Why do PR agencies get the recruitment process wrong?

PR firms currently have a big problem finding enough talented people. This week I talked to Colette Brown about how PR firms can make the recruitment process more effective. Colette is the joint founder of Prospect and has worked in the PR recruitment sector for 17 years, so she is well placed to discuss the current employment crisis in public relations.

This is part of a series of interviews celebrating the launch of PR Jobs London.

Ben Smith: What recruitment process do PR agencies tend to follow?

Colette Brown: Some PR agencies have a process, others do not, and that is part of the problem. But for those that do, as a very broad generalisation, will have three stages. The first being a face to face chat and the second stage will be some sort of test. For junior people this might be a type of writing test and for more senior staff they will ask them to respond to a brief and present.

And depending on what type of agency it is, or how senior the recruit, they might also do chemistry drinks. And then they offer.

BS: And how long does that process tend to take – from first meet to offer (assuming all goes well)?

CB: Too long, that’s why many agencies miss out on the best candidates. They try and slot in too many stages and they miss the best people. Also, very often the recruiter doesn’t think about the candidate – they are probably working long hours in their current jobs and they can’t meet at 4.00pm on a Tuesday! They are not flexible around their own industry and fail to make things easy for the candidate.

BS: So to recap, we’re saying the ideal length of process is 3/4 stages – no longer or you lose momentum and quite possible the candidate because they get another offer. And this should take place over how long a time period – what sort of time frame? What’s realistic, but good?

CB: I think the point is that there needs to be a process in place but it should be flexible. Not formulaic. And that the different stages must be joined up. Quite often the second interview is largely a repetition of the first.

BS: It’s just that it happens to be with a different person.

CB: Yes, but also the first interviewer and the second interviewer often haven’t shared notes properly. Very often candidates say to us the interview was great but we went over the same stuff we covered last time. And in terms of how long they should be – there just needs to be some momentum. If a candidate has, in their mind, got a green light on to look for a job – it’s their market. They are in demand. They do not need to wait for the employer to get their act together. The candidate will be seeing other employers, and the chances are, in the PR agency market, nobody really stands out particularly as a differentiated employer, so the candidate will take another offer.

Lots of clients say, “if they really wanted us they would have waited for us” – well they (the candidates) don’t really want you. That’s the point. The candidate is likely to have a few options and will go with the firm that has done the recruiting properly and moves quite fast. Lots of clients will lose out because they can’t get it together fast enough, or are not prepared to.

BS: As a candidate back in the day when I had a proper job, I didn’t mind going over the same content in an interview twice, because I got that I needed to meet different people in an organisation. But after that I did start to think, blimey guys, what is the point of having another interview? You’re not gaining anything out of this and neither am I. I’ve seen firms do three, four and even five interviews before offering. And you’re thinking what is anyone is gaining out of this that they don’t already know?

CB: Considering the PR industry put so much emphasis on cultural fit, they are not very good at planning it all or thinking it through. Recruitment is a massive investment yet they seem to come at it last minute all the time. And that’s understandable because of client work…

BS: Well it’s not. I don’t understand that. Maybe I can say it when you can’t, but I don’t understand. PR consultancies are all about the people. It is the most important element in deciding whether a PR firm prospers.

CB: I think the issue is that recruitment tends to be pretty reactive. I don’t know many PR firms where you have people twiddling their thumbs waiting for work, so as PR agencies get new clients, they need to hire people quickly. That when they hit the phones to people like me and say we’ve got a live brief – let’s go. My sense is that they haven’t got their head around how important it is. For example, very often the interviewer hasn’t been trained on how to interview.

Another issue is that as PR is changing, so the skill sets required are changing and therefore internally the interviewer isn’t completely sure what they are looking for. Which makes things difficult.

BS: They probably have it written on the job spec but the interviewer may not actually know enough about the digital or analytical skills that they need the candidate to demonstrate. Which makes the interview tricky!

The other thing that strikes me is that PR agencies are (mostly) political theatres with massive internal rivalries, so if the poor candidate meets enough people in their new agency – somebody is not going to like them! This might even be because they are meeting someone who sees them as a rival for a job.

So a potentially perfect candidate is cast aside because one person raised an issue that may or may not be valid. I get the need for a democracy but that doesn’t seem right – the process needs to be more robust than that.

CB: Yes, there is too much emphasis on fit which means that even though everyone might like the new recruit, three months down the line, you find that they can’t actually do the job that they were bought in to do.

BS: It seems to me that very often a candidate might meet the CEO, a director and a number of members of the team – and the chances of all those people saying 100% yes is relatively low. So there needs to be something like a balanced scorecard approach on attributes, skills and personality and that might help make the process more robust.

CB: Yes but overall, the key is that bearing in mind the investment that PR firms make in recruitment and the importance that it has on their business, they are, as a general rule, not putting enough strategy and planning into the process to make it as successful as it can be.

BS: Sure.

CB: The other thing is that roles can be pulled and that people get quite far down the line and you find that the role hasn’t been signed off and there is no budget. Recruitment agencies waste a lot of time on that.

BS: But as a recruiter, presumably the next time that particular PR agency calls you up with a role – you tell them where to get off don’t you? You don’t accept their brief?

CB: Yes you do if it’s that black and white, but often it’s not.

BS: Ok, but for the PR agency that error costs them. Because by doing that they either get a bad reputation in the candidate market or they get a bad reputation with the best recruitment partners. So in the future they are more likely to miss out on the best candidates. There are consequences because of that inconvenience to the recruiter.

CB: Yes agreed.

BS: More generally, how does it work? As far as I can see, PR firms tend to give briefs to multiple recruiters. So there is a danger that you waste a lot of time on a search that you don’t make any commission on and lots of recruiters go after the same candidates?

CB: Exclusivity for us is obviously a good thing because it means that we have a clear run at a brief. It enables us to dedicate more time to a recruit than if we don’t have it on an exclusive basis. But the reason we don’t get many exclusive briefs is because the PR firms are often under so much pressure to recruit quickly, they are not prepared to give the brief to one agency. So most of the time they will brief the role out to at least three recruiters.

BS: So in a sense that urgency creates a vicious circle of a smaller and smaller candidate pool.

CB: As a recruiter if you could get more exclusive briefs it would enable you to find more/better candidates because it enables you to broaden your search out of the initial saturated candidate market.

BS: But also as a business if you have it as an exclusive you can prioritise that search – because if you don’t you have to be very careful how much time you spend on a search that is far less likely to create revenue for your business.

CB: Yes exactly.

BS: What about the relationship between the HR department and the director who’s recruiting?

CB: The HR team must be really plugged into the business. This makes a big difference to the likely success of the recruit. One big difference here is in-house – because in-house HR teams do far fewer PR recruits, they have a less clear idea of the skill set the business requires and this can create problems. So many recruits in-house go through HR and procurement.

Here are a couple of other features that we have written recently regarding the public relations recruitment market:

The Solution to PR's Recruitment Crisis
Why is there a recruitment crisis in PR right now?