Recruitment: Find the bright sparks

High staff turnover is a common problem, so how do you find talented recruits - and then make them stay?

Everyone knows PR has one of the highest levels of staff turnover.

It is an embarrassing state of affairs for such a 'people-based' industry.

But while some blame pay and hours, could a better explanation be that PROs simply recruit the wrong people?

To avoid the job-hoppers, some agencies have developed more elaborate, and multiple-stage recruitment methods. While the more left-field interview techniques of folklore seem sadly absent ('Lego-building?' asks one agency director in surprise. 'I don't know what I'd be looking for') there are increasingly different processes out there, everything from role-plays, to making collages (see panels). 'I've even heard of ten or 11 interview stages,' says George Stothard, senior consultant at recruitment company PRJS.

Nexus Consumer and Business Communications has started creating what it calls a 'human job analysis' to identify what personality types work best in what roles, such as someone who is dominant or process-driven.

About 40 per cent of the recruitment decision will be determined by scientific tests covering areas such as reasoning and concentration. MD Jim Horsley insists: 'We are recruiting successfully as the tests take out surprises.'

But do these techniques actually find better people that stay longer?

Some think not, and according to Fishburn Hedges director Andrew Reid, it can leave the interviewee with a distorted picture about what working for that company is like. 'There is definitely a relationship between recruitment and retention. People don't join us with misconceptions of the business,' he says. FH insists on three-four rounds of half-hour interviews with written tests whether you are a consultant or joining the board, and the agency's 2003-05 retention figure is 83 per cent. It has also been in the top ten of the FT's Best Workplace survey two years running, so it would seem to be doing something right.

Multiple offers

In a candidate-short market, agencies also run a real risk of losing people if they drag out interviews for too long. Jennifer Plant, manager, PR and marketing division at recruitment agency Huntress, says: 'Today a good candidate can have three or four offers to choose from. Three years ago, they'd have been delighted with one.'

But often only lip-service is actually paid to recruitment. One senior agency PRO told PRWeek: 'The "people" side of the business is just seen as a box to tick. It needs to be in a company's DNA more.' Few companies find retaining talent easy. But in a buoyant market, misconceived recruitment could make it even harder to find the right people.

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUE 1: HOTWIRE PR

Last year, technology specialist Hotwire held its first Saturday event, as 50 or so graduates with PR potential were introduced to the agency and given a series of activities in which to take part. The 2005 version was held last month (see above).

While Anthony Wilson, managing partner, operations, insists it is a 'fun' day, the real purpose is to whittle these down to a dozen candidates.

Team activities are split into three sections: brainstorming, writing a press release and presenting a business pitch.

'We tell the graduates to pitch at 3pm and give them the product brief and get them to think about target audiences and messages,' says Wilson.

'It highlights basic knowledge and identifies the people who are more prone to lead.' He adds: 'There is a danger the consummate salesmen could sail through, but we're sensitive to that. The 30-minute writing exercise tends to be from the sexier end of the tech market - we don't want to put them off - and at the presentation everyone must have a speaking role in the 15-minute slot. We are looking for whether they have presence,' Wilson says.

The dozen candidates selected go through to a formal interview at the end of the week in which Hotwire managers who weren't at the first day give their assessment. 'We try to quantify the cultural fit as well as the relevant skill-sets,' says Wilson. Of the five people recruited through 2004's Graduate Day, four are still at Hotwire today.

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUE 2: BRIGHTER PR

Conducting an interview with your back to the candidate might sound more like something out of Goodfellas than an agency. But Brighter PR introduced this unorthodox recruitment technique nine months ago and MD Steve Dunne says it has demonstrably helped to improve the calibre of its recruits in junior positions.

'A friend of mine who runs a call centre taught me this,' he says. 'At account executive or account manager level, you're recruiting people who'll do a lot of work on the phone, so this sorts type of interview really selects the men from the boys.' For the interview, Dunne takes the role of a journalist or client in a bid to cheaply replicate the conditions in which most of his recruits will be working. 'Some people are very good at interviews but they might well struggle here, so this is designed to indentify this,' explains Dunne. 'The biggest area we see is reluctance to sell-in on the phone. People tend to be more comfortable sending an email, but unless PROs have a fantastic writing style they need to get on the phone and talk a journalist through it. We do a writing test as well.' The process is stressful but Dunne makes no apologies for this. 'I'm robbing them of quite a few things that they might subconsciously have relied on,' he says. 'It lasts five to seven minutes and if the person is not up to it, you can sense it and I'll probably wrap it up quickly.

It might not suit every agency or if you're after more strategic thinking and face-to-face skills, but it works for us.'

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUE 3: JOHNSON KING

The idea that graduates use tech agencies as a stepping stone into other areas of PR is not unusual, but it is one that tech specialist Johnson King does its best to overcome in a swift, two-stage interview process.

The first (30 minutes to an hour) covers a candidate's background and experience while giving them opportunities to find out what the agency offers. The second (90 minutes to two hours) is task-based, run by an account director and the account manager for whom the interviewee would be working. Candidates have a few minutes to read a two-page factsheet about a client ('deliberately not made interesting,' says business development director Helen Banyard) and are then made to interview the 'MD' to get enough information to be able to pitch a feature to the Financial Times.

'Of course, no-one would be given a brand new client and 30 minutes to pitch to a journalist in reality,' admits Banyard. 'We're quite mean.' Regardless of how someone performs in this test, Banyard says candidates' responses to their mistakes is revealing. 'The bit where we go over how they performed helps us understand how they respond to criticism. We've employed people who did badly in the test because afterwards we got a better idea of how they might behave in a work environment.

'Between first and second interviews we deliberately have a fast turnaround,' he adds. 'Occasionally we've had a third interview but if you're that unsure about a candidate it's normally a "no".'

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