I am a little weary after this year’s round of graduate recruitment
interviews. The homogenous nature of application letters and CVs is
becoming almost suspicious (has someone written a book called How to
bluff your way in job applications?) And if I come across another
candidate hell bent on a career in PR on account of being a ’people
person’ I shall scream.
As candidates talk more about relationships than business, I have a
growing suspicion that PR is being seen as the cleaner, more respectable
side of a grubby commercial world. Perhaps students feel that a PR job
title has a built in apology for being in business rather than one of
What we employers want is candidates who seek PR as a means of realising
a commercial career, not escaping from one. I have just completed a
process which began with 300 CVs, proceeded to 60 telephone interviews,
30 face-to-face interviews, seven interviews and finally three job
offers. Within the written applications, good old-fashioned commercial
nous was seldom visible. We were showered with the usual qualities: a
good communicator, a good organiser, enthusiastic and yes, a people
person. No candidates stated that they wanted to be part of the
profitable growth of the agency, few saw their role as facilitating the
commercial growth or profitability of their clients.
Future account managers and directors will need commercial awareness to
the point of a real passion for what makes a business tick. Experience
has shown that teaching this awareness, nurturing this passion is a
virtually impossible task.
Given the uncanny similarity of graduate application letters, I always
take time to test a candidate’s commercial spirit at the interview
My question: ’would you say you are a commercial animal?’ is usually met
with incredulity. Perhaps they feel the question belittles their worthy
aspirations. Perhaps they think it’s a trick. But just occasionally they
shrug their shoulders and say: ’Yes, I think I probably am’. Music to my
Then comes the thorny problem of identifying the good brains. In my
experience, degree classification is less than helpful. For one thing,
around 70 per cent of our candidates seem to receive an upper second.
There is the occasional lower second but overall these scores have
proved to be a poor indicator.
Certainly the degree subject is little indication of aptitude or
academic excellence - expect in one disturbing respect: show me a first
degree in media studies or PR and I’ll show you a pretty poor sprinkling
of A levels. Is a degree in PR the refuge of our less gifted students?
In this country the answer certainly seems to be yes. Getting onto a PR
degree course in Australia, on the other hand, ranks alongside a law
degree in terms of the standards you need to achieve at school.
While a BA in PR is a warning signal, so a higher degree or diploma can
be just the opposite. The post-graduate qualifications in PR seem to
spawn excellent candidates: a good grounding in core skills, practical
So, ironically, the brightness test I tend to apply is a quick glance at
A levels. One of the most successful trainee account executives we have
taken on in recent years was an individual who achieved three sparkling
A levels at grade A in ’proper’ subjects (no sociology or media studies
here) and then went on to Oxford where he achieved a limp third. Under
cross questioning he left me in little doubt that he was indeed bright
as a button but couldn’t wait to leave Oxford to get his teeth into
Gareth Zundel is group PR director at Harvard Public Relations.