STAFF LEVELS: Last decade’s downsizing phenomenon has left the PR
industry seriously short of experienced staff
IN-HOUSE TRAINING: Is the fear of losing in-house trained staff to
poachers restricting agencies’ training policies?
RECRUITMENT: Agencies are turning to sources outside the PR industry
for senior level strategic thinkers
The demand for talented, experienced staff has never been greater, a
situation which has forced agencies to take a serious look at training
and recruitment strategies.
After the post-boom return to the dark ages of the early 1990s, many
agencies and in-house departments slimmed down to anorexic proportions
and recruitment and training were often the first to go.
Wall Street’s guru of downsizing, Stephen Roach may have recently seen
the error of his ways but the legacy lingers with many industries
depleted of staff. PR has fought back but it is still traumatised for
there is a lost generation of trained PR professionals, particularly in
key sectors like ethical pharmaceutical and IT.
Inter-firm comparisons by the Public Relations Consultants Association,
of its members’ fortunes in the year to July 1995, show that recruitment
was up by 11.6 per cent with fee income growth similarly up at 11.7 per
cent. Redundancy was down an encouraging 76.2 per cent. However demand
has created its own problems.
Steven Tibble a consultant with human resources consultancy, Etc Ltd,
says: ‘All the big consultancies are having problems finding the right
people. We have gone from the panic of downsizing that we saw during the
recession to agencies having difficulty finding people of the right
calibre, experience and background.’
According to recruiting agencies this trend is continuing apace.
Benedicte Martin, director at Media Appointments says: ‘There is a
dearth of people and there has been a huge upturn in the number of jobs.
There is a terrible shortage of account managers with three to four
years experience and clients are often having to tailor their briefs
down to senior account executive or tailor them up to junior account
‘From January we have seen the most fantastic upturn led, as usual, by
the agency market. Overall demand must be up 30 per cent on last year
with in-house accounting for 40 per cent of our work.’
Sophie Hawes, divisional director of recruitment consultants Price
Jamieson, echoes this concern about the lack of account managers. ‘On
the agency side there is a pick-up but there is a lack of account
managers with experience. Three or four years ago people were not
recruiting so there has been a knock-on effect. Our job count has
increased significantly and people are recruiting at all levels with
many new positions as the market is expanding again.
In-house business is also growing but there is a shortage of good
candidates. Salaries in certain sectors are increasing and there is
always a premium to pay for hi-tech and ethical pharmaceutical people,’
In many cases, in-house departments appear to have been subject to
reorganisation, with department heads preferring to improve utilisation
of existing resources rather than recruiting new talent.
British Telecom, for example, has recently experienced a major national
reorganisation without substantial changes to the department’s
As senior press officer Robert Dunnett points out ‘more is expected of
people and each individual has to do more to standstill’.
Elsewhere, in-house departments are relying to a greater extent upon
outside agencies, preferring to buy in skills on retainer or ad hoc
basis to supplement the efforts of salaried staff.
Specialist sectors such as finance can often find it difficult to
Jeremy Wyatt director of corporate communications at Prudential says
frankly ‘financial services might sometimes seem a little boring
compared with other sectors’, adding that his industry has already gone
through a ‘massive restructuring’.
But it appears to be the consultancies which are finding it the most
difficult to recruit.
In Leeds, Gordon Forbes managing director of Ptarmigan Consultants,
says: ‘With the recession and companies cutting back on staff
recruitment, there was a period of three or four years when you would
have expected a lot of graduates to come through and get some experience
under their belt, but that didn’t happen and it has created a gap in the
Business acumen seems to be particularly lacking in many agency
candidates. Jane Howard, managing director of Jane Howard Public
Relations says: ‘I must admit I am not impressed with what I see in the
public relations industry.
‘In particular we are not very good at instilling in people an
understanding of business. They must know what makes their clients tick
and in many people that seems to be sadly lacking,’ says Howard.
This is echoed by Stella Hitner, managing director of The Reputation
Managers, who says: ‘We carried out a survey recently and 96 per cent of
marketing professionals said that as well as having core public
relations skills, practitioners should have demonstrable business
experience and understand their client’s industry.
‘Only 46 per cent thought that consultants were well-briefed in business
issues. But as consultants we must put ourselves in clients’ shoes and
understand the hot issues in their particular industry,’ she says.
In an industry where people are so important, the way you recruit them
is crucial, and that too is changing. Steven Tibble of Etc Ltd notes:
‘One good thing about the fact that it has been so difficult to get good
people is that it has forced agencies to review the way they do things
and to use psychometric testing and personality profiling to find out
what sort of team players they are.’
Ros Kindersley, managing director of recruiters Judy Farquharson, says
that psychometric testing is popular with large in-house organisations.
But it has been used less by agencies.
Vicky Mann, managing director of Vicky Mann Associates, is guarded on
the subject. ‘Up to a point psychometric testing is relevant,’ she says,
‘although situational tests or skill-based tests are probably more
apparent in our industry. Psychometric tests can only be used as a way
of identifying strengths and weaknesses. They do not actually tell you
at the end of the day how good the person is actually going to be in the
But Hitner at The Reputation Managers is a total convert to psychometric
testing. She says: ‘I am absolutely 100 per cent convinced that they
work. We want to know whether the person culturally fits with us and
whether the mind set is similar since that is often what can go wrong. I
have not used graphology in a formal sense but I do know a little bit
about it and have been put off certain people’s applications by the way
they form their words.’
Necessity is the mother of invention and several agencies have developed
their own rather innovative methods of testing candidates. For example,
Citigate has developed a version of Trivial Pursuit covering popular
culture and UK institutions as part of its graduate selection programme.
If there is one area of recruitment guaranteed to set sparks flying it
is the issue of whether recruitment consultancies and headhunters are
worth their fees.
Hitner, for one, condemns some of the practices of recruiters.
‘Recruitment agencies take 20-25 per cent and for the amount of money
they charge you they do very little,’ she says.‘We have to use them,
particularly for top level people, but I would love to see them
providing a bit more of a service for us. For example a lot of the time
they have not even interviewed the person.’
But Ros Kindersley of Judy Farquharson points out: ‘Consultancies are
very happy to use headhunters because it saves them a lot of time and we
build up good relationships and keep a watching brief.’
Vicky Mann says: ‘Our headhunting is only done at the top end of the
market and frequently that is in-house rather than agency driven. We are
in a vicious little market at the moment where there is a shortage of
skilled talent and some people in my industry actively search at
executive level and, if you like, stir up discontent. They raise
Jane Howard agrees that recruiters and headhunters prey on egos - which
can be quite substantial in certain sectors of the public relations
industry. She points out: ‘If someone phones you and says - ‘We hear
you’re marvellous at your job, please come and see us,’ it’s a very
strange person who says ‘no’. But sometimes people are encouraged to
move without necessarily having thought it through.’
Career planning: Creating a broad skill base
The days when a degree in geography was as good as any to get you into
PR may be disappearing. But the cult of the generalist is pervasive
partly because, in the main part, the people at the top of the PR tree
entered the industry before the advent of such vocational qualifications
as CAM Certificates, Diplomas, NVQs and PR degrees.
The argument over whether vocational degrees in PR and media studies
better equip you for a job in PR than a non-specific degree - or whether
they are even mutually exclusive - is set to run and run and meanwhile
PR neophytes are caught in the cross-fire.
Public relations is now the third most popular career choice for young
people and PR courses are mushrooming to meet that demand. There are now
over 60 public relations, communications and media degrees.
Graduates still have their attraction because they can be moulded to an
agency’s or in-house department’s specific requirements and come free of
the baggage of having worked in the industry. Simon Brocklebank-Fowler
managing director of Citigate Corporate says: ‘There are some unexciting
people with two to three years experience and that is why we go to the
hot-houses of talent at graduate level. We want people on a very steep
He is cautious about PR degrees: ‘If you look at the A-level entry
requirement for some of these courses they are lower than some of the
other degrees. We look at people on their own merit but that has to be a
consideration and you cannot expect to come off a PR course ready to do
Course leader at Bournemouth University, Paul Noble, denies that PR
courses are easy to get onto, ‘You need 18-22 A level points,’ says
Noble. ‘ We have done research in this area and agencies are looking for
a mix of people with PR degrees and other degrees.’
Sue Wolstenholme senior lecturer in the BA course at the College of St
Mark & St John in Plymouth, and Chair of the Public Relations Education
Trust (PRET) stresses that the content of PR degree courses is
rigorously scrutinised. ‘We have an advisory body and use the PRET
Education and Training Matrix which is used by the IPR as a benchmark
for accrediting courses. But these courses are not training programmes.
We do not produce widgets ready for action and there is a need to gain
continuing skills through summer schools.’
Strategic thinking appears to be the name of the game on these courses.
Last year Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh launched the first four
year BA (Hons) in Corporate Communications to be offered in Scotland.
Deputy Course leader, Emma Wood says that they surveyed companies and
found ‘they wanted people capable of strategic thinking. This is what
the course concentrates on’.
The CAM and Diploma courses are also proving very popular.
At London Guildhall University, course co-ordinator, Jeremy Baker says:
‘With CAM you learn many disciplines. Those who work in PR often do not
learn about direct marketing, advertising and other forms of
communication. Also the CAM course shows you have commitment and can
help get that initial interview.’
On the job training: Time is ripe for inward investment
Speak to any agency or in-house department and they will outline their
total commitment to training and bemoan the fact that the rest of the
industry is not doing enough of it.
The latest PRCA figures show a 16 per cent increase in training last
year but this represents only 0.6 per cent of the industry’s turnover.
The PRCA somewhat euphemistically calls this a ‘worrying sign’.
According to an IPR survey published in April, in-house PR departments
are spending more on training than agencies. It found that 60 per cent
of in-house groups have fixed training budgets compared with a third of
consultancies. Over 40 per cent of in-house departments annually
dedicate three to five days to training against 30 per cent for
Barry Leggetter, managing director of Fleishman-Hillard UK, says that
his agency ploughs five per cent of its fee income back into a staff
development programme. The programme which is now in its second year,
includes an international skills exchange with F-H’s New York office, a
job swap with an in-house department and visits by specialists working
in areas such as design and conference organising. One element, ‘The
Game’, involves a competitive fantasy pitch, providing experience in
proposal writing and presentation skills. Staff will also be expected
to participate in a European wide training programme that kicked off in
Paris at the beginning of June.
At Daniel J Edelman’s London office each member of staff person has a
personal development programme and appraisal every six months. Personnel
administrator, Erica Evans says: ‘We also invite people from
complementary industries to talk to staff such as journalists, printers
and photographers and we have monthly breakfast meetings on accounts.’
Burson-Marsteller’s director of training for Europe, Suzee Foster says:
‘There are many dimensions to training. In addition to formal training
for skills and strategic thinking, personal development is crucial. And
it doesn’t stop there for developing management skills is also
However, not all agencies are willing to make such a hefty investment in
terms of senior executive time, or to take young account handlers out of
the field of operation.
Steven Tibble consultant with human resources consultancy, Etc Ltd,
says, ‘The PR industry is made up for the most part of small
entrepreneurial businesses and small businesses generally do not train.
Agencies are worried about poaching and there have been some bad
practices. There has been a short-sighted view that if you train and
develop people the first thing that happens is that they get poached.’
In-house operations often go in for more formal training programmes and
at Prudential, Jeremy Wyatt director of corporate communications says
that there is a constant up-dating of IT skills and graduates and
management follow more intensive training programmes.
Michael Bland, a busy independent trainer, is pessimistic about agency
attitudes towards training. ‘Agencies say that they need more training
in PR but they are sending people on fewer courses. I find I keep having
to go back to basics. But PR involves stepping into the minds of other
people. The key to success is in the type of person you are and whether
you fall in with the product and the client,’ says Bland.
Senior service: The benefits of experience
The culture and nature of an agency or in-house department usually
permeates from the top and attracting senior executives has developed
into quite an art form.
Lynn Beaumont managing director of the Foundry says ‘Agencies are more
able to afford senior people now. Despite what has been said about
recruiting specialists from outside PR, specialists from PR are more
risk-free since they know the environment.’
Salaries for senior staff appear to have remained stable but Beaumont
notes that packages have become much more flexible with options
including the choice of company pension or cash contributions to a
portable private pension. She adds: ‘Car allowances have superseded
company cars due to declining tax benefits, and profit-related pay,
healthcare and such perks as membership of healthclubs are popular.’
Restrictive covenants, while still something of a bone of contention
among many senior executives, are finding their way into an increasing
number of contracts. ‘They are now more legally enforceable, ensuring
that people cannot solicit clients and staff from a company they are
leaving,’ says Beaumont.
With the market blossoming again companies are needing senior people to
develop new sectors. Price Jamieson director Sophie Hawes, who manages
the appointment agency’s PR division, says: ‘People are looking to
develop sectors where they had not been strong, and want executives with
an entrepreneurial spirit.’
Senior people are also coming from outside of PR with many financial
agencies, for example, turning directly to the City to recruit investor
relations and financial expertise, Vicky Mann says: ‘We are taking
senior candidates from other disciplines. These are people with talent
and strategic skills who are open minded and forward thinking. You need
a good brain and innate skills. The top end still lacks the significant,
talented people and no amount of training at the bottom will make up for
The lack of good senior people is sometimes giving 30-something
executives opportunities in what were traditionally considered oldster
positions. Benedicte Martin of Media Appointments says: ‘We are seeing
more people of 30-plus at board director level than you would have seen
six to seven years ago.’