HR Roundtable: Youth movement

The PR industry's positive momentum is evident among entry-level and junior-level pros. HR leaders joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York City for a roundtable discussion on current trends in hiring and retaining young talent.

The PR industry's positive momentum is evident among entry-level and junior-level pros. HR leaders joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York City for a roundtable discussion on current trends in hiring and retaining young talent.

Michele Chase, MD of HR, worldwide, Burson-Marsteller
Jody Johnson, chief people officer, M Booth & Associates
Steve Seeman, SVP, director of HR, Makovsky & Company
Jami Secchi, VP of recruitment, Edelman
Gideon Fidelzeid, managing editor, PRWeek

Managing expectations
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): There's a general optimism in the industry. Job opportunities seem to be on the rise at all levels. How is this manifesting itself among younger people in the industry and those about to enter it?

Jody Johnson (M Booth & Associates): I've noticed that entry-level people, even at the intern level, have this expectation that they're going to get promoted right away. If they're interns, they want to know when they'll get to be account coordinators. I always have to say, ‘“The planets have to align, the budget has to be there, and you have to be good,” but I've seen that expectation rise over the last couple of years.

Steve Seeman (Makovsky & Company): I would say exactly the contrary. Going back 10, 12, 13 years, up until just prior to the recession of 2009, I saw that sentiment. Junior people expected a constant step up and then a next step up. “When am I getting more money?” and so on. Even those just entering the industry [expected that] because there had been a boom for so long.

What I have noticed among junior-level professionals the last few years, as well as people entering the industry, is that they are so accustomed to hearing bad economic news, they're not taking things for granted. They don't feel the same sense of entitlement, so to speak. People work harder. I've seen a stronger work ethic and definitely the dedication, the commitment to earn it, and whatever comes to that. I'm very pleased with that.

Michele Chase (Burson-Marsteller): I actually agree with Jody. Steve is correct about them having to earn it and wanting to work hard. I do see people wanting to work hard, but then, six months later, they're expecting a promotion. I don't know if it's the generation, but I just see people being really hungry and willing to do the work, but in return, they expect to be promoted – and fast.

Johnson (M Booth): And if they don't get it, they leave.

Chase (Burson): We have to manage expectations accordingly. [Younger staffers] need to work at things and they have to be good. I don't care if it's “just” sending a PDF, understand why you're doing it. Ask questions. Be a sponge. Be proactive about showing that you're interested. This prompts senior-level talent to engage them and help grow them in the right ways, too.

I've actually had a few candidates who have come in and said, “I'm in a job now. I'm doing all administrative work, but I want to do the real work.” So with some people, I do see they're not willing to take the steps to get there.

Johnson (M Booth): The steps needed to learn.

Seeman (Makovsky): When I talk to junior people about positions – and I'm the one making the first recruiting call and conducting the first screening interview at any level –whether it's entry level or even up to account executive, I'll tell them, “There is grunt work. There is work that you may feel is not glamorous, but understand that when you do the research to build a good media list, what you're doing is, just as an example, learning about what particular reporters write about, how they deal with PR people, and what their particular media outlet is focusing on. You're looking at trends that have been going on in the particular sector. All of that is part of your foundation.”

What I've seen the last few years is a marked difference in people's reactions. They get it. They understand that these are building blocks and it's part of the journey. I didn't see this going back 10 years ago or so.

Chase (Burson): Right before the Internet blast, kids were coming in wanting to make more money.

Seeman (Makovsky): Yes. People were saying, “Well, I had an internship, so can't I start as an account executive?”

Jami Secchi (Edelman): From a different perspective, people coming into the industry now are definitely much more optimistic than they were just two years ago. Back then, I would meet people and they'd say, “The market is so tough. I just want to get a job. All my friends are out of work.” Seriously, it was depressing.

But now, people are just more excited and enthusiastic, which is great to see because I feel as though, now, I'm interviewing people that have a realistic view of what the market is about.

Chase (Burson): I also see another trend. As opposed to going for the full-time role now, people, after they graduate, will take an internship that can lead to a full-time position. With this, you have an eight- to 10-week-long interview process. Of course, that does force the young pros to be the best because you can't take everyone. You can only take some of them. They're all competing with one another for the positions that will be available at the end of the internship because you will only take the best.

Seeman (Makovsky): That's a great point. I have seen people be much more open to that [internship] option. In fact, sometimes it surprises me when graduates are not open to it.

Two years ago, when nobody was hiring, I had conversations with people who had good backgrounds. I said, “Well, would you be willing to start with an internship” and their answers were, “No, I want a full-time job.” I thought they were shortsighted. People are much wiser these days.

Johnson (M Booth): I still hear it. “I'm not interested in an internship.” Even this week, I had two potential interns say, “No, I'm looking for a full-time job.” So, it's luck of the draw sometimes.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): The optimism works both ways. Obviously, if it's good for the potential employee, it also means potential employers have more choices.

Let's say you have similar candidates. One comes in with an eye on being promoted immediately, while the other is a bit more realistic about paying their dues. Would you lean toward the latter attitude or would prefer someone more ambitious, as long as you can temper it a bit?

Seeman (Makovsky): You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. If a person is ambitious, yes, I love it. If a person wants to take the steps that will lead to growth, which means delving deeply into the learning, doing everything they possibly can, asking for more work, soaking everything up, looking for someone to mentor them, trying to spread their wings, that's great, too. However, if a person simply has that sense of entitlement that we spoke about earlier and is unrealistic, that is not the type of person who's going to make that extra effort. In addition, that person doesn't show the professionalism, the maturity, and the judgment we want. In that case, if you're comparing somebody who is realistic with someone who's just plain unrealistic and is not going to make the dedication to grow, obviously you'd go with a realistic person.

That said, allow me to give an example. A few years ago, we brought in someone who was an SAE at one of the big agencies. This was clearly a superstar on the rise. That person also had tremendous ambition. You could see that in her interviews, her writing test, and when speaking to references. This person was someone who really did “reach for the stars” and wanted to do more. Maybe that arose out of high self-esteem, ego, whatever, but we were pretty confident she could rise to the occasion.

Here we are, two and a half years later and she's a vice president. So, we were right to go with the ambitious person. Occasionally, however, you gamble wrong. It really is a case-by-case proposition.

Chase (Burson): It's also knowing your people. You can sense certain individuals will be able to handle it and you just give them a little more, just get them out of their comfort zones. It also helps in retention efforts if they know they're being challenged. Nobody wants to just do X and have that be all they're doing. They want to do more. The agency has to make sure to engage them in proper ways so that they always feel as if they're learning and matching their expectations.

You can always sit down and talk to somebody. We consistently talk to people about their aspirations – Where do you see yourself? What do you see next? What do you want to do?

I tell my people, whether junior or senior coming in, the most successful people at our firms are the ones that pick their heads up, look around, and don't simply say, “OK, this is my job, so this is the only thing I'm doing.” I want to hear, “What else can I do? What else can I get involved in?” That doesn't mean you have to be promoted right away. Stretch. Reach. People notice that. When you're good, people will take as much time as possible to help you get where you want to be.

Where education takes you

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): There are more universities than ever with good PR programs. As PRWeek's Student of the Year Award underscores, PR majors can be found at schools across the country. In surveying your candidate pools, have you noticed a rise in PR majors from various schools who are now applying for jobs?

Seeman (Makovsky): Yes.

Johnson (M Booth): Yes.

Seeman (Makovsky): But, the caveat is I don't think we hire that many people who were PR majors. We seek out broader concentrations, such as liberal arts.

Chase (Burson): Communications majors.

Seeman (Makovsky): Yes. Communications. Journalism. Maybe it's because at Makovsky we try to get so specialized in the different areas of focus, but we hire people who were biology majors for healthcare business. We need science geeks. We hire people that are finance and economic majors for our financial services group because we need people who actually read investment news.

MBAs: Good for business

As an MBA myself, perhaps I'm somewhat biased, but in the PR profession, we're a special breed.

My MBA has helped me on so many levels. It has given me valuable perspective about operations, finance, and strategy. And because I have to think “across the business,” I can often speak the language of my client CEOs and leaders. Thanks to my MBA, I developed the valuable perspective that can be summed up in one sentence: “Not everything is solved via press release.”

PR pros with business training just think differently. As a CEO in the PR business, the value is obvious. Finance, accounting, M&A, HR, and operations are all highly relevant to my daily duties. And perhaps the most valuable thing about the MBA for any PR pro is, in a word, confidence.

Do I like to hire PR folks with MBAs? Yes. Do I like to fund MBAs for my best and brightest? Yes. At the end of the day, I am looking for those with the intellectual curiosity and thirst for learning that goes beyond the skills of our profession. We don't discriminate against non-MBAs by any stretch, but we do look for those who value business education and the thirst to gain it.

One challenge our industry faces is that business schools are slow to appreciate our profession and include it in their curriculum, but that is changing slowly. People such as Paul Argenti at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and Notre Dame University's Jim O'Rourke are making headway in this regard. They are teaching communications in business schools. The PRSA and the Arthur W. Page Society are joining forces to influence business-school deans with the goal of injecting communications into the curriculum.

It will take time for the shift to occur, but I have every confidence that as the value of our profession increases in the eyes of CEOs, CFOs, and business leaders, we will see more communications taught and more PR pros seeking the degree.

Jennifer Prosek is CEO of CJP Communications.

Chase (Burson): If we were to just look at a specific PR major, you're eliminating so many other people who could be really amazing. It's also important to note that your major is not necessarily where your career will end up. I was an economics major and I'm doing HR for Burson.

People tend to gravitate toward things they are good at after they've actually gotten their degree. So to me, it's about being smart, good at writing, good at communicating, but it's also magnetic personalities, too, like you want to be around those people.

Johnson (M Booth): I look for people who are not afraid to make a cold call.

Chase (Burson): Right. They're scrappy. I want smart and scrappy. I want people that are just excited about the work.

Seeman (Makovsky): You can also think about it this way: how many of us around the table majored in human resources? How many of us took an HR course?

Johnson (M Booth): No.

Chase (Burson): No.

Seeman (Makovsky): No. People who definitely know what they want to do when it's time to declare a major – what is that when you're a sophomore? – those people are miracles. I don't expect someone to be that positive, so, of course, we're going to take people that realize over time they have a talent for communicating, a talent for writing, a talent for conveying messages.

Chase (Burson): I also find that people who don't have that major but become interested in looking at PR as a career choice, they're proactive about learning about it and getting involved.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): So what value do you put in someone being a PR major, or, taking it to the next level, having a master's in PR?

Johnson (M Booth): Somebody who declared that major already gets what the rhythm and discipline of the day would be, at least somewhat. They already know they're going to do a lot of writing. They know they need to be good grammarians. They've been through a program where they get all this – and that can help a lot.

However, I also think in PR, as you get more and more senior, requires you to have a real analytical brain. You have to be strategic. You need to be able to do budgets, manage events, and all these other things.

Seeman (Makovsky): Be a client relationship manager.

Chase (Burson): A sales manager.

Seeman (Makovsky): A developer of business.

Chase (Burson): A developer of people. Eventually, you hope to be leading teams.

Overall, yes, it's great that there are those focusing on PR in school. We definitely look at those candidates. We look at them intensely. We also bring a lot of people from their schools into our organization.

What I'm saying is we're not discounting people for not having that major. If somebody comes to me who doesn't have that major, but who has had enough of an interest in PR where they've done an internship and suddenly the light bulb has gone off during their senior year that they really are interested in PR, we're going to consider those people very seriously, too.

Secchi (Edelman): Of course. You also have to account for those people who might not have the opportunity to go to those schools for financial reasons, family reasons, or a need to stay close to home for whatever reason. You can't discount those people because they could be superstars.

Seeman (Makovsky): I want to talk about the master's in communications because that's a little different.

We actually just hired a terrific person who got a master's in communications from NYU. At the master's level, these people usually have some real-world experience. They certainly have gotten their college degree. They're more developed in terms of their thinking and analytical ability. They have also made a decision that communications is what they want to do and they want to learn about the science behind it. And you can apply science to PR, which is otherwise an art form. The ability to do that is impressive.

A master's in communications is a definite plus. An MBA is also a plus, especially when dealing with issues more focused on the b-to-b market. An MBA is also great because you learn so much about organizational development. Those advanced degrees make a real difference.

Chase (Burson): The MBA, at least for me, is just a different credential because of the marketing, especially if somebody has their MBA with a focus in marketing, which is very relevant to what we do as an industry. That's really impressive.

It also displays a dedication and passion when somebody says, “You know what? I'm going to go back. I'm going to dedicate my time and money to get my degree.” So it's not so much that when I look at a résumé and see the master's, I'll say, “Wow. They're experts.” What I say is, “Wow. They dedicated their time and resources to this because they wanted it.” That passion is impressive.

Social media
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Social media's prevalence in PR has opened the door for a lot of young people who are so well versed in it to enter the industry and advance. A lot of these people never heard of PR not that long ago. They certainly wouldn't have had an interest in it based on such expertise. All that has changed. Let's talk about how young PR pros' social media expertise has energized the agency world.

Chase (Burson): Young people have grown up with it. They know it. For agencies, it's not a separate medium any longer. It's part of the DNA of what we do. It's not an add-on at this point. It needs to be part of every program.

Johnson (M Booth): It's necessary to vet everything.

Chase (Burson): If you're not doing that, you're doing something wrong. It's also important to remember that while the junior folks have lived in social media, some of the senior folks, who are the best strategic counselors, might not be as well versed because they didn't live in it.

As such, those junior people have a voice now where they are the experts in the room when discussing social media. They are the ones doing the educating.

Seeman (Makovsky): That's exactly right. They're the teachers. We actually developed a social media committee about two years ago and we found that it just naturally, organically developed into a group of predominantly more junior people.

We also have a digital team. There are more senior people there, but it's still made up of more junior- and mid-level people teaching the more senior people day in and day out.

Chase (Burson): It's actually a fun dynamic to witness.

Seeman (Makovsky): This brings me to the concept of employing “social media specialists.” Speaking at a PR firm's career fair around two years ago, I said something that made people gasp, but I'll say it again now: “In three or four years, there will be no such thing as a social media specialist.”

At the forum at which I spoke, I believe the two people who spoke before me had titles such as “digital guru” or something similar. I recall thinking to myself, “Those two guys, their jobs won't exist in five years.”

The fact of the matter is it's no longer something novel. This is what everybody does. It's in every campaign, every proposal, and every presentation we give to sell business. It's a key component in which junior people are involved, even in development of new business from the outset, which is exciting to them. They love to get involved in that.

Looking at it from another angle, people who aren't even in the industry yet can connect to me through social media. They sort of show off their knowledge through communicating with me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and various other channels that I'm not smart enough to even get. That's a great way for them to make an impression on us, too, even before they're working for us.

Johnson (M Booth): Absolutely.

Secchi (Edelman): I'm often surprised that social media is either not on the résumé or they don't ask me or mention something about it during the interview process, especially at a more junior level.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Perhaps, they feel you already assume that knowledge.

Secchi (Edelman): That is a mistake. We have a huge digital practice and it crosses over into every single one of our practice areas. So I'm surprised when someone comes in, I'll ask them what group they are interested in here, and they say, “Digital.”

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Doesn't it show they're not really in tune with what's going on in the industry if they're asking to be part of the “digital” team.

Secchi (Edelman): Which is why I'm surprised people don't mention it because it is such a big part of what we do have.

Johnson (M Booth): I'm also surprised when candidates talk about their blogs, but it's nowhere on their résumé. They absolutely should put it on the résumé because we'd like to read those blogs. It's just like we tell people to follow us on Facebook so they can know what we're doing inside our agency.

Seeman (Makovsky): If they don't demonstrate that knowledge on their résumé or in their cover letter, I don't bring them in for an interview.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Since social media has advanced beyond its basics and to the point of becoming such an integral part of agencies' being, what would be deemed the most important social media skill you seek from a junior-level person?

Johnson (M Booth): That they get it. That they know what Facebook does, what Twitter does, and how they could be used to advance business objectives.

Seeman (Makovsky): I look for at least a basic understanding of the opportunities for business created by social media, as well as the risks. Obviously, that's becoming commonplace for everybody because whether it's Anthony Weiner or various other scandals, our work has become so prominent in everyday laypersons' lives because of social media.

As such, if I'm talking to an entry-level or junior candidate, if they don't get what is obvious to Middle America, there's a real problem. They need to understand the dangers and the benefits of it. That's the key.

Chase (Burson): The ability to maneuver through social media networks is important, but whether they understand how to use it from a business perspective, that strategy is something we'll have to teach them.

Johnson (M Booth): If candidates are using social media to reach out to us, at least, that's a first step.

Chase (Burson): That displays an understanding of how to use it.

Seeman (Makovsky): There are some similarities to the things we looked for before social media. If we talked to an entry-level candidate about launching a product, we wanted to see if they understood how to go about it. You want to have a great launch event. You want to get out the key media. You want to target short-lead and major business media for the rollout and so on. Broadcast media, too. If they understood how such efforts benefitted a new product, that was very impressive to us.

It's the same with social media. If someone just says, “Well, I have a Twitter account and I retweet what people I like post on Twitter,” that's not really getting the business impact. I like to see people at least have a clue. No, of course, they're not going to understand the strategy of building a campaign yet, but they should grasp the impact that it can really have, positive or negative.

Chase (Burson): Or, if they can articulate something specific. Some people come in and speak in general term about social media. Then there are those that come in and they know specific campaigns that have been done.

Secchi (Edelman): They've researched stuff that we've done.

Chase (Burson): They've watched certain brands. They really understand it. You can tell that in an interview.

The interview process
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): That's a natural segue to discuss pre-interview research. Are interviewees taking full advantage of social media in terms of learning more about your agencies before they come in to interview? Taken a step further, are they being a little bit smarter than they were just a few years ago in this regard?

Seeman (Makovsky): Absolutely.

Chase (Burson): They're prepared when they come in.

Secchi (Edelman): If they're not prepared, they're not coming back.

Chase (Burson): Exactly.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): But you probably would have said that even years ago.

Chase (Burson): But the information is there and it's easy to get, so why wouldn't you?

Seeman (Makovsky): Going back five, ten years, I would ask a candidate, “Did you check out our website?” I would hope that they did and then ask them their thoughts. I don't even ask that question now. I expect them to proactively demonstrate the knowledge that they have gleaned from our website, from reading online publications about us, from checking what we tweet about, what is on our Facebook page, what's on our LinkedIn page, what bloggers are writing about. I mean, it's so easy to do that. If they're not even doing that, they're not going to have a work ethic to succeed in the business.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Assume you have, say, five candidates and they all do their research and convey it to a very impressive degree. What unique bits of information or knowledge about your company has a specific candidate you've interviewed demonstrated that really stood out?

Secchi (Edelman): I actually have a great example. Edelman does its Trust Barometer every year. This girl came in to interview and, I'm not kidding, she knew statistics, specifics, she was educating me. I was so impressed by that because she didn't just say, “Oh, I've read about Edelman's Trust Barometer.” She was telling me, “I read about Edelman's Trust Barometer and here's what I think is interesting. I noticed that 56% of people don't trust…” She was rattling off statistics. She knew her information.

Seeman (Makovsky): Ken Makovsky, the founder and president of my agency, has a blog. A lot of people can read it before they're come in, but I've had a few candidates pick out specific blogs, specify certain points he made, and give their opinions about it. I like that very much because I want somebody who's going to actually think and apply it. I recall one person being critical of a comment on Ken's blog. It was great.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): That's gutsy on an interview, isn't it?

Seeman (Makovsky): In our industry, we teach that there are times the client has to take the contrary view on an issue to stand out. So, yeah, it's hard to do, but it's also so hard to stand out. That's a great example you gave Jami because it is so hard to stand out when information is so accessible to everybody. It's almost impossible to get “extra” information. So, it kind of levels the playing field. Yet, there are a lot of people who don't do that research. They stand out for the wrong reasons.

Chase (Burson): We actually had one person who created a website on why they would be best suited for working with Burson. That person went to the extent of creating a whole background for us. I just remember going, “Oh, my God, this person totally created this whole thing about why they should have this job.” That's pretty fabulous. There are just so many other factors that go into hiring somebody and that was the one who stand out.

Johnson (M Booth): If they can take the time to find out about us, they can also take the time to get to know the press, the editors and the bloggers who they're going to be relating to once they have the job. If they were able to dig in and know those things about us, they'll be able to build relationships with the very people we want them to connect with once they're in.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): So it's fair to say your expectations, even with the most junior-level people who interview with you, have skyrocketed. There are so many things they have to do that if they don't tick off all these boxes, at the very least, you won't even consider them.

Secchi (Edelman): There's just so much competition. I'm flooded with résumés. I happen to have a full recruitment team. I have two people who interview entry-level candidates. There are so many people to compare, you have to check those boxes because you want to hire the best people who can do a great job and be there for the long term.

Standout candidates
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): The résumé of an entry-level candidate will vastly differ from someone with years of experience because they simply won't have that many jobs to list. There may be internships or something they did in college, but no proper jobs. When comparing similar candidates in this regard, what traits would stand out on a résumé?

Chase (Burson): Mr. Burson loves people who are editors of their school newspaper. You know they can write and deal with deadlines. He has always pushed that and we look at those people seriously.

Secchi (Edelman): We look for signs of leadership, such as being president of a PRSSA chapter.

Seeman (Makovsky): Oh, I love those people. Even things that are completely extracurricular and not part of any PR organization or a school paper, but some form of demonstrated leadership.

I'll give this example of someone we hired a little over a year and a half ago who is still with the firm and doing an incredible job.

First of all, there was the cover letter he wrote, which was impressive. He had started a foundation. For the sake of his privacy, I won't go into the details, but he had started a foundation while in college and built it into something, had worked with the media to publicize it, managed it, led a team of people on it, and it's still going.

In this cover letter, he talked about the pride he had in his accomplishment. Of course he was going to get that job and he's since demonstrated all those skills.

And if you don't mind, I'd like to deviate a bit and say that for entry-level candidates, a differentiating factor is the cover letter, which, to me, is a lost art.

Maybe because of e-mail, people figure they can just write two sentences and send the résumé. Well, for a communications position, a cover letter is so important because writing is such a problem for so many people. If you can demonstrate an ability to compose your thoughts, be interesting, grab my attention at the beginning of the letter, as you will have to do when you're pitching the media or pitching a potential client, that's going to go a long way. I would classify it as the “résumé/cover letter” that differentiates certain people.

Johnson (M Booth): I could take that all the way to the thank-you notes. They can be sent over e-mail, which is perfectly fine in this digital age, but to send the same note in an email to every single person they've met doesn't work.

I recall hiring this one candidate who wrote the most insightful thank-you letter. She was able to almost romantically bring out something that we talked about in the meeting and respond to it. Something as inane as there was a thunderstorm during the interview. Just sort of tying things back to what was discussed.

Chase (Burson): You knew she was paying attention.

Johnson (M Booth): I've watched this individual send three separate thank-you notes and the recipient CCd me and said, “Check the references.” That was the clincher. It was the insightful writing.

Seeman (Makovsky): Someone sent me a note and they actually had a fantastic résumé, internships, leadership positions, the works. They were president or vice president of their school's PRSSA chapter. However, four separate times in the cover letter, they wrote how badly they'd like to work at “Markovsky” and how dedicated they were to building a career in the field of public relation‘s – apostrope S.

I could not believe it. I wondered how did those people keep their internships?

Johnson (M Booth): When I worked in advertising, I wanted to see the kid that drove the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile across the United States. I also like to see goofy things such as that on a résumé. I like to see that somebody worked in a restaurant.

Chase (Burson): Oh, I love people who worked in restaurants. We're both in client service. They can also multitask. They just take work, they do it, they race through the personalities, I've hired people from restaurants before at all my jobs.

The one woman that I hired, she's fabulous. She's done a really good job throughout her career in the cable industry, but you see somebody with that magnetic thing about them and the way they're engaging, fun, and scrappy. I like those people.

Secchi (Edelman): Internship experience is really important to me. Somebody who has done an internship in PR shows they have an interest in it. I know it seems so basic, but it's great to see a young person act in a manner that says, “I wanted to try it out to see if I liked it, and I'm applying to Edelman because I did like it.”

Johnson (M Booth): The perfect intern résumé is the one of someone who has had consistent agency internships.

Seeman (Makovsky): When I interview those people, I'll ask the obvious question, “What did you like about the internship?” Then I'll ask, “Tell me in detail about the worst internship you've had and why?” This sort of gets me into their aspirations and drive because if they answer, for example, “Well, they really didn't give me an opportunity to do writing. I wanted to pitch the media. It was extremely administrative in nature,” I know that they're aiming a little higher and I like that. If they start simply badmouthing the people there when you pose that question, that's a negative.

Chase (Burson): Or when they claim to have loved every internship and have nothing bad to say. That's not good, either.

Seeman (Makovsky): I don't accept that answer.

Chase (Burson): Maybe it wasn't bad, it was just not the favorite.

Seeman (Makovsky): Yes, they could be diplomatic when you phrase it that way, but as long they explain why.

Age-old dilemma
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): The importance of good writing, particularly among younger PR pros, is a topic PRWeek has broached often, particularly in light of social media's rise. There is a school of thought that claims writing is not as vital as it once was. Please share your thoughts on that and identify any general shortcomings you are noticing among younger PR pros entering the industry.

Chase (Burson): It's still writing.

Seeman (Makovsky): It is still writing, but I'm actually seeing a little slow improvement. It upsets me when people don't care about writing. At present, and this was not necessarily the case before, we are content generators and content creators. And it's not just media relations, IR, or CEO positioning, but it's websites, marketing materials, internal communications, advertising. It's all being integrated into what PR professionals do at our agencies. So there's more and more creation of original content on behalf of our clients then ever before.

Fortunately, because young people are more into social media than they used to be, I am seeing more of them who know how to write a little bit. It's not necessarily the kind of writing we'd have them do and it needs to be tweaked, of course, but that's one of the key areas of focus of our education program and will always be. But they're more used to writing on a daily basis.

Chase (Burson): There's also the different mediums that you're writing for. You're not going to write one way for everything, rather you'll write it differently for different mediums and the audience that you're trying to reach.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Twitter plays an interesting role here. It obviously requires writing, but at a limit of 140 characters, it facilitates shortcuts. The use of acronyms has exploded because of tweeting. Young people who tweet a lot, they tend to bring those habits to Facebook and, in turn, they bring those habits to everything they do.

Chase (Burson): True.

Johnson (M Booth): Yes.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): That's why I think writing has suffered so much. However, with the ongoing search for social media expertise among young pros, is there a sentiment among agencies that they could teach these youngsters to become credible writers and that's good enough? How do you feel about that sentiment?

Seeman (Makovsky): I don't like that at all.

Johnson (M Booth): It's hard to teach writing.

Seeman (Makovsky): Maybe it's not possible to teach someone to be a great writer. It comes from how you think and how you compose your thoughts, but I would just disagree with the sentiment. First of all, tweeting is great because it's forcing people, inviting people at every age to think, to read, and then to analyze what they've just read, to soak up information, and to formulate opinions and thoughts on that information and then to share that information with others.

So, I think that young people, whether it's from tweeting, texting, their Facebook pages, their own personal blogs, chats, as well as just emails, which they're shooting off from their phones or anywhere else all day, every day – they're writing more. They're going to the Internet, they're reading about things, even if it's not business related, they're reading about things. They're absorbing the information. They're processing it and then they're throwing it back out there through their own filter. And, in great part, that's what writing is. People write better than they did even 10 years ago or at least I'm seeing more improved writers.

Johnson (M Booth): More concise writing, for sure.

Seeman (Makovsky): It's still the biggest problem in people who I see.

Secchi (Edelman): I know. You can teach spelling and grammar, the difference between there and their. But to put together a clear, concise thought and actually make it convincing or persuading – which is a lot of what PR people do – that's harder to teach.

Johnson (M Booth): I agree, but one way to teach it is to assign reading. If somebody reads and reads and reads, they'll start to pick up that rhythm. I think reading is very important.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Are there certain sectors younger folks are gravitating toward more than they were say five or 10 years ago?

Johnson (M Booth): They just want a job in PR, that's what I'm seeing.

Chase (Burson): I have definite candidates with preferences.

Seeman (Makovsky): It's hard to say if it's a trend or if it's because of what Makovsky does. These are only people that are reaching out to me, but I'm seeing a tremendous amount of interest in financial services, for example. Again, that's probably because everybody knows Makovsky does financial services.

Healthcare and pharmaceutical, as well, also because they know Makovsky does that. So, it's hard for me to say if that's an overall trend.

Johnson (M Booth): And because of our different practice areas, I haven't had anybody come and say, “I want to do nonprofit” or “I want to do healthcare.” They're coming and just seeing what's available.

Secchi (Edelman): I've definitely seen people with preferences, but the majority tends to say, “I want consumer or digital.” Some CSR, too, because it's that feel-good area.

So, when somebody says, “I want financial, I'm like, ”They get an interview,” I don't really say that. But when somebody says that I'm like, “Really? Interesting.” I'll make a note of it.

We have some. Again, it's also what you're telling the person to come in. So, if you say, “Oh, I have a great job in financial,” they come in. You ask them, ”Okay, what's your area of interest?” They'll say, “Financial,” because they know a position is available in that area. But, when I just bring in generally, a lot of people will say, “Consumer, digital.”

Chase (Burson): They can have opinions as to where to focus, but it's not as if they only want one thing.

In truth, we have so many different practice areas that people mostly say, “Tell me about these things.” They want to hear more about it. They might think they have an interest in consumer or healthcare, but when they're that junior-level, they're so moldable. They don't have that specialty yet, whereas, if you had someone with 10 years of experience in healthcare, you start building your specialty from being in there.

That's where I say it's also good to look around to make sure that you're getting exposed to other pieces, which is what is great about out internship program. We do expose the interns to every single area so they have a really good perspective of what they would like to do moving forward.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Let's talk about the candidate who has been working for, say, three years. Perhaps they've done more generalist work until now. Are these people coming to you with more definitive ideas or leaning more toward certain sectors?

Chase (Burson): They're not necessarily leaning toward certain sectors. What they get exposed to is what they usually enter. A lot of it has to do with the people they're connecting with. Think about the leaders, too. If they get to know that leader well, they may want to follow that leader.

Secchi (Edelman): At that level, they either stay where they are or they definitely don't like what they're doing. In the latter case, say they're in financial, they might say, “I want consumer,” or they're doing digital and they say, “Oh, I really like financial because I did an internship three or four years ago.” So, they're either focused on what they're doing now or they want something totally different, but I don't see a trend in whether it's consumer or financial, not at that level.

Seeman (Makovsky): Is there really a generalist anymore? I mean, maybe at some of these really small agencies. But at firms the size of those of the people at this table, individuals are in one specific practice area from the outset.

Sure, there is lateral mobility through the firm if one of our superstars in the health group started in our financial services group and didn't like it. But aside from the very smallest agencies, there really aren't any firms that have generalists any more.

Chase (Burson): You tend to start specializing after a certain period because as you're working in a practice area, you start becoming a knowledge expert in that specific type of business. But as a junior, you're working at a different level, so you can be put on any different account almost and it can make sense. Sometimes people might get on an account that they really love and they end up staying there and learning more and more. People start picking up a specialty after they've been exposed to some.

Johnson (M Booth): When we're recruiting, I'm looking for people who have had experience in a specific sector. For me, it would be rare that a three-year person comes and says, “Hey, I want to get into travel” unless they'd all ready been exposed to it.

Chase (Burson): If people are in a particular area and they just really don't like it, they'll talk about really wanting to change. Sometimes it's because they don't like where they are, but if they were doing it for a different agency then maybe they would like it. Some people come with their minds made up and they're like, “I want out.”

Seeman (Makovsky): What we run into is a person with three or four years of experience, they're usually an SAE by then, our clients expect them to be knowledgeable about their industry. So even if we see the ability is there and they can transition, a client may see someone for our technology practice who has been doing more financial and say, “No, they don't really know our sector well enough.” So even at those junior levels, it's all about specialization.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): That's interesting. How much feedback do you get from clients in terms of the junior-level people they deal with?

Seeman (Makovsky): We have a quality-commitment program where we use an external auditor who sends electronic questionnaires to clients to fill out about the account. We do phone interviews with them, too. They're asked to assess every single member of the team right down to the account coordinator.

Chase (Burson): We have a client satisfaction survey.

Seeman (Makovsky): That's often our first clue to move people around on accounts.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): In another article in this year's Career Guide, one that focuses more on mid- and senior-level people, we discuss agencies poaching from one another. Do junior-level people tend to stick it out more these days than they did say 10, 15 years ago or do pros at this level tend to go onto another agency or maybe even a client?

Seeman (Makovsky): We actually do analyses decade by decade, or every five years, in terms of ten-year people at every level. We actually did notice in the last decade that people stayed longer. That might have to do with the fact there were a couple of recessions in that decade, so there weren't jobs, but things average out.

Chase (Burson): I agree.

Seeman (Makovsky): That's the industry. You do everything you can. Certainly, we all try very hard to keep our people and we're all, in different ways, very creative about it.

Chase (Burson): Sometimes people start growing up in a place and they just want to experience something different. No one likes to see anyone leave, but you also try to celebrate the person trying something different. You need to be supportive of it because for whatever reason, they have some sort of growth need, whether it's going in-house, whether it's moving, it's something.

We tend to have a lot of people coming back, which says something about the organization, too.

Secchi (Edelman): It might make them better in the long run because they've had this other experience and they're going to bring it back an apply it here if and when they return.

Seeman (Makovsky): No agency is going to be the end-all. Not only are there boomerang employees that come back, but, especially in this industry, they eventually almost all wind up on the client side and then hire us. You would probably prefer they go to a client than another agency, though.

Closing thoughts
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): If there's one bit of advice you'd like to give, general or specific, to a junior-level pro or a person who's just entering the industry, what would it be?

Secchi (Edelman): Be a realistic risk-taker. It's good to take risks, but make sure you have fully researched what you will be doing or that you know the consequences of that risk and what you're getting yourself into.

The other thing: always try to be two steps ahead. Try to see, again, the consequences of what your actions will be or what's going to happen long term. We're all familiar with that question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” We'll never ask anybody that question, but, at least, try to think about what's to come in the future for you.

Chase (Burson): Be proactive. Think ahead. Put your head up, look around, raise your hand and ask questions. It's all about being proactive.

Johnson (M Booth): You need to be able to voice your opinion and be sure about it, which would require you to know what you're talking about. I also like a sense of inquisitiveness, a sense of fun, creativity, different ways of looking at the world – it's not all one way. Oh, and don't forget about reading.

Chase (Burson): It also helps to find somebody you aspire to be. Put yourself in a role where you can learn from a person and grow by putting yourself under someone's wing. When you find that person, learn as much as you can from them. People love talking about what they do and how they do it. Ask the questions.

Johnson (M Booth): Absolutely. I tell people I interview all the time to dig in on LinkedIn. Find somebody who's doing something you want to be doing and hook up with them. People in this industry love to help.

Seeman (Makovsky): Be a sponge. Read, learn, and ask questions. Beyond that – and this might seem obvious, but it's still so important – work as hard as you can. As a junior person, people want to see your potential for growth. We're always hoping that every young person we hire is a future leader of our agency and our industry. So, bust your butt. Really just work as hard as you can because that work, good work will be rewarded.

The other thing is, obviously, you want people to ask for more, to show their ambition, but at the same time don't forget that this is an extremely collaborative industry. We all work in teams. As a junior person, if you're not showing a willingness to be a team player, that you're willing to learn and help your colleagues out, that will hurt your career and you're ultimately not going to win too many friends.

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