Community-Minded PR Hiring Bucks Unemployment Trend

In 2010, PR agency Ketchum created Mindfire, a crowdsourcing community for college graduate and undergraduate students with proven creativity, communications and digital skills. More than 300 students from 22 universities are presented with real creative challenges facing Ketchum and its clients, which they can work on individually or together during breaks in their schoolwork.

Eager to give students practical work opportunities with large global corporations, professors from universities in North America, Europe and Asia help recruit creative students to join Mindfire in order to advance their knowledge outside the classroom. In turn, Ketchum gets to mine fresh ideas from the brightest communications students—ideas that could contribute to success with clients.


But there is an unexpected benefit to Mindfire for Ketchum: It’s becoming a talent pipeline, at a time when the number of applicants for summer positions far exceeded openings. “We received nearly 700 applications for less than 10 summer fellowship spots,” says Karen Strauss, partner and chief innovation officer at Ketchum and a co-developer of Mindfire. Two of those spots went to Mindfire participants.

It’s innovative programs like Ketchum’s Mindfire that are helping to spot the best and the brightest talent—which is important as PR executives carefully weigh candidates in a still struggling economy. Yet public relations appears to be bucking the nationwide hiring stagnation trend, according to Lisa Ryan, senior VP and managing director at Heyman Associates, a PR executive search firm.

Ryan describes the current PR job market as “interesting.” Why? When the recession hit, what were clear-cut PR roles quickly became more complex within organizations, as employee purging began. “Companies are more worried [now] about their reputations and what their employees think about them,” says Ryan. Hence the market is opening up and organizations are hiring PR specialists again.


Steve Seeman, senior VP and director of human resources at Makovsky + Company confirms that the midsize PR agency’s sales pipeline is healthy, and “numerous” people have been hired in the last five months. Despite stories in the media about a recessionary “double dip,” Seeman sees no evidence of that at Makovsky. And neither does Michele Lanza, senior VP and talent acquisition director at Ketchum. “Our hiring isn’t slowing down,” says Lanza. “There’s a lot of opportunities, but we’re finding it hard to find qualified candidates for jobs.

A finding in the just-released Robert Half Q3 2011 Professional Employment Report mirrors Lanza’s assertion, as 42% of executives across all industries say it is challenging to find skilled professionals to fill open positions. Even with the high unemployment rate?

Unfortunately, PR organizations are more interested in hiring those pros already working, says George Jamison, corporate communications practice lead at executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart. The timing and qualifications for an out-of-work pro to land a job right now have to be just right, adds Ryan.

And what is the No. 1 qualification executive search firms are looking for on behalf of their PR clients? Business acumen, says Jamison. “They must have extensive knowledge of how a company makes money, an understanding of market trends and how communications can contribute to a business plan,” he says. Other than that, there is no cookie-cutter approach to hiring PR executives, as clients have very specific lists of skill sets.

While director- and executive-level PR positions seem to be out there, it’s tough for recent college grads to get a foot in the door. Much of today’s hiring of young PR hopefuls is enabled through online communities such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter—and newer destinations like Mindfire.

Seeman has established a solid online presence, with 1,500 LinkedIn connections and 800 Facebook friends. “These platforms allow me to keep in touch with all sorts of prospects, but particularly the younger set,” says Seeman.

Lanza at Ketchum says there has been a dramatic shift in recruiting. “It’s all about community building now,” she says. “These communities allow prospects to hear about openings through word of mouth.”

That’s one of the advantages of Mindfire, says Strauss, whose student participants are essentially doing an online internship with Ketchum clients. Both Strauss and Lanza see great things for Mindfire in the future, but there are some challenges in creating and administering such a platform, including:

• The age-old tendency to believe that the only kinds of thinkers are those that are close to a particular problem.

• Educating both Ketchum employees and clients to trust the risk-taking nature of the platform. “It’s the ambivalance about opening up the creative process,” says Strauss. “Some of our biggest clients have participated many times, and some haven’t yet.”

• It’s a big effort, between working with IT to build the back end, recruiting university partners and “simply managing the day-to-day interactions,” says Strauss.

Despite the challenges, Strauss is plotting Mindfire’s next iteration. Could the crowdsourcing/job pipeline become available for people other than college students? Strauss isn’t saying. But such a move could surely open up more much-needed employment possibilities. PRN

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Karen Strauss,; Lisa Ryan,; Steve Seeman,; George Jamison,; Michele Lanza,; Steve Cody,