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How PR firms are recruiting during the lockdown

We asked PR chiefs to tell us all about recruitment issues during the pandemic, and the good news is that many are still taking on staff despite the obvious restrictions. Here they describe how they are finding people and inducting them, whilst a PR recruitment consultant describes the current job market. 

Step 1: Attract the right person  

Look online
Sarah Owen, founder and CEO of PR agency Pumpkin, says: “We have just hired our first ‘virtual’ Pumpkin. A wonderful and bright junior account exec and the whole process was through the power of LinkedIn. I see the platform as the best marketplace to show how strong and a great place to work Pumpkin is, plus it allows us to search for the most business-minded candidates. Our post generated over 300 responses – we were delighted with the quality and quantity of choice. For junior positions going forward I see no role for recruitment agencies.”

James Crawford, managing director at PR Agency One, agrees: “PR employers have lots of candidates applying directly so there is less of a need to use recruitment firms. There are considerable savings being made on recruitment fees.

“Social media has worked really well to attract CVs. Linkedin in particular has helped stimulate many applications so make sure to use this as a tool in the recruitment process. Many of our recruitment posts have been shared hundreds of times.”

Start with a virtual interview
James Crawford says: “We always prefer face-to-face interviews, but the first two rounds have all been via video conference so we can conform to social distancing guidelines. You still can’t beat seeing the whites of someone’s eyes, but virtual interviews are a good alternative. We’ve insisted on a final face-to-face round, but it’s been a little weird talking to each other from one corner of a room to another”.

Zoom interview tips
Sarah Owen suggests: “Interviewing over zoom is challenging and clearly has limitations – but it has strengths too. Group video interview sessions can give the candidate a better sense of team dynamics. I also like to see the interviewee in situ, how and where they present themselves is often a test or presentation skill in itself.”

How to handle a huge response
Ruby Kite, talent acquisition manager at PR agency The PHA group, says: “Our level of recruitment is much reduced, and our live vacancies predominantly sit within new areas of the business. Whether an application is successful or not, we ensure all candidates receive a timely, personalised response from us, which has been gratefully received amongst all the uncertainty.

“Having typically relied on a variety of resources, our adverts now receive hundreds of relevant applications, making the screening process more selective than ever. “

Show off your company culture
Laura Cabarcos, account director at PR, marketing and events company Bubble Agency, says: “In a fast-paced and results-driven profession as is PR, an essential pillar for an organisation to attract talent as well as retain it is through a company’s culture. The company’s values, people and attitude provide a unique selling point for an organisation. It is this culture that will immediately engage with a candidate and will keep them thriving throughout their progression within a company. 

“When starting a new recruitment process, the company’s culture will be presented to a candidate right from the first interview. Having a robust hiring procedure, where candidates are kept informed of the different stages, timings and decisions, will show a company’s commitment with its people.”

Job ads are a waste of time
Daisy Whitehouse, managing director at PR agency Down at the Social, says: “I have had enough of advertising a job and interviewing people that apply as 90% of those people aren’t right for the job and it’s a bit of a waste of time. I have started to recruit in advance of need by responding to the people who get in touch with us because they genuinely want to work at Down at the Social and fit with our culture. CVs are useless and boring – the last person we recruited sent me a poem and I knew that meant he could use his initiative.” 

Taking on juniors is harder
Whitehouse explains: “I won’t recruit any junior members of staff currently whilst we are working remotely. They need a lot of time and energy to get them up to speed and it’s not that we don’t want to give it, but it feels that every minute and every penny counts. I need people who can hit the ground running. It might be that junior members of staff can but they must have job and life experience right now.”

Out-of-city vacancies are popular
David Huckerby, director at PR agency Conteur, says: “We have recently appointed three new starters – one just before lockdown (account manager) and two in the past few weeks (junior exec and PR assistant).

“Our experience is that in addition to a wealth of talent being in the market right now, there are big opportunities open to agencies not situated in the big cities (we're in Worcester). 

“Historically, we have struggled to recruit for more junior and entry-level roles in particular, as we've found that many head to the big cities where there tend to be more opportunities, but with many heading (or staying) closer to home, we are getting first shot at employing them. We had over 80 applicants for a recent role and such was the quality, we chose to take two fantastic people on instead of one.”

Step 2: Induct and retaini new people

Good mentoring is important
Rob Petersen, managing director at agency Petersens PR, says: “It’s great to get new minds looking at a project, so we regularly recruit interns and give them valuable experience in return. Some of these interns go on to join us, so it’s a great system for finding new talent and giving them a foot in the industry. Coronavirus didn’t get in our way, as our latest intern, Charlotte, started the first week of lockdown. We regularly chatted on Zoom so we could get her up to speed and she was able to start contributing early on. Charlotte’s internship ended a week after lockdown and she joined us part-time, by which point we had returned to office; so despite working together since March, the first time we met was in July! If any agencies are struggling with recruitment, we’d really recommend interns and graduates. They’re so eager to work and have great ideas. All it takes it the right mentor.”

Find ways to socialise online
Steph Bennett, UK MD at communications agency Battenhall, says: "Business growth during lockdown meant we had to hire at speed for multiple roles across all areas of the agency: PR and social account executives, designers, analysts and senior consultants.

"Remote working has been part of our culture from day one, so it was a natural shift for us to conduct all interviews and inductions through video calls. The biggest challenge for us was to ensure all new team members felt at home as soon as possible. 

"Not being in the office meant that the day-to-day fun and nuances that make up our culture could easily be lost. Our people and culture manager, Jenny Millichip, arranged online meet-and-greets, daily virtual coffees, and our first ‘online’ and IRL summer party.”

Today’s recruitment landscape

View from a recruitment consultant

Amanda Fone, CEO and founder of f1 Recruitmentt, describes how the job market has changed.

“The good news is that people are getting jobs despite Covid-19 and new roles are coming on to the market but entry level roles and up to account director or PR manager level seem to have dropped off quite dramatically. 

“This September over 50% of candidates starting new roles through f1 are from a black, Asian, minority ethnic background. For a sector that has less than 15% black Asian minority ethnic working in it this is unprecedented.

“The main impact seems to have been at entry level and up to the £50,000 salary level where there are far fewer roles available. September is usually one of the busiest months with hiring and people starting new jobs. Most organisations are not hiring (as much) at a junior level to mid level at the moment which is going to give the market a big problem in three to five years’ time; there is going to be a real issue with less talent coming up the ranks.

“£50-140k salary levels (in house and agency and more in corporate and public affairs than consumer comms) is where the work is at the moment and where the hiring is happening, split across in house and agency. Under £50k is really quiet. The danger is that we will lose young people from our sector. For example we know of two AE level – one has decided to go back to do a Masters for a year to change sector and another is moving out of London to start a career in Insurance. We haven’t seen anything like this since the last recession in 2008 and the knock-on effect for young talent then led to wage inflation at the AE to associate level for many years afterwards as organisations competed for the smaller pockets of talent available. We need to be mindful also that attracting diversity of talent into the sector will also be affected – if we want a more balanced workforce and to be hiring more black, Asian, minority ethnic talent in to PR we need to maintain our hiring at entry and second jobber level.”

There isn’t much good news during this time of pandemic, but when it comes to recruitment the picture in PR isn’t too bleak. PR agencies are still recruiting, albeit for fewer roles and at different levels. And for those companies struggling to fund junior roles, there is always the Kickstart scheme.

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