FOCUS: GRADUATE RECRUITMENT - A case for the right training/In a buyer’s market, PR employers are able to hire those graduates with the specific skills and qualifications for their company. Poppy Brech reports

If the health of an industry can be judged by its popularity as a career choice, PR is in the pink.

If the health of an industry can be judged by its popularity as a

career choice, PR is in the pink.

Agencies report hundreds of applications per job and PR courses are


But the introduction of tuition fees in September may dictate the choice

of degree that a student who is interested in a career in PR, will


Statistically, vocational PR degrees are more likely to lead to a job,

but many in the industry still prefer graduates with non-vocational


According to Anna Fairbairn, chair of the IPR student group, PR students

are concerned by the debate between the value of PR degrees and


’They are worried about their courses on which they have spent a lot of

time and money, which are now being criticised,’ she says.

The introduction of tuition fees may also mean that for many, a

post-graduate qualification is a financial step too far.

Many students, faced with rising costs and shrinking grants, are

struggling to balance the books. Helen Gawler is in her final year of a

combined degree in PR with IT at the University College of St Mark and

St John in Plymouth. Like others on her course she works part-time to

make up the shortfall in her grant, and will still end up in debt. ’It’s

quite worrying,’ she says. ’Nowadays you don’t only leave with a degree

but also with about pounds 5,000 of debt.’

Given the high employment levels among graduates from PR courses,

candidates with degrees in other subjects may become a thing of the


Nigel Kennedy, managing director of Grayling, supports PR diplomas and

degrees, but would be unhappy at this turn of events. ’I would be

concerned if we got to the stage where the relatively few opportunities

for graduates are all being filled by those who took an academic

qualification in PR,’ he says.

The new IPR diploma may go some way to addressing the problem. Announced

last month, it is designed to offer a vocational route to IPR membership

for those joining the industry with a non-vocational degree. Plans are

in hand to offer 12-month part-time courses at Thames Valley University,

Ealing; Hackney Community College; Leeds Metropolitan University and

Queen Margaret’s College, Edinburgh.

IPR president Peter Walker is in no doubt that PR practitioners will

support the new qualification. ’The industry looks to the IPR to provide

a framework for professional development,’ he says. ’There’s even more

pressure to ensure that there is a clear industry-accepted training

structure that all employers can use as a benchmark.’

Employers are operating in a buyer’s market, the choice of candidates

has never been so wide. The skills, qualities, the type and class of

degree are theirs to specify and course providers have been quick to

develop courses designed to meet employers’ needs. The new Masters in

European PR offered by Leeds Metropolitan University is a good example,

according to scheme leader Alison Theaker.

She says: ’The programme was developed in response to industry demands

for practitioners with strategic understanding of communications issues,

combined with broader understanding of the European context.’

Many students gain their initial foothold in PR through work placements,

which can lead to a permanent position. ’There’s one man who joined us

for three months, without the guarantee of a job,’ says Grayling’s


’I said, ’if you make yourself indispensable, you might get a job.’ Four

years later, he’s a senior account manager.’

Kennedy believes the main problem graduates face is not knowing what

employers want. ’My impression from the number of unsolicited CVs I get

is these poor graduates have no idea of what to expect.’

Grayling, which does not have a formal graduate training scheme, has

over the years employed nine graduates. Kennedy believes the industry

should adopt a more transparent policy on graduate recruitment.

’All consultancies, but certainly the larger ones, need to be clearer

about their requirements so that the graduate world can have some kind

of knowledge and understanding about how they can enter PR.’

Carol Yapp, personnel and development manager for Argyll Consultancies

says that by offering paid work placements the industry could go a long

way towards alleviating the financial strain of a degree. Over the last

five years Argyll has offered two 22-week paid work placements to

students at Brunel University interested in a career in PR.

The company is considering broadening the scheme to include other


’I think work placements are an ideal way of helping students, because

if, like us, you pay above the PRCA guidelines, students can actually

save some of their earnings to fund themselves during their next year at

college,’ she says.

As well as giving something back, Yapp maintains that Argyll also


’From our point of view it’s good management training - we assign the

interns to our more inexperienced managers who don’t line-manage people,

to look after. So it’s quite a good practice ground.’

Peter Walker thinks we may see a return to the sponsorship arrangements

of his student days, where companies provided students with financial

assistance in return for commitment to employment for a certain number

of years.

’It may be asking a bit much of companies with a turnover of a half a

million pounds to fund someone through university, but it shouldn’t be

too difficult for the bigger consultancies or some of the major

employers,’ says Walker.

It is an idea which may be beginning to take hold. Launched this month,

Graduate 2000 is the brainchild of Riley Advertising, part of the Lopex

Group. Aimed at undergraduates who will complete their courses in the

year 2000, the scheme offers paid holiday work in one of Riley’s network

of offices, to between ten and 15 first-year undergraduates, for the

duration of their course. If both sides are satisfied, and a job is

available, the intern is automatically offered a job on graduating.

’With tuition fees, people will want to get into full-time work as

quickly as possible, and we were worried we might miss out,’ explains

Jenny Ibison, managing director of Riley Advertising North. ’Since we’ve

talked about it there’s been huge interest from the group, I think

several companies could follow suit.’

Helen Gawler is enthusiastic about the scheme. ’I think that kind of

support needs to happen across the board. We’re the next generation of

employees, if companies can teach us how they want things done, it’s

ultimately to their benefit.’


As a business which touches most people every day, the Post Office

places a high premium on media relations. This approach has paid


Last year the Post Office’s press relations office was voted the best

press office department in British industry following a MORI survey of

leading industrial and labour journalists. It is the fourth time it has

topped the poll.

There is stiff competition for a place on the newsroom’s graduate

recruitment scheme with over 100 applicants for one place. The scheme

has been running for ten years and has taken on four graduates. ’Mainly

we recruit journalists from the national end of the spectrum,’ explains

Nick Lillitos, head of the Post Office’s newsroom. ’We decided to have a

blend of experience and to provide on-the-job training. Then we thought

why don’t we take this a step further and grow our own.’

Vacancies are advertised in the university careers bulletin Prospects

Today and the Guardian. While Lillitos has an open mind about degree

subject, he prefers to employ those with degrees which have involved

writing and research.

’If you can write research and write well you’re half way there. The

rest - how to structure a story in the language of journalism, can be

taught on the job.’ Candidates are initially interviewed over the phone

by the personnel department which sends forms from the 30 most promising

candidates to the newsroom. Eight to ten candidates are then invited to

a selection day at the Post Office’s management college in Rugby.

Graduates take part in verbal and numerical reasoning skill tests, role

play and a panel interview.

A typical test might involve writing a plan in response to a brief for a

product launch, or a PR problem, to tight time deadlines.

’We want to test their strategic thinking, in so far as it has developed

and to see whether they can see news in a PR context at a very early

stage,’ explains Lillitos.

Successful graduates are offered a year long placement within the

newsroom from where, if vacancies are available, they can move into

other areas of the business.

Training is on the job, often carried out by ex-TV producers and

national journalists - 90 per cent of newsroom staff have a background

in journalism.

Culturally, the Post Office’s newsroom is closer to journalism than to

PR, and trainees are taught to think like journalists.

Keith Hardie joined the Post Office in 1991 through the general graduate

intake, with a view to joining the national newsroom.

’The training provided by the newsroom was invaluable. There aren’t many

places where, as a graduate you get so involved in such a broad range of

activities. It also gives you a good overview of the business.’ Hardie

is now head of PR at Post Office Counters and believes his time in the

newsroom has had a big impact on his career. ’The newsroom is highly

regarded within the Post Office, which has made it easy for me to move



The advertisement for Fishburn Hedges’ graduate trainee scheme gave the

usual details about the company and job then issued a challenge:

’Interested? Then interest us’.

Fishburn Hedges launched its first graduate training scheme last


’We felt we had come of age and that we had a strong enough reputation

to attract good calibre people,’ explains Andrew Boys, one of the

agency’s founding directors.

The scheme was advertised in the Guardian’s media section in September

and applicants were asked reply to Lisa Kelly, head of Median


’We had 600 responses so filtering through them was a very big job,’

says Fishburn Hedges consultant Philippa Dale-Thomas. Kelly interviewed

60 people by phone and 30 face-to-face. A shortlist of eight were

invited to Fishburn Hedges’ graduate recruitment day.

Fishburn Hedges carefully researched the format for its graduate day,

talking to recruitment consultants and drawing on the experiences of its

own staff. Candidates were required to complete a timed written test,

take part in a round table debate and give a presentation on ’my

greatest success and my greatest failure.’ While strong communications

skills and creativity were important, Boys admits that the ’X’ factor

played an key role in the final decision. ’Throughout the process what

we were looking for was ’fit in factor’ and how they would perform in

front of the client.’

Two candidates appeared to fit the bill; Amanda Prosser, a English

graduate from Leeds University, and Alan McCormick, who studied politics

and history at London University. They were offered six-month contracts

as graduate trainees and are now receiving intensive training on all

aspects of PR.

For Prosser, whose clients include Nuffield Hospitals, the most useful

training has been actually doing the job. ’What’s great is that the

company trusts us enough to just get on with it.’

This year’s graduate recruitment drive is already underway. ’We’re

trying to implement some of the lessons from last time,’ explains


One of these has been to start the process earlier. Instead of

advertising in the Guardian, the company sent graduate information pack,

including a Rough Guide to Fishburn Hedges, to the careers offices of

the top ten UK universities, and to the PR courses at Cardiff and

Sterling Universities.

’This year instead of 600 CVs we’ve had 60, but the quality has been

consistently high,’ says Dale-Thomas. ’Like all good PR, it’s about

developing a targeted approach.’

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