BAD RECESSION RECRUITMENT POLICIES

He hasn’t worked for over 12 months since being made redundant for the second time in three years. He was starting to lose faith, both in himself and his future.  I was there to buy the beers, to cheer him up and to offer support.  I asked what kind of roles he’d been applying for and, more importantly, what feedback he’d received from those applications he had submitted.

“I really have no idea,” he said.  “I seldom get feedback. When I do, the feedback is too generic.  I used to call recruiters back to ask for more detailed feedback but they were usually too busy or it was policy not to provide it.”

His most recent job application – for a role in the IT department of a global business with a strong consumer brand in the UK – was performed exclusively online. In an attempt to be helpful, the website advised that if he hadn’t heard anything within two weeks, to assume he’d been unsuccessful.

This feels like a very poor return on an investment of many hours spent researching a company and the role before preparing an application.  I can’t think of many businesses that would communicate with its customers this way, so why a potential employee?  Does the recession really allow businesses to deal with ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers’ differently?

With unemployment at a near twenty year high in the UK, we’d told there are a lot of applicants chasing each advertised role.   Understandably, therefore, the recruiting departments are busy. In all likelihood, they’re suffering from the same ‘rightsizing’ that has left my friend’s disposable income severely malnourished.

But according to totaljobs, the online recruitment website, there were just under 100,000 applications for a total of 13,766 roles in “IT and Internet”, my friend’s area of expertise, in London during the last three months of 2011.  Is it really asking too much that an average of six unsuccessful applicants should expect some useful feedback against their application to make a career commitment to the firm?

My friend was happy to actively share the identity of those businesses he saw as the bad recruiters with me.  He considered using social media to share them with you too, but decided against it for fear that it would jeopardise future opportunities.

Maybe it’s time every communications department understood how it’s own organisation manages their recruitment processes.  If it’s not known, maybe it’s time a few searching questions on the policies and practices employed were asked of their recruiting teams?

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LEGAL, DECENT, HONEST AND TRUE??

A brace of US-based company bosses got high on the same fumes that inflated the dot.com bubble at the turn of the new millennium and mislaid their honesty compasses.  Bernie Ebbers at Worldcom, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling at Enron, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco International and John Rigas at Adelphia Communications, are among the best known.

Their collective, awe-inspiring appetite for inventing phantom profits and misleading the financial markets left investors considerably poorer and, tragically, tens of thousands of former employees with pension funds that contained, well … no funds.

Serious remedial action was required to stop a repeat.  Sheriff Sarbanes and Inspector Oxley rode into town to clean up the mess.  Between them, they gave birth to the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act, more commonly known as the Sarbanes-Oxley act, in 2002.  Henceforth, any corporation with a stock exchange listing in the US has to comply with transparency in their corporate disclosures or fall foul of the US Constitution and the Federal Government.

In other words, businesses have to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ about how their businesses are faring.  George Dubya Bush, then US President, said of the new regulations at the time: “The era of low standards and false profits is over.  No boardroom in America is above or beyond the law.”

Honest businesses moaned about the added costs such oversight would incur but eventually, Sarbox became a part of US corporate culture.  Companies based in other jurisdictions with secondary listings on the NYSE or Nasdaq carry the same obligations, while other countries have since adopted similar regulations.

I was musing on the usefulness of this new era of corporate transparency while watching Inside Job over the Christmas holidays.  How, I wondered, was it possible for the US, and then the global financial markets, to collapse so spectacularly in 2008 if transparency and corporate honesty are now standard practice?  Over a cold beverage with a number of communications-type chums recently, we discussed the role and responsibility that the communications department has when it comes to discharging such obligations.

It was a small group and therefore not necessarily statistically valid but we all agreed – getting a standard press release signed off is more of a palaver than it used to be, while getting legal approval for the annual report has become a theatrical production that could challenge the expertise of Cameron Mackintosh.  This is reassuring.

But we also agreed that we deal in much more than press releases and annual reports.  In fact, combined, releases and annual reports make up a very small proportion of the collateral we produce or get involved with.  What about one off press briefings, or by-lined articles or conference speeches?  It seems the process also cares little about corporate blogs, sales presentations or tweets too.

Yes. I know it’s not practical for every single piece of communications collateral go through an end-to-end approval and sign off. Otherwise, our work would never see the light of day.   But can you imagine a situation where, every once in a while, we’re holding, or could we be seen to be holding, a corporate exposure in our hands?  Have you considered it?

If so, does the idea cause you mild heartburn too?

 

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OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Now that the storm clouds have passed, it’s worth mulling over the issues that put Bell Pottinger, the PR and public affairs agency, where it really didn’t want to be: in the newspapers, rather than ensuring it’s clients were well represented there.  The timing was terrible: the Christmas party season was getting into full swing and the unwelcome publicity played havoc with the firm’s seasonal preparations.

It also had politicians from all sides, their expenses furore behind them, publicly demanding transparency and regulation of a clandestine industry, while a number of journalists, otherwise unengaged with proceedings at the Leveson enquiry, also missed the irony and roundly condemned the shadowy world of political lobbyists.

To cut a long controversy short, the agency was approached by undercover reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in a sting operation that the now defunct News of the World’s Fake Sheikh would have been proud of.  Effectively, they were invited to pitch for what was billed as a potentially lucrative new contract to improve the reputation of the Government of Uzbekistan, a body with a record on human rights that falls a tad short of most people’s views of acceptable. During the meeting, a senior Bell Pottinger executive shone a little light on ‘the dark arts’ of lobbying.

These acts of black magic, the executive disclosed, include contacting cabinet ministers, up to and including the Prime Minister, to seek direct intervention on issues affecting the agency’s clients. Furthermore, the executive boasted of special access to senior Government officials and a talent for influencing Government policy. He even went as far as to admit that the firm edited Wikipedia entries to replace critical comments with more acceptable words.  The pitch’s saving grace was a demand that the Uzbekistan Government commit to tangible, positive social change.

When asked for comment by a journalist on the executive’s claims of government influence, a spokesman for the Prime Minister initially denied that any lobbying firm could exert influence over Government policy.  “It is simply untrue to say that Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company influences government,” he said.  This raised the fundamental question: so why pay a lobbying firm then?

When subsequently pointed out that it is entirely reasonable for a business that pays tax, employs people and creates economic and social value to seek government support in a parliamentary democracy, the Downing Street press office changed its stance.  Now it’s ok for lobbyists to influence Government policy where the Government “… think they have legitimate concerns.”

The prospect of any Government legislating on policy without input from the businesses that live with the repercussions scares me more than the thought that the British Government would ever consider becoming investment managers for the country’s banking sector.

It is true that Bell Pottinger has, and maybe still does, represent both individuals and regimes that haven’t always lived up to the standards of behaviour we expect of political leaders in the west.  Come to think of it, political leaders in the west haven’t always lived up to those standards.  But does that make Bell Pottinger, or any other public affairs agency, bad?  No one would deny another, no matter what they are alleged to have done, access to legal representation. Why does the same concession not apply to public affairs counsel?

The generally accepted answer is to create a register where all lobbying firms in the UK are required to publish details of the clients they work for.  This seems straight forward enough, as long as no competitive advantage is forgone, but the process itself has become wrapped up in its own controversy.

The UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), two industry bodies, have been working together to help define how such a register would be constructed.  Once agreed, the register would be managed through the offices of UKPAC.  However, the bodies recently fell out over the task, with the PRCA walking away with the ball under its arm muttering rude words about UKPAC’s competence.  It has now proposed that any register needs to be managed by an independent authority.

Fingers have also being pointed at Mr Cameron’s office in Downing Street, which has missed a number of self-imposed deadlines to publish its recommendations on how such a register should work.  Given that Cameron’s concerns over transparency in the lobbying industry was the starting point in the BIJ’s sting operation, maybe he needs to up his game a bit?

Perhaps I should declare an interest.  I have benefited from the input of Bell Pottinger and other public affairs agencies over the years. No laws were broken. No clandestine meetings or lunches were held.  I also count many practitioners among my friends and colleagues.  Most dress a bit too formally for my liking, but to ask an entire industry, which for the most part operates transparently and ethically, to reinvent itself because one executive over promised a potential client is the same as suggesting that every journalist in the land hacked Hugh Grant’s mobile phone or that every politician in Westminster has a floating duck pond decorating their moats.

Furthermore, only the most naïve among us would not believe that successive British Governments have lobbied corporations when they need a favour – to make a capital investment here, or delay closing a facility there, or to build something in a high unemployment location rather than somewhere else.  Usually, these requests are then used to try to help make the Government of the day look a bit letter.

Running a business, like running a country, is a game for grown ups. But the deeper we get into recession, and the greater our need for strong leadership to address some pretty fundamental problems, the more the key pillars of our society are behaving like adolescents.

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