You're hired: how to pick good staff

Bosses increasingly bemoan their difficulty in hiring suitable talent. Training expert Nicholas van Zanten finds out how they sort the wheat from the chaff

The CIPR says around 48,000 people work in PR in the UK. And all the signs are that this figure is set to grow over the next five years, particularly in consultancies. So, given the popularity of PR as a career choice, how do employers find the right person for the job?

Paul Mylrea is group media relations director at Transport for London. His team of 20 press and PR officers handles calls relating to all aspects of transport around the capital. ‘We get about 200 press calls a day, although this tripled to 600 on 7/7, with more than 70 calls in just one hour,’ he says. ‘Staff have to able to react quickly under
extreme pressure.’

As a rule, Mylrea looks to recruit PROs with at least three years’ experience: ‘Press officers here must be able to hit the ground running. We look for people who understand the media, have experience in handling journalists and can cope with the workload without panicking. We are also keen on a broad skillset. So while one may have in-depth expertise on the workings of the media, another may be a technical expert on transport.’

On the spot
Mylrea is also keen on testing candidates via PR scenarios: ‘For example, we might ask candidates to prepare a strategy for the launch of a longer Underground platform. Longer stations mean longer trains, which in turn can transport more people. How will they launch the station to the media? A press conference? A photocall?
‘Once candidates have decided, we throw a spanner in the works by saying that engineering activity will delay the train’s arrival – to challenge them on how they would cope with the delay.’

Caroline Samuels is director of human resources at Hill & Knowlton. Although the agency employs around 300 permanent staff at its UK HQ in Soho Square, she concedes: ‘We need to find up to 50 new full-time employees every year. Most interest comes via our website, particularly from graduates. We get up to 700 enquiries a year from graduates, but our total annual graduate intake is just eight.’

Samuels reveals how she whittles the number down. ‘First we reject outright all those who use bad grammar or can’t spell. That gets rid of most of them,’ she says. ‘Then we send formal application forms to those who are left. We select 30 from the returns, and invite them to attend a “project day”.’

H&K gives its 30 candidates specific PR projects. ‘For example, we might ask a candidate to create a presentation using the contents of two “grab-bags”, Samuels says. ‘One bag will contain a variety of objects, the other a variety of written tasks. So, from the first bag you might pick a pink hair curler, and from the second a piece of paper asking “how might this object help you on your journey to work?”.’

She adds: ‘We want to see if the candidate is fazed by the task and what he or she manages to come up with
in, say, two minutes.’ Samuels says candidates’ response indicates whether ‘they have what it takes to get up in front of a group of strangers and make an off-the-cuff presentation against the clock’.

Elsewhere, former Chime Communications CEO Trevor Morris has hired hundreds of PROs in his time, including well-known names such as Rosie Boycott, who became editor of the Daily Express, and Sophie Rhys-Jones. Now a visiting professor in PR at Westminster University, Morris likens the process of PRO recruitment to that of assembling a football team.

‘A football team needs a goalkeeper, defenders, midfield players and strikers. Similar roles appear in a PR team. For example, you need the equivalent of a goalkeeper to defend corporate reputation from attack,’ he says.
‘Defenders and midfielders do the groundwork, and the strikers take care of the proactive and creative tasks.’
Morris adds that in interviews, managers are inevitably looking to plug the gaps in their team. But aside from permanent staff, there continues to be great demand for freelancers.

Recruitment agency Xchangeteam has around 6,000 PROs on its books, and places around 700 a year in some form of freelance employment.

According to head of PR and comms resourcing Maggi Maupin, demand for freelancers is now outstripping that
for full-time staff.

‘Freelancers have to be flexible. Our clients need to know that a potential freelance employee can work as needed,’ she says. ‘Freelancers must also demonstrate that they are highly disciplined, self-motivated people. If I see that a freelancer has spent six months in Spain to learn Spanish, that tells me that person is self-driven and task-
oriented – ideal freelance material.’

The right stuff
Apart from identifying candidates with the requisite skills and drive, it is also crucial to find the right kind of personality.

H&K’s Samuels says she looks for candidates that ‘take individual responsibility as well as work as part of a team, are naturally curious, have views that challenge the status quo, have a passion for something and a spark about them’.

She adds: ‘Most importantly, can we see them progressing up the ladder to the next job? All these things are just as important as the formal skills.’

Mylrea also places great importance on the character of the candidate, and specifically seeks ‘a team spirit and a sense of humour’.

‘We try to create a dynamic, fun atmosphere here. You have to in order to survive in such a pressured environment,’ he says. ‘For example, the PRO in charge of buses might go to a dinner party and get ribbed all evening about them being late all the time. He must be able to handle this sort of thing with grace and panache.’
Morris reveals how he considers a prospective candidate’s social skills: ‘Assuming a person has ticked all the right boxes on the CV, the question I always ask myself is: would I like to work with this person? Would I like to sit next to this person at a corporate dinner? The answer has to be yes.’

An essential part of the recruitment process for Morris is getting candidates to meet current employees for
a post-interview drink. ‘You can get some great feedback as to how your existing team would get on with a prospective member,’ he explains.

Finally, Morris advises asking staff to suggest candidates: ‘Staff are unlikely to recommend someone who can’t do the job – it would reflect badly on them. And they are unlikely to suggest someone who they won’t get on with.’

Nicholas van Zanten is chairman of PR training company Meet the Press

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