gikas (Ogilvy): If you're going to be a spokesperson for a pharma company, and someone Googles your name and comes across a wild Facebook page, that shows a lack of professionalism.

Levy (MS&L): Your client will Google you, too. It's not just the agency.

Platt (SR): The connectivity that is enabled through these sites has revolutionized recruiting.

Freud (RF/Binder): This is a generation that asks really smart questions and tries to learn a great deal more about the companies they work for.

Seeman (Makovsky): It's a great opportunity for firms to make their online presence convey their culture and help them attract the type of people that will succeed.

Levy (MS&L): There's so much more information available to potential candidates. It's a two-way street that has changed the face of how we recruit.

Entering the industry

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Many journalists make the transition to PR. What other non-PR sectors supply the industry with a good amount of talent?

Platt (SR): Politics is one of the best areas to recruit from. I find that people coming out of politics are smart and can thrive in that fast-paced environment. They are also strategic and usually accustomed to tight deadlines, budgets, and long hours.

Seeman (Makovsky): A lot of people reach out to us from the financial services field. That sector has had downsizing of late. In addition, you have people who make a lot of money, but they devote their entire lives to it. People will make trade-offs financially so that they can enjoy the many benefits of this industry.

Freud (RF/Binder): Of course, inasmuch as writing and pitching are so prominent in PR, the media makes a natural breeding ground for our industry.


Marino: I think this discussion must look at PR programs at universities. Schools are working so hard to create major PR courses, but it may not be giving those students an edge when seeking PR positions.

Seeman (Makovsky): With entry-level candidates, we look at their internships and the work they did. The benefits of a PR major are still untested. What are the courses? How much real-world experience are they getting? This is a tough profession to learn in a class.


Levy (MS&L): It depends. If I have two equal candidates in front of me, the PR major could play a factor.

Gikas (Ogilvy): We have no problem attracting talent into PR. What distinguishes candidates is their familiarity with what we do. Coming out of a PR program will give a candidate an edge in understanding what we do. Internships help, too, but projects they worked on as part of their PR major will be deemed a plus.


Seeman (Makovsky): Don't you think, Mindy, that extracurricular work is the deciding factor. I'm not in any way trying to slight PR programs. I've gotten a

lot of great candidates referred to me from professors at PR programs. But it still comes down to many factors beyond the courses you took.

Marino: It's great to have this diversity of skills, but PR is an anomaly. In other industries, such as law, for example, every lawyer has been to law school. As a profession, this diversity of skills can hurt the development of [PR] a bit. What's going to convince someone to get a PR degree if when they get to an interview,

they are on the same level as someone without one?

Platt (SR): A PR degree may result in a real-world advantage for future PR professionals. It would be interesting for PRWeek to cover what schools are offering, including interviews with students, professors, and alumni.

Freud (RF/Binder): A PR major really helps out in that it naturally leads to PR internships, which gives them a comfort level non-PR majors won't have.

Marino: A PR major, coupled with another major, could be very effective.

Freud (RF/Binder): A business minor coupled with a PR major is very good combination.

Seeman (Makovsky): That's a great point. Clients will expect you to understand business objectives, even if you're just pitching them.

* This transcript was edited for clarity, length, and intent.

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