How PR is the missing link in recruitment media

James Clench, managing director of Harpswood Employer PR

Black Lives Matter, gender diversity, workplace culture. The way employers communicate about these issues matters more than ever. James Clench, managing director of Harpswood Employer PR, talks to Personnel Today about how good communications benefit the employer brand.

“Well they would say that wouldn’t they?” One of a journalist’s first lessons is not to take what people say at face value. It is the rigour of the editorial process that distinguishes an article from an advertisement.

James Clench has first-hand experience of this process. With 16 years as a journalist at News UK, including a period as head of news on The Sun, he spent a further four years running the entrepreneurs and business team at public relations agency The PHA Group.

“You can talk about your employer brand through social media, through paid advertising, but PR is the missing element,” he says. “I think it’s such a powerful element, because it gives you third-party validation.

“If you’re talking about things on your own social media, there is an element of, ‘well, you would say that about yourself’. What PR gives you is the fact that you have been questioned by a journalist, there has been some rigour applied to this, your claims have been tested, looked at, analysed and – with the right advice and preparation – there is a positive outcome in the media about it.”

Launched this month, Harpswood Employer PR is the UK’s first dedicated employer brand PR agency and is a joint venture with people communications agency Blackbridge Group. Among the services it offers are helping clients communicate their employer value proposition (EVP), training HR spokespeople and providing crisis and reputation management.

Its clients are supported in garnering “earned media” for recruitment campaigns and employer news, such as relocations or mergers.

Culture of the business

“If you can place an interesting news story about a talent attraction campaign with a publication that is being read by potential talent or onto a podcast or radio show that they’re listening to or a TV show they’re watching, it’s another way of reaching them,” explains Clench. “Those messages are all the more powerful for having come through that third party medium.”

Harpwood’s services includes EVP amplification and employer brand training for senior executives. “Some CEOs or senior leaders when they’re interviewed don’t really touch on the culture of the business, and you certainly get a sense of the ones where the culture of the business really means something to them.”

A good example of demonstrating what your business is all about is a recent profile of Louise O’Shea, CEO of in in the Independent. O’Shea was heavily pregnant when she applied for the role two years ago; since then she has doubled profits and reached the benchmark of £1bn revenue.

“Everything in that interview was based around the culture of the business,” explains Clench. “She said the recognition of employees is so important to her – not just financially but the pats on the back; good communication is important to her. If you came away from reading that interview and you were thinking about joining Confused, you would have joined them tomorrow.

“Whereas for other businesses it’s about the bottom line and getting returns to the shareholders, but if you can talk well about your employer brand as a senior leader, that’s going to make a huge difference around who’s attracted to your business,” says Clench.

Getting a grip on diversity

The diversity and inclusion agenda, whether it’s how you communicate the nuances behind a gender pay gap or how you make yourself an attractive employer to a diverse range of backgrounds, is also a rich seam for good PR, no less so than in the stereotypically “pale, male and stale” legal sector.

Many law firms are extremely active in D&I, while others appear to be doing little and progress is widely deemed to be slow. The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s last round of diversity research in 2019 found that while 49% of lawyers were women, at partner level that proportion fell to 33%. Larger firms tended to have larger discrepancies between the two figures.

For ethnicity, the number of lawyers identifying as black, Asian or minority ethnic was 21%, compared to 13% of the total UK workforce. Unlike the profile for women, there is little difference by seniority among BAME lawyers: 21% of solicitors were BAME, compared to 22% of partners.

What PR gives you is the fact that you have been questioned by a journalist, there has been some rigour applied to this, your claims have been tested, looked at, analysed and – with the right advice and preparation – there is a positive outcome in the media about it” – James Clench, Harpswood Employer PR

However, the largest firms (50 or more partners) have the lowest proportion of BAME partners – only 8%. This contrasts with one-partner firms, where 36% of partners are from a BAME background.

“There’s a huge advantage to the law firms that really take a grip on D&I,” says Clench. “Some are doing that, but it comes down to not being tokenistic. It has to be meaningful and it has to be a consistent process that encourages the right people to apply to make sure you’re getting the workforce that reflects society.

“PR can communicate that but it has to be running all through business in the first place and it has to be serious and to be meant. If it isn’t, people will see through a tokenistic approach straight away.”

For HR directors in the legal sector and beyond who are struggling to push D&I up the agenda Clench says: “Arguments should be evidence-based and evidence should win the day. You need to look at research and look at the businesses that have embraced diversity and that have shown the positive results from it – and there are plenty of studies out there that do show that.

“As Black Lives Matter has shown, and as the gender pay debate has shown, these things are not going away and nor should they. If businesses don’t face up to them, they are going to be the ones who are out on a limb.”

A case in point

Issues that employers experience can often be shared as news stories that, with the right communications, can benefit a campaign. A prime example was Thames Water last month which earned numerous column inches when it changed the “masculine-coded” wording of an advert for a sewage works technician.

The utility shared its experience of a language tool that detects hidden implications of words such as “competitive”, “confident” and “champion”. After it altered the ad to include phrases such as “we welcome people who want to learn and be team players” it saw the proportion of female applicants rise from just 8% to 46%.

It’s case studies like these (Harpswood was not involved in Thames Water’s story) that Clench says are invaluable. While re-wording adverts to achieve better results is not new, he describes it as great piece of employer PR. “It went in The Times, The Independent and the tabloids,” he says.

“It was a great case study because it was quite extreme – it was a very unglamorous environment but they had still been successful in attracting women there. It worked very well as a piece and it shows what good employer PR can do.”

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