How to win the public relations talent battle

job interview, interview, recruitmentPublic relations agencies often tout the talent within their building as their best asset, but finding great talent, and then ensuring they want to remain in the building, can be challenging. Mumbrella’s Miranda Ward spoke to PR agency leaders on how they find the right people and how they hold onto them.

“There’s a certain talent shortage at the mid-to-senior end of PR agencies and it’s become quite acute,” Red Agency managing James Wright conceded. 

“You can go out there and find good people but finding great people who are going to help you move the needle for your clients and for your business is really, really tough.”

Wright said an agency’s most important strategy “must be based around your people because they’re your best asset”.

“Your best asset walks in and out of your building everyday and you need to recognise and look after that because they’re the people who are going to help you grow and develop your business.”

Attracting talent



Lynnette Edmonds, recently appointed talent manager at Edelman, said graduates looking for their first public relations job will firstly be driven by preference, the category they want to work in, with the search narrowing after that based on the agency’s profile.

“Their choice of agency might be driven by consumer, corporate, tech, healthcare. There is that at first, you like to think they are focusing on the agencies that are relevant to their sector of choice,” Edmonds said.

“They are a bit led by the ones that have a bit of a higher profile, they’re aware of who’s in the press, who’s winning awards, who’s working on the sexier campaigns. Agencies that have a bit of a profile, they’re going to pop up in searches and grab attention.”

Red Agency’s Wright knows this and said the agency invests “quite a lot of time” on “what makes us attractive in market”.

“We do a fair amount of work around our external brand, we’re fairly active in the marketplace in celebrating the client work we do, entering awards and we’ve been fairly successful in the awards scene, we’ve won over 50 awards in the last three years,” he said.

“The type of work we’re doing we’re celebrating in market so people can see it and want to come work for us because they’re attracted to the type of work we do.”

On what the recruit wants to get from the agency Edmonds said they’re looking for a good wage, potential for growth and advancement,.

“It’s really competitive and it can come down to all sorts of things – salary, position are obviously important,” she said.

“If it’s neck and neck it’s about finding out what pushes a person’s buttons – finding out what engages them. It might be having a degree of flexibility due to where they live or they have a child. It’s trying to drill down to what is really important to that person.

“A car spot can make the world of difference,” she added.

But for more mid to senior PR practitioners looking for a change it can be harder for prospective employers to get them across the line Edmonds said.

“A lot of people are quite jaded because they hear from all the agencies ‘we’re going to give you training, great benefits, we have amazing benefits’ but they do get a little jaded and say to you I’ve heard all that before, I know it doesn’t always happen. Agencies can’t always deliver because of the way they work, the way they are structured, the will of clients, the will of budgets, sometimes these things don’t pan out,” she said.

“You need to really be able to gain their trust in a way that is genuine and say what is it that is going to meet your needs, what is it that you want to hear from me? And be really honest with them.”



Michelle Hampton, managing director of content specialists Magnum PR, said not everyone is “that interested in all your accolades as an agency.”

“They want to know they’ll matter to you, that you care about your people and you invest in them,” she said.

“People want to feel like they’re genuinely part of something bigger.  Let potential candidates in on what your vision is for the agency and how they could contribute to this – people want to feel inspired and excited about the prospect of making a genuine difference.  Give people the opportunity to learn about the business not just what their specific role would be.”

Retaining talent



When it comes to retaining the best talent and building a great agency culture it’s often the tricks that are talked about – giving staff their birthday off, the in agency bar, the pool table – but PR recruitment company Salt and Shein senior consultant Lucinda Attrill says it is more important to give staff a sense of ownership and importance within the agency.

Attrill said even giving staff a small amount of equity in the agency can help cement their loyalty.

“More agencies are offering equity to senior people to keep them and to stop losing them to corporates. I’ve seen that happen across small, mid and large businesses,” Attrill said.

“That’s not to say it’s prolific but it’s more than one. It’s quite smart. When I approach candidates and they say well I’ve been made a partner in the business and have a small amount of equity, either they don’t understand what that means because that equity doesn’t mean much unless that business is sold, but for some people it’s not even about the money, it’s about feeling they’re a part of that business.

“It becomes, not impossible, but very, very challenging to get them out of that business once they feel invested in that fashion,” she added.



For Red Agency’s Wright award recognition programs work well at retaining talent.

“We have a quarterly recognition program within the Red Agency and a monthly one within the Havas group,” he said.

“We do an annual off-site which is a three day event. All three offices Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne get together for three days have fun, get to know each other, get pissed but also do some agency architecture vision type work.”

Attrill also placed emphasis on talking to staff and asking them what their career goals are.

“It’s not always about money or title, sometimes it’s about rounding out a skill set in a certain area and that’s sometimes where agencies miss a trick because they don’t ask the question, they don’t understand how simple it could be,” she said.

“A senior candidate could say I feel too specialist just working in tech PR and I would like to expand that to include consumer or corporate and a lot of agencies can accommodate those types of requests but don’t always know what that person wants unless a conversation is had.”

Weber Shandwick managing director Ava Lawler put this into practice when she joined Weber Shandwick in February 2013.

“A couple of the first key programs we looked to overhaul was firstly around listening to staff,” she said.

“I conducted a number of workshops with employees right up front to understand from the team, what they were looking for, what motivated them, what they liked about the agency and what they felt the vision should be so we could create a collaborative vision and set five year goals for the company that everyone was part of establishing.”

The skills gap

In terms of talent at the junior end of the spectrum Edmonds said university courses aren’t properly preparing its students for the reality of the workforce.

I see young people, I interview them, I hire them and I see the challenges they face. I am in the thick of it and I know what a shock it is when they realise the reality of a career.From an agency perspective I see it all the time, they’re not prepared,” she said.

They’re not prepared, they don’t even know what a timesheet is.

“We, more and more now, are employing graduates into entry level roles who have had a relevant internship ideally with us but if not with us then with other agencies we feel are compatible to us.”

Edmonds said recruiting students who have completed a suitable internship is ideal because they have “first hand experience” of life working in an ad agency and they are coming in with “their eyes wide open”.

Weber Shandwick also uses its internship program to act as a bridge between university and the realities of working in the PR industry.

“There is a gap and that’s what we try do with the internships program to make that easier and that’s why we would typically look to hire in graduates as being some of the best interns we have because they’re already familiar with the agency, know the clients and we’ve already had a chance to work with them. We know they’re star performers,” said Lawler.

“The key thing is getting people to understand the requirements of getting the basics right. People think they can come from university and start writing strategy papers right away and it doesn’t matter if there are typos in emails to clients or the names are incorrect on media lists.

“Getting them to understand that winning trust is a gradual process and it comes from getting the basics right and earning the right to give advice. “



Sarah Mason, the general manager at Hausmann School of Public Relations, the education arm of PR agency Hausmann Communications, placed emphasis on the need for graduates to know the basics of the job.

“What junior consultants do on a day to day basis is never properly explained to them before they get into the role.”

She said it is the “immediate realities” of what a work in progress document is, how to manage client relationships, how to juggle a workload and different clients that are tripping up university graduates.

“The whole rationale for setting up HSPR over the past decade the gap between communications theory and the reality of PR practice have been widening. Our industry is rapidly evolving so unis are just unable to keep pace with the changes,” Mason said.

“We found there was a skills gap when people leave uni, they’re great on theory but putting into practice what they’ve learnt is really challenging.”

While Red Agency’s James Wright agrees the education system around PR “is still developing”, he says it is churning out “some fantastic grads”. However, he is not as concerned around graduates having all the needed skills on day one.

“What you’re looking for at a junior end is attitude, you can teach skills, you can’t teach attitude. If that person has a great attitude that’s the person I’m looking for at a junior level,” he said.

  • Miranda Ward is public relations and publishing editor for Mumbrella

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