It’s time to take on someone new - it may be a brand new position that you’ve finally got signed off or you may be adding to your team. Whatever the role or position in your organization, you need to be sure you’re getting the very best. The very best isn’t just for you or your team, but also those you serve and the wider community of stakeholders that you are working with and for. Guest contributor Lauri-Ellen Smith shares this useful advice on how to hire a PIO.
Why are you hiring?
It’s really important to be clear on why you are hiring because it goes to the heart of what you may need on your team.
If you’re hiring because you’re leaving the position yourself - whether you’re getting promoted, leaving the agency, making a lateral move - and you’ve been asked to “replace yourself” then the bar is high.
You want the agency (and leadership) to have a clean, seamless handoff of the baton to a like-minded, equally skilled, and competent professional. It’s your legacy, after all. And you won’t be there every day to coach and train. So, hire someone with your skills - soft and hard (soft skills: integrity, strong work ethic, attention to detail, ability to build trust and lead a team. Hard skills: great writing and editing, expert photography and software competence, analytic tools and programs that help your office like archiving software and dashboards and metrics.)
If your team is expanding, that’s a different checklist. Maybe it’s a new position to meet an unmet need in your public communication programming. Perhaps management observed that you are overworked and can’t grow the program or take on new projects until you get some help. Maybe you’re replacing a departing staff member. These scenarios put you in a position to coach, train, and make another PIO great.
Transparency about progression
It is always crucial to be up front about prospects for promotion and progression in a role. If you’re in no hurry to leave as the leader of the team, this means whoever joins your team needs to understand up front that this is a perfect place to “get great” but the position probably doesn’t include promotability/upward movement anytime soon.
This means your candidates should meet the checklist for the position and recognize the learning opportunity in working with you. But this same person may be ready to move on in a couple of years because they become ready for a greater role and challenges. Realistic expectations of the position and the “shelf life” are critical for launching a productive relationship with a colleague or subordinate who is joining a team.
Where to look for the right person
Now that you’ve thought through what you’re hiring for, and the type of skill set you need now and in the future, it’s time to “network” for the opening.
Always work with HR and follow all the rules about posting. This is especially important in agencies where those working in other disciplines within an agency may have an opportunity to become a Public Information Officer. They have the uniform and the “soft skills” they just don’t know the ins and outs of the job. Again, a different checklist for hiring.
This is where the old axiom “it’s better to hire a quality person and train for technical excellence” really rings true. Ideal candidates from inside the agency need to have flexibility in their work hours and be open to the late-night calls and long hours. PIOs are on call 7/24 and get called upon to set up news conferences literally in the middle of the night sometimes. In addition to being comfortable with the “second phone” lifestyle, they also need to have a positive attitude about delivering what the agency needs to meet the needs of the citizens it serves.
If the position is going to be filled by someone already in the agency, then consider some proficiency tests in writing, grammar, creating social media posts, using AV equipment, etc. I like to give an on-camera interview to see how they handle extemporaneous questions and for their on-camera demeanor and comfort level. You could be pleasantly surprised to find that your ideal internal candidate has both excellent public speaking and writing skills and a terrific work ethic!
Posting the PIO opportunity externally usually results in a deluge of resumes. Especially if it is with an agency (local, state, federal) that offers a competitive salary and benefits, as most do.
Be prepared for reporters and journalists you know to apply. Be prepared for new graduates to apply. And the children of friends and friends of the boss. You’ll probably hear from them all when a Public Information Officer, Public Affairs and/or Public Relations position in an agency becomes available.
Match salary with experience
This is another reason why you need to be very clear on job expectations and skill level. Don’t ask for a mid-career candidate (five to eight years) when the salary is commensurate with entry level to three years. The number of years of experience working in communications, whether they’ve had independent decision-making authority (manager vs coordinator) and the specifics of what they will be asked to handle are imperative. List them out in the posting: speechwriting; special events; website content and design; social media content; analytics; photography; video production and editing; brochure writing and production.
Again, you will need to train someone joining the team, so work is performed in accordance with agency protocols and processes, but the more specific you are in identifying the skills you want the greater the chance you’ll have more to choose from in candidates. It is fair to expect a certain amount of experience and skill doing all the things an “in house newsroom” already does, when seeking candidates externally.
Whether hiring externally or internally, you must also consider the existing team and organizational dynamics. Consider it to be a triangle of qualifications, experience, and personality.
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