MILK ROUND: Employers scour universities for graduates with the talent
to succeed in public relations
TRAINING: Vital to the profession’s future but too few consultancies
invest in the future of their staff
CASE STUDIES: Two graduates describe the experience of moving into the
commercial environment for the first time
With PR rapidly becoming the career of choice for many final year
students, employers reveal some of their methods for finding those with
the right stuff.
Apart from drinking too much snakebite and amusingly placing traffic
cones on their heads, this summer’s crop of graduates may well be
scouring the jobs pages for their first jobs.
Last year’s much-quoted MORI survey showed that PR was the third most
popular career among final year students, after journalism and teaching.
And this year there is talk of the discipline climbing to number two in
the graduate pop parade.
This, combined with the fact that there are more graduates than ever
before, should mean that the industry can easily attract and train new
Burson-Marsteller’s human resources manager Cindy Peters says more than
300 applicants applied for six places on its graduate scheme last year
and the calibre was high. ‘There were a lot of bright, creative people
who had done considerable research into the business,’ she says.
But while B-M identified sufficient graduates with the necessary
communications and persuasive skills, Peters says the standard of
written skills wasn’t high. ‘This seems to be the only area which is in
decline,’ she says.
Ken Deeks, managing director of hi-tech specialists Arrow PR agrees: ‘I
have found the writing ability of graduates very disappointing. They
also lack awareness of the commercial world. They don’t understand what
is expected of them.’
Perhaps for this reason, Grant Butler Coomber’s policy has been to only
recruit graduates with some work experience.
‘As the number of graduates has increased, more have been forced to
undertake other jobs before they get on the first rung of the PR
ladder,’ says founding partner Jill Coomber.
‘We look for a more experienced eye. One of our recent recruits was
formerly a rep for a ski operator and was required to handle calls about
a missing holiday maker in the mountains. He had demonstrated initiative
and the ability to cope with crises,’ she adds.
Coomber believes these more worldly-wise recruits know what to expect
and can be trained more efficiently.
Indeed it is perhaps training rather than recruitment that is the more
contentious issue facing the industry.
There has been much talk of a lack of talent already within the industry
and a particularly acute shortage of middle management. The blame for
this is laid at the door of consultancies which haven’t invested in
training over recent years.
‘We need to get people to stop talking about training and start doing
it,’ says Barry Leggetter, managing director of Fleishman-Hillard and
chairman of the PRCA’s Consulting Management Committee.
‘Our most recent inter-firm comparison survey showed that the average
training investment, as a percentage of payroll, was less than one per
cent. In other words universally pathetic.’
Leggetter and the PRCA’s chairman Jackie Elliot argue strongly that the
industry is in near crisis on this issue.
Elliot says: ‘We have been short-sighted in maintaining margins by
cutting down training. We haven’t invested in our industry.’
The PRCA will shortly be proposing a minimum training investment of one
per cent of fee income as a basic requirement for membership of the
Ken Deeks claims his company has already committed itself to investing
ten per cent of its payroll in training.
‘Companies invest thousands of pounds in research and development of
their products. Ours is a people business and it is their time we are
selling. Investment in people will mean a better result for our client.’
The bigger agencies such as Burson-Marsteller and Charles Barker say
that it is difficult to measure just how much they actually spend on
training, as a considerable amount is done in-house by senior agency
As a relatively small industry, the majority of graduate training will
inevitably be on-the-job, this will tend to be regardless of the size of
In such an environment ambitious graduates must be prepared to go in at
the deep end and add some value right away.
Top ten agency Charles Barker has abandoned its annual induction of
graduates but director Jennifer Potter says the company’s training
programme is still active. She says: ‘We now take a mixture of
undergraduate work placements and account assistants on longer contracts
- and see how it works out.’
Potter adds: ‘In a recent case a female undergraduate was so bright and
capable that we negotiated with her college so she could spend two days
work a week with us during her final year,’ she adds.
GBC’s Coomber says: ‘We give our trainees an induction programme, time
management training and, if necessary, a crash course in any relevant
client industries. But we will also put them on client work as soon as
possible. We would expect them to be account executives after six
The requirement to add value at an early stage could potentially be met
by graduates from the fast expanding number of public relations degrees
and related areas.
Kevin Moloney, lecturer on Bournemouth University’s PR course claims its
graduates face little difficulty in finding work: ‘Within six months
around 80 per cent of our graduates are in full-time jobs, the majority
of which are in the communications industry.
The industry, however, doesn’t seem to have made up its mind just yet
about the value of vocational PR courses.
‘If absolutely everything else was equal, then I’d go for the PR
graduate,’ says Deeks.
B-M’s Peters says none of its 30 short listed candidates were PR
graduates, however the company is making efforts to build links with
colleges and is considering taking on a work placement.
‘I have an open mind about it,’ says Coomber, ‘I think there were some
doubts about the early graduates from these degrees, but we have seen
some good people. Ultimately though, it is core abilities that are
Charles Barker’s Potter says, ‘I now have quite a lot of approaches from
people with media type degrees, but I suppose it is just another
category. The greatest skill of all is common-sense and sometimes it
takes a while to find out whether people possess this attribute.’
Putting aside individual agencies’ efforts and the growth in specific
undergraduate courses, the industry’s ability to attract, train and,
equally importantly, retain the right people will also have a lot to do
with the reputation and status of the PR itself.
While the high profile of PRs and political ‘spin doctors’ may well be
responsible for the discipline’s high popularity among graduates, such
media coverage often has a sting in its tail.
Lecturer Moloney says, ‘Colleges and agencies together face the biggest
challenge - which is PR’s overall status. The constant denigration of
the discipline by the media has left it as a word with odour.’
An article in the Observer in May likened the growth of PR degrees and
the discipline’s popularity to sociology in the 1970s, exhuming the old
joke: ‘Sociology degrees: please take one.’
We all know that journalists love to hate their PR compatriots, despite
their continued reliance on their input.
But if PR is to shrug off this ‘new sociology’ jibe and enjoy the cream
of graduates, it would do well to both invest in its staff and protect
its own reputation.
If the reason for the decline in writing skills is that the best writers
are going into other, more literary-oriented professions, this could be
a timely warning sign.
Degrees of success: Hunting for the right graduate
There may be no shortage of graduates coming on to the job market, but
how does one find the right graduate for the vacancy?
It seems the larger consultancies have less to do in this department.
The popularity of a career in public relations means that most get
hundreds of graduates making unsolicited applications.
Cohn and Wolfe joint managing director Martin Thomas says the agency
takes on three or four graduates annually, at phased times throughout
‘I get a thousand and one CVs landing on my desk,’ says Thomas.
Nevertheless the company is active in attracting the best students.
Cohn and Wolfe has developed a special relationship with Oxford
University from which it regularly takes students on work placement. Its
careers service arranges for Cohn and Wolfe employees who are Oxford
graduates to come back and give presentations to its students.
‘This part of our graduate recruitment is entirely handled by some of
our senior account executives who have been with us for a couple of
years,’ says Thomas.
‘They really enjoy going back to give the talks and meet up with their
old friends. The Oxford undergraduates get the benefit of hearing what
it’s really like in PR. We receive CVs as a result. The best applicants
will be given work placements.’
Thomas says that recruitment is not restricted to Oxford, and that Cohn
and Wolfe is now taking students on a ‘sandwich’ basis from the Leeds
Metropolitan and Bournemouth University PR courses.
‘The Centre for Journalism Studies at the University of Cardiff is
another rich vein. We have taken on four or five people from both the
journalism and PR courses,’ adds Thomas.
Smaller agency Grant Butler Coomber prefers to advertise. ‘We have
placed ads in the Guardian and PR Week says founding partner Jill
Coomber, ‘I find PR Week attracts a lot of PR graduates, the Guardian a
good cross section of people.’
Sue Ryan, director at GCI Group and head of the company’s human
resources ‘task force’, says the agency’s ‘top 25’ status ensures that
she receives between two and five CVs each day, and that she finds no
need to actively seek graduates.
However Ryan believes that the secret of attracting the cream of the
crop is to demonstrate the company’s commitment to quality training. GCI
is striving for Investors in People status and from January 1997, will
be running its own training academy. ‘The best training facilities will
attract the best people,’ argues Ryan.
She says an increasing number of the candidates have some qualification
in public relations or related areas, either at graduate or post-
Last year GCI employed two graduates and this year four, most of which
begin on a secondment basis.
Ryan adds: ‘Last week I hired a graduate who had a history degree but
had done at post-graduate qualification at the Centre for Journalism
Studies in Cardiff. Such courses were virtually unknown when I entered
Case study: The difference between theory and practice
A year and a half ago Catrin Jones was a public relations graduate. Now
at 24, she is a senior account executive at Arrow PR.
Jones joined in February 1995, having completed a BA (Hons) in PR and
media studies at Plymouth University the previous June.
It took her six months to get her first job because she says she was
quite focused. She says: ‘I found out about the Arrow trainee position
through an advertisement in the Guardian.
‘I knew I wanted to go into consultancy and the appeal of Arrow was the
energy of a small agency combined with the training infrastructure of
the larger Argyll group’.
Jones says she had always had an interest in the media and knew the
direction of her career from the age of 17: ‘The appeal of public
relations was that it encapsulated all forms of communication,’ she
The course was a mixture of theory which included marketing and branding
and practice - pitching to external audiences. During the course Jones
also went on a month’s work placement at Swansea City Council.
Despite this grounding Jones says that she still found some surprises
when she entered the industry full time.
‘The biggest shock was the commercial environment. My PR studies didn’t
prepare me for the fact that clients were paying for my time. I soon
realised that time management was another thing I had to learn.’
And while she was used to writing assignments, Jones recognised that she
now had to start thinking and writing like a journalist.
Arrow’s hi-tech orientation does not seem to have fazed her. ‘I’d had no
IT training but didn’t find this a problem. We had an induction
programme and were assigned a ‘buddy’ - a member of staff who I could
talk to about any subject. This was essential in getting to grips with
industry issues,’ she says.
Arrow managing director Ken Deeks says: ‘When we advertise in the
Guardian we get five to six hundred graduates. It is very difficult to
produce a shortlist and sometimes I think it is better to get
recruitment consultancies to screen the applicants.
‘I’m a big believer in observable behaviour and you only get a feel for
candidates’ attitudes - their desire to succeed - when you actually meet
He adds: ‘We do expect graduates to add value early on but at the same
time we develop objectives for the individual, let them know the
training courses that are available and hold a bi-monthly meeting to
discuss their progress.’
Case study: Training for the firing line at B-M
Rachel Jones graduated in history from Oxford University in June 1995.
By that time she knew she would be starting Burson-Marsteller’s graduate
trainee scheme that September.
Jones had applied for the scheme after seeing an advertisement in her
university careers magazine and succeeded in winning a place on its
annual interview day in April 1995.
She turned up on a Monday morning with 29 other prospective
undergraduates for a day of simulated crisis management, team
discussions and an individual presentation to camera.
‘It was fairly nerve-racking but everyone was friendly. The presentation
to camera was absolutely petrifying,’ says Jones.
But she must have done a good job because on the Wednesday a phone call
to her college confirmed that she was one of five to be offered a place
on B-M’s trainee scheme.
On joining, Jones spent a week of induction before becoming a member of
an account team. Since then she has been on a series of training days
covering presentations skills, time management and the new B-M culture
of perception management.
At 22, Jones is now an assistant account executive working on the Bird’s
Eye Walls and Hill Pet Nutrition accounts. She will have another
appraisal next March.
How has she found it so far?
‘I enjoy the writing. And the best bit about PR is that you can do it
all yourself, unlike advertising where the creative and account handling
sides are separate,’ she says.
She adds: ‘I knew roughly what to expect as I’d spent the previous
summer on work experience at Greenwood Tighe PR in Cheshire. But what I
have found challenging is the cultural and creative thinking.’
This November all five trainees fly out to New York for a three day
visit to Burson-Marsteller’s US headquarters and its ‘university’ in
The university has been running since October 1995. B-M companies around
the world send their trainees for a series of courses that range from
client relationships and financial management, through to perception
management methodology and creativity.
Barbara Smith, executive vice president and chief creative officer,
explains: ‘The university provides an opportunity for employees around
the world to share in our basic culture and philosophy. This includes a
trade show where individual offices give presentations and display their
Smith says B-M is now considering expanding the university’s work to
second tier courses. She says: ‘It is evolving fast. At present students
attend for orientation, but we would like to provide further training
when staff reach a management level.’