FOCUS: RECRUITMENT - It’s getting lonelier than ever at the top/Despite a wealth of bright young graduates entering the industry, pressure and disillusionment means that few people in PR get anywhere near that elusive gold watch. Jemimah Bailey re

’It’s immensely hard to find senior people of any quality,’ says Crispin Manners, chief executive of The Argyll Consultancies.

’It’s immensely hard to find senior people of any quality,’ says

Crispin Manners, chief executive of The Argyll Consultancies.

The fact that senior positions in the public relations industry are

remaining vacant for months - Ogilvy Adams and Rinehart has been looking

for a European CEO since Fiona Driscoll left in February and Shandwick

Consultants has been looking for a CEO since Chris Matthews’ departure

in February - gives weight to Manners’ view.

For once, the industry appears unanimous in its view - the shortage of

quality candidates is a fact of life.

Neville Price, managing director of recruitment consultants

PriceJamieson, agrees. ’There’s always been a shortage of good people.’

he says.

While the recession is acknowledged to have exacerbated the situation,

it is in attempting to explain this drought of quality players that

opinions begin to diverge.

’We are a ’people business’ but we don’t invest in our single most

important asset,’ says Manners.

He says that although the industry attracts bright people, a lot is

expected of them at an early stage and without much training or support.

’They end up burning out and opting out. They can’t handle the stress of

handling hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of accounts without

senior support.’

According to the PRCA, the average investment in training is less than

half a per cent of the pay roll. In-house, more than half of all staff

have no structured training, while in consultancies that level rises to

almost two-thirds.

Whether through early burn-out or disillusionment, the industry is

losing some of its brightest people at a relatively early stage. Add

those people who chose to go free-lance or start up their own agency

into the equation and the choice of senior people later on is even more


Mark Madsen, chief executive of head-hunters MacNeil, says the industry

also fails to build good managers. ’It creates good operators, but when

you are looking at senior levels there is a shortage of good


The ’women phenomenon’ is another factor which contributes to the lack

of senior candidates.

’In an industry which is dominated by women it’s ludicrous that people

are allowed to walk out the door because they are having a baby,’ says

Jonathan Simnett, group director of A Plus. He argues that companies

should be prepared to pay generous maternity packages and returners

bonuses to women they want to keep.

Lynn Beaumont, managing director of search consultants The Foundry,


’Women want different work patterns and employers need to be more

flexible.’ Beaumont says a lot of women leave their jobs because they

have to make a choice between having a family and working.

Part-time work, which could be a solution for some women, is still

treated with some suspicion at senior levels, manifested in concerns

that client service may deteriorate in comparison with a full-time


The search for the right senior person can be an expensive one -

mistakes even more so. Choosing the wrong person can cost as much as

pounds 100,000, once head-hunter fees and the probationary months’

salary have been paid, temporary cover arranged and, in a worst case

scenario, business lost.

The attempt to avoid costly mistakes is reflected in the increasing

rigour of the selection process, with more interviews and more tests.

Even with a shortage of candidates, employers are prepared not to

appoint, rather than ’make do’.

Another response to the lack of quality senior candidates is an

increasing tendency towards bringing in top level staff from outside the

PR industry.

However, this choice does carry a health warning.

Ros Kindersley, managing director at recruitment consultants Judy

Farquharson, says: ’I would feel very anxious about putting in someone

who didn’t have mainstream PR experience. A senior journalist can do a

terrific job as a head of press, but may know very little about

marketing in a broader sense.’

’If you are working for someone with no experience of public relations

it places an immense burden on the people below,’ says Kim Fernihough,

head of PR and communications at cosmetics company Avon.

’When you feel you know more than your boss, it puts you in a difficult


’Journalists don’t necessarily bring an understanding of internal

company politics. That’s one of the vital skills that a senior PR person

develops - the ability to explain strategy that is going to support

board objectives, and the PR implications of company decisions.’

Denise Lewis, who joined telecommunications company Orange as head of

public relations and sponsorship in August, after the post had been

vacant for a year, believes that most senior players will have

communications experience whatever their background.

’It’s important to be open-minded and flexible in terms of bringing in

expertise,’ she says. ’The worst way to look at communications is as

some kind of ghettoised function. However, I would need to be convinced

a candidate had an understanding of the immediacy of communications


In certain sectors, such as financial and healthcare, an understanding

of the industry’s problems and products is just as important as

communications experience if the senior communicator is to carry any

credibility with those they work with outside the communications


Whether a company is looking for a PR specialist or for someone with

outside experience, what does it take to tempt staff away from a job

they are happy with?

Although salaries and bonuses play an important part, the

responsibilities and autonomy the role includes are what really gets

mouths watering.

On the consultancy side, the opportunity for international work, heading

up a large team, the type of clients, the chance to shape the business,

and the reputation of the agency, are all important factors.

The most vital factor for in-house roles is access to top people within

the organisation - the closer those links are, the more seriously the

company is seen as taking communications. According to PR Week’s

In-House Survey 1997 (22 August), more than 53 per cent of in-house

heads of PR now report to the CEO or chairman and 43 per of in-house PR

people are represented at board level.

’People want to report to the CEOs and chairmen. They want a seat on the

board,’ says Neville Price.

Autonomy also helps to attract senior people - especially if they have

the chance to create their own role.

’Not having to take over someone else’s game has been really exciting

for me - I’ve relished starting from scratch,’ says Fernihough, who

joined Avon from Boots in April.

While the challenges of finding senior players are acknowledged

throughout the industry, there is optimism that a solution to the senior

staff drought could arrive in the next few years.

Madsen confirms this: ’The communications sector is broadening out as

the lines between management and marketing consultants and the PR

industry blur. We’re going to be able to dip into a broader cross

section of people in ten years.’

Beaumont thinks that by starting to bring in bright graduates and

avoiding the ’gin and tonic brigade’ mentality of ten years ago, the

industry has set in motion the solution to the shortage of senior

people. ’The next generation of public relations professionals in their

early to mid-30s, who are not quite ready for senior posts yet, will

mature in the next five years.’

Who knows? In ten years time the industry could be facing a glut of

senior staff.


Attitudes towards redundancy have shifted in the last decade to the

point where it is rarely seen as a stigma.

’Twelve years ago it was seen on a par with getting fired,’ says Ros

Kindersley, managing director of recruitment consultants Judy


The shift in working practices in the last two decades has been well

documented and a ’job for life’ has become something of an


The recession made redundancy commonplace enough for it to become


Employers and employees alike understand that redundancy does not mean


’The biggest hurdle to overcome is yourself and your attitude,’ says

Chris Davies, director at Grayling, Bristol. ’Even if you saw it coming

and know it’s nothing to do with your abilities, there’s a little voice

that says ’Oh my God, I’ve failed’. You have to recognise that’s a

perfectly natural reaction.’

Davies was made redundant from his job as director of government and

public affairs at pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb in June.

Within weeks of his redundancy he had been snapped up to head Grayling’s

Bristol office.

’There’s a lot less stigma attached to being made redundant than I

expected,’ he says. ’What’s important is one’s own reputation and what

you’ve done.’

Davies theorises that as the corporate communications role becomes more

senior the possibility of redundancy may be heightened.

’If you want to be professionals at the heart of things then the buck is

stopping with you. ’He also points out that it is easier to shift a

person in a more junior role to another position, than to slot a

director of communications into another department or job.

Neville Price, managing director of recruitment consultants Price

Jamieson, says that the advice offered by recruitment consultants can be


’We can make it clear to those made redundant that they are not alone

and it happens to lots of people.’

While Price agrees that redundancy has little stigma attached to it, he

adds a warning. ’It does depend on how old they are and how long they

have already been out of work following a redundancy.’

Claire Stern, personnel manager at Countrywide Porter Novelli, says age

can be a problem if redundancy comes late in a career, but it can also

be an advantage. ’If someone is going to be dealing with the senior

level clients then someone with a bit of gravitas and maturity can be an



The use of some kind of psychometric testing has increased in recent

years and while some remain suspicious as to the scientific value of the

tests there is now a reluctance to dismiss them out of hand.

’While it’s useful in some instances, I’m not a great advocate,’ says

Denise Lewis, head of PR and sponsorship at telecommunications company


Developed in the US in the 1930s, psychometric testing is now used in

over 70 per cent of UK organisations, at all levels of recruitment.

Tests usually take the form of multiple choice questions, where

candidates are asked to select words that best describe their


Some companies use it as a way of selecting candidates for interview and

others as a method of confirming opinions already formed during the

interview process.

Claire Stern, personnel manager at Countrywide Porter Novelli, explains

how the agency uses psychometric testing at the beginning of their

selection process. ’The main aim is to see how the candidate approaches

problems, tasks and people and to test how they motivate themselves and


Jonathan Simnett, group director of A Plus, says: ’Psychometric testing

should only be used to confirm what you already know from a complex

interview and you have to know why you are doing it.’

Andy West, board director of Text 100, is typical of those who still

treat psychometric testing with caution. He says: ’I would not like to

see the day in our business when someone is appointed on their ability

to pass a psychometric test.’ While psychometric testing is usually used

to substantiate opinions, its influence in the decision-making process

should not be under-estimated.

Recruitment consultant Neville Price remembers one occasion where the

client was very impressed by a candidate. However the results of the

personality test revealed some ’extremely volatile tendencies’ which led

to the rejection of the candidate.

Perhaps the worrying moral to this story is either how the interviewing

process could have failed to pick up on the candidate’s tendencies, or

whether the test was sufficient to disregard all the other evidence.


Methods of selection are increasingly rigorous and candidates have to

jump through more hoops - although the ’chat in the pub’ approach is

still common.

Jonathan Simnett says: ’Companies don’t know how to interview


At A Plus everyone is subjected to two two-person interviews to see how

they perform under pressure. We also give people a written test to check

they can handle a brief quickly and express themselves clearly.’

Many candidates are now asked to spend a day under assessment, whether

applying for a senior or junior post. Tasks can include writing briefs,

doing TV interviews, giving a presentation, and psychometric


On top of this, candidates are usually put through a series of


’It has got harder in the last six or seven years, but that’s a good

thing,’ says Neville Price, managing director of PriceJamieson. ’It

gives candidates a much better feel for what the working environment is


’We would advise clients against appointing someone who they’ve only

spent an hour with - it’s like getting married after one date.’

However, selection techniques vary from organisation to organisation,

and also depend on individual circumstances.

Ian Haworth, head of consumer division at Text 100, joined the agency in

March this year. The agency had been on the look out for someone to fill

the role for two years and the selection procedure was less formal.

’They knew exactly the kind of person they were looking for. Andy West

(board director) and I went for a bite to eat and talked for over two

hours,’ says Haworth.

He also had an interview with managing director Katie Kemp and an

informal meeting with the consumer team.

’I didn’t see the offices until I started - I think it’s the people that

are important and I got on with the team.

’There’s got to be formality when you are recruiting down the scale but

for the bigger jobs it’s down to the chemistry, and you wouldn’t get to

that point if you hadn’t got through the head-hunters first,’ says


Andy West agrees. ’The decision on Ian’s appointment was made on the

basis of a gut feeling.’ West takes the attitude that if a candidate has

got as far as the interview, then they will have the necessary

experience and skills.

For his previous job, Haworth was interviewed five times and had to sit

a number of tests - having experienced both methods, he prefers the

informal approach, finding the formality ’patronising’.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in