Taking on Goliath

Tonya Garcia learns how small firms get noticed when battling industry giants for young grads

Paige Thelen, a 20-year-old University of Southern California student, is interning this summer at Gotham PR, a 10-person firm in New York. While some students wouldn't see the logic of going cross-country to intern at an agency few have heard of, Thelen is pleased with her decision.

"It takes many employees several steps to get where I am now," she explains. Thelen's internship includes writing press releases and working on client accounts. "You get much more hands-on experience right away," Thelen adds.

Courtney Lukitsch, principal at Gotham PR, sees the recruitment process as a "give and take" between herself and prospective young hires. "The ethics I try to instill is if you work hard for me, I'll help you on your career ladder," she says.

Recruiting qualified talent is always a challenge, but it can be particularly difficult for smaller firms that find themselves in a competition with the titans of the PR industry. To present themselves as a viable - or even better - option than the big guys, smaller firms have to do some PR for themselves at the university level. By making inroads with co-eds, they are increasing their chances of adding a share of the graduates to their staff rosters.

Thelen found her internship through University of Dreams, an organization that places interns in programs around the world. According to Chris Duggan, president of the organization, PR has dramatically risen as an area of interest for students.

"There are a limited number of top-tier firms, so each year [smaller] firms have the opportunity to get interns," he says. "Big firms tend to have more opportunity for formal training and lots of structure, but small agencies are able to provide that 'trial by fire,' instantly doing more hands-on work."

Fostering a dialogue
For interning students, being treated like an employee is a job experience they can appreciate and will likely share with friends. "They'll talk about the way they're being treated and small firms can develop a reputation," adds Duggan. "I have seen this happen. It can generate a lot of interest in a firm year after year."

This is the primary advantage that smaller firms claim to have over their larger counterparts: the ability to offer ambitious candidates the opportunity to dive in virtually from the first day. This asset should figure prominently in messaging to university students.

"Smaller firms don't need to feel like they're competing with larger agencies," says Dr. Rochelle Ford, associate dean at Howard University's John H. Johnson School of Communications. "They need to stick with their selling proposition. With smaller agencies, you get more variety of tasks at the entry level."

Don Bates, academic director at the graduate school of political management at The George Washington University, agrees that the breadth of tasks is a major plus for smaller firms.

"Implicit and explicit in your message [as a smaller firm] ought to be that you'll not only have good opportunities [as a young pro], but if push comes to shove, you'll learn more," says Bates, who helped establish the school's first Masters program in strategic PR last fall.

Along with internship offerings, Ford suggests that small agencies should take advantage of organizations like the PRSSA to get in front of university students. People from these smaller agencies can also volunteer to teach a class at the undergrad level, she suggests.

"These [options] take time, but you'd get such a huge crop of people interested in you," explains Ford.

At New York University (NYU), where the Masters program in PR is in its third year, program leaders want more agency executives in the classroom, either as instructors or guest lecturers.

"The agencies should build relationships with the programs," says John Doorley, academic director of NYU's program. "We need their senior executives to teach in our program because it is practitioner-oriented. We welcome small agencies."

Smaller firms can also make themselves look more desirable on paper by creating programs that demonstrate how important young hires are to the business of the agency, says Steven Kleber, president and founder of Kleber & Associates.

After doing a little research, Kleber pinpointed three reasons why employees leave their jobs: limited opportunities for advancement, unhappiness with company management, and a lack of recognition.

"Since that [is a] baseline of why people leave," he says, "we turn it around and try to devise programs into employment so people are attracted to our firm."

Each of Kleber's approximately 20 staffers schedule a regular Friday lunch to talk with him about their work. Employees are also frequently recognized for a job well done with rewards like gift certificates. In addition, they enjoy a workspace that fosters a relationship between older and younger staff members.

"Ultimately, the workforce will continue to grow at a younger age," says Kleber. "I achieve an intimate look at how the troops feel about decisions and opportunities and they get to have a relationship with management at the highest level. I have devised a way [younger] staff members can feel connected with and influential towards management."

Online opportunities
In this interconnected world, smaller firms can always turn to the Web to make an impression. Gotham PR's Lukitsch credits the firm's Internet presence - a re-vamped Web site and an optimized position on Google, for example - with making the firm more attractive to a younger generation of prospects.

"If you're not online, you don't exist with that 20-something population," she says. "Our online presence is prominent enough to merit recruitment."

Even with all of this effort, smaller firms have to be prepared for turnover. Taking that in stride can pave the way for a continuing relationship that helps the agency down the road, even as it has to continually seek out new recruits to fill vacancies.

"[Young talent] is looking for a lot of mentoring," says Lukitsch. "I've graduated a lot of people from this agency. I'm always happy to place them at the [big firms], the financial institutions, or whatever environment suits them. [And] when people move on, [we get] referrals and share opportunities."

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