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How PR is the missing link in recruitment media

The smartest law firms understand the importance of putting diversity & inclusion and social mobility at the heart of their culture – and the value of highlighting those commitments in the media. James Clench, managing director of Harpswood Employer PR, talks about how earned editorial can strengthen your 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 with 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.

The missing element

“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.

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 a particularly 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.

Meaningful communications

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.”

‘Evidence should win the day’

For HR directors in the legal sector 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.”

Prospective candidates

All law firms recognise that they are in a battle to secure top talent and employer PR can make the difference by having an impact with the right audience.

“Smart firms understand the importance of engaging with issues like diversity and inclusion, social mobility and gender pay – not only because it is ‘the right thing to do’ but also to widen the pool of prospective candidates,” explains Clench. “And the really savvy ones recognise that they should be talking about these topics in the media with solid evidence of their commitment. Meaningful media exposure – particularly powerful success stories – gives credibility to the firms whose actions back up their words.”

The power of speaking out

A recent Financial News interview with Farmida Bi, the EMEA chair of Norton Rose Fulbright, illustrated the power of a senior executive speaking publicly about her own experiences of racism as a British Muslim and how they shaped her views and decisions.

She told how some colleagues had been amazed when she told them about the prejudice she faced growing up, such as how people regularly shouted racial abuse from cars as they drove by.

She said: “Organisations like ours and those around us in the City, we can’t just wring our hands and say, ‘This is terrible’ and then move on to whatever tomorrow’s big topic is. We have to implement change now that is going to result in those barriers being removed.”

Her words – and her seniority – lent weight to the firm’s commitments on diversity and inclusion.

Culture of a business

Harpswood Employer PR’s clients are also supported in garnering “earned media” for recruitment campaigns and employer news, such as relocations or mergers.

“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.”

Harpswood Employer PR’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,” explains Clench.

Potential hires

An opinion piece in Personnel Today by Sandra Wallace, managing director of DLA Piper, to highlight a new social mobility toolkit was brought to life by her own difficult experiences.

She told of the barriers she faced as someone who hadn’t gone to the “right” university, who hadn’t been abroad on holiday and who didn’t possess the social sophistication of more confident peers. Her conviction that social mobility is about “levelling the playing field” rather than punishing the privileged had real conviction because of her background.

Good employer PR will manage crisis situations too. The legal sector has been among those under scrutiny over how it handled the sharp financial shock of a pandemic. The decisions over which levels of employees bore the financial brunt, what happened to salary reviews and promotions, how graduate schemes were affected – and how all of those choices were communicated – will, says Clench, have been pored over by potential hires. One wrong move or badly phrased soundbite can undo years of employer brand building in these difficult times.

Heartfelt message

Even apparently frivolous pieces of PR have impact and should not be underestimated, relays Clench. Weeks before the country went into lockdown, the Telegraph ran a feature about music in offices, the latest wellness trend among senior lawyers.

With the sector facing criticism over long working hours, the law firms mentioned in the feature sent out an important message to potential senior hires: we care about managing stress. A senior associate with Travers Smith was quoted as saying that music-making gave her “a great sense of joy, a release, particularly from stress, and a means of escape.”

Clench concludes: “That simple, heartfelt message might be the one to persuade an experienced hire that your firm’s culture is for them.”

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