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How to find the best talent in PR

Your business is only as good as your people, but finding the right people is easier said than done. Employing the wrong people is a mistake that is too expensive to contemplate. Recruiters and agency heads share their secrets for discovering new talent.

Be open minded

Jane Austin, founder of agency Persuasion Communications, adds: “There are some obvious basics you look for. Is someone a good communicator – not just talking, but listening, too? Are they informed – or, at least, able to research and get to grips with a topic, fast? Can they write – or, at least, see the difference between good and poor copy? Are they creative – an out of the box thinker? But above all, finding the right person means being open minded. Yes some great candidates may already be experienced in PR, but good PR people with the skills you need to do the job well are also to be found beyond the PR bubble."

Keep candidates’ interest

Emily Buckland, founder and managing director of headhunting company SESAME, suggests ways to stop candidates giving up on you: “There’s lots of strong talent out there, but the secret is keeping them engaged and excited through the recruitment process and beyond. If you don’t have roles spec-ed properly, run a poor recruitment process (too slow, too fast) or have a lacklustre onboarding process, it’s not saying much about the importance you put on your people.”

Take a scientific approach

Nikki Scrivener, director and co-founder of agency Fourth Day PR, says there are so many factors to consider, you have to be forensic in your approach and make sure all the boxes are ticked: ‘‘Choosing an agency-side career in PR, for example, means being able to communicate with people from multiple industries, all of whom might work in a variety of roles and have very different priorities. 

"An ability to demonstrate enthusiasm, to want to learn, and to be someone people can trust and enjoy working with shouldn’t be underestimated. If you can add in an ability to turn the most complex subject matter into something beautiful to read, a willingness to pick up the phone and tell a story, a thick skin and a tenacious spirit – that’s probably the winning combination for me.’’

"If you don’t have roles spec-ed properly, run a poor recruitment process (too slow, too fast) or have a lacklustre onboarding process, it’s not saying much about the importance you put on your people"

Don’t focus on comms graduates

Elaine Cobb, senior comms consultant at agency TopLine Comms, says: “It’s not always about having a degree in communications. There’s a lot of competition to enter the PR industry at the moment, to the point where specialist PR firms are attracting graduates from a number of subject areas including engineering, finance and healthcare.

“We look for candidates that can show they have a keen interested in the industry. This could be through their degree subject or through internships, work placements and even events they have attended. Showcasing any written work they have done relating to the industry is always welcome. It is always important that they can show they are reading around the subject area and staying up to date with the latest news.”

Avoid nepotism

Lauren Westmore, associate director at communications agency Third City, says it maybe easier to hire someone you know, but this can be a costly mistake: “It can be difficult to turn down requests from family and friends, especially at a more junior level, but making sure you don’t limit yourself to connection-based hiring will help level the playing field and allows businesses to connect with a wider range of ‘ideal’ candidates.”

Look in different places

If you want special people, you should widen your search suggests Westmore: “Advertising on LinkedIn will ensure a flurry of CVs in your inbox; but it’s far from the only place to look. Third City recently partnered with The Prince’s Trust for its Get Hired scheme. CVs were banned and no PR experience was necessary. Instead, we connected with a young, diverse talent pool based on shared values, personality and potential.”

Another fan of going outside the usual networks is Rachel Francis, director of client services at creative content agency TVC: “There is a tendency within the industry to employ people from our own personal networks, but this approach means we're often hiring people who are mirror images of ourselves. 

"Being aware of our unconscious bias – which we all have and which is unintentional but deeply ingrained – is the first step to reducing the chance of it influencing our recruitment decisions. Building a diverse and inclusive team means going beyond your usual networks and referral sources or changing your search criteria to expand your potential candidate pipeline. Bringing new dynamics to the team means people who look at a problem differently to you, make you think differently about a campaign or brand, or provide creative insights that feel fresh.”

Case studies

We don’t use recruitment agencies

Steve McComish, MD of PR agency Motive, talks us through his agency’s recruitment process: “When it comes to finding candidates we follow some hard-and fast-rules. Anyone who sends an email starting ‘To Whom This May Concern’ is an automatic rejection. The same applies to ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. It signals they have zero knowledge of the agency and haven’t bothered to do any research whatsoever. For the same reason we don’t use recruitment agencies.

“We regularly receive emails from candidates who have mass mailed dozens of agencies and some of them don’t even bother to use the BCC field, instead they’ve just pasted addresses the CC field. It’s an immediate delete.

“Any candidate worth their salt will take the time to make a personal approach and can evidence knowledge of our agency and give compelling reasons for wanting to join. If they aren’t afraid to pick up the phone and ask for an interview it’s a great signal.

“Then it’s about getting to know them as well as you can before making an offer of employment. Meet for coffee away from the office for a chat before inviting them in to meet the team and have a more formal interview. Look at their work, set them a task, invite them in for a day. It’s about making sure they fit and have the right attitude.”

We only work with freelancers

Matt Phillips, founder of virtual agency PPR Consulting, avoids the headache of recruitment altogether: "All the best PR agency talent jumps ship eventually. Perhaps the business can't offer equity, perhaps the boardroom is already more full than the client roster, perhaps they want a change of scenery. Or they may have the skillset to make freelancing add up.

“So we came up with the idea of not actually hiring; rather we created a model specifically designed to optimise the freelance talent available, that plays to their strengths and respects their other commitments. Other virtual agencies do the same, and freelancers are getting more used to working in that kind of structure.

"We’re a new brand, so we have to hunt. LinkedIn, the Facebook freelancer group, and word of mouth works well, but it's less about filling vacancies. It’s more keeping our eyes peeled and building relationships, so we have enough talent to call on when we need it."

Once you have found the perfect candidate, the only problem is making sure you hold on to them. Firefly’s Claire Walker offers some tips here. Having great people working for you, who are committed to your business, means you can concentrate more on what you really enjoy doing, rather than spend so much time on recruitment.

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