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Three Methods of Executive Search

October 3, 2015 by  
Filed under Executive Search

The PR job market is always changing. Depending the forces of supply and demand, one type of search method may be better than another.

Here is an overview of three methods used to recruit PR executives:

Retainer search

Exclusive to one search firm.

Extensive research, interview and recruiting process to identify potential candidates.

Search person will travel wherever necessary to personally meet with the candidate. Travel costs are passed on to the client.

Three or four candidates are presented to the client. Presentation includes a credentials and background report for each candidate, along with samples of work, letters of recommendation and complete reference-check covering numerous past employers, colleagues, editors and others.

Search person acts as intermediary throughout the process to ensure that search runs smoothly.

Conditional employment guarantee generally begins at one year and extends sometimes two years and beyond – depending on hire level and prior agreements.

Fee: usually equal to 30-35% of the hire’s first annual compensation. That includes bonuses, perks (such as cars, club memberships, etc.) and anything else that is considered part of the hire’s first year of compensation.

Search person’s out-of-pocket costs such as telephone, administrative costs, hotels, airfare, meals, etc. that are in connection with the search are billed to the client in addition the standard fee for the search.

Payment of fee: generally paid in thirds. First one-third payment is due at signing of search agreement; next is due thirty days later and final payment due thirty days after that.

Contingency search

Fee is paid contingent upon a hire being made.


Original research is minimal. Heavy reliance on top-of-mind or database candidates who are either out of work or are still employed.

Depending on level of individual being sought and time constraints, original recruiting is done (contacting employed individuals who may or may not have expressed prior interest in seeking another job).

Whenever possible, potential candidates are interviewed in person.

Candidates are not interviewed in person when the client wants to meet the candidate immediately based on the strength of the candidate’s resume, or, if the candidate resides in another state or is otherwise unavailable. Client is made aware of situation and candidate agrees or has given prior consent to meet the client without meeting the search person first.

Presentation to the client usually involves the e-mailing of a resume with a few comments regarding the qualifications of the candidate in relation to the job.

Most times there are no restrictions on the number of resumes sent by search person.

If client is interested, based on resume, candidate is then scheduled for an interview.

No biographical report is filed. Usually no references are checked at this time. Sometimes work samples are sent along.

Most of the time references are checked by either the search person or the client.

Hire retention guarantee is generally three months for not-for-profit organization and PR agency; six months for corporate communications department. Usually valid if pre-stated conditions are met. Longer guarantees can be negotiated with additional client concessions.

Costs can vary depending on whether the search was for a not-for-profit organization; a PR agency or a communications department of a corporation. Costs are calculated as a fee equal to the hire’s first year of annual salary. Rarely are other compensatory benefits included such as bonuses, perks, etc.

Fees: Not-for-Profit: 15-20%.
PR Agency: 20-25%.
Corporate Comms. Dept.: 25-33%.

There are no additional out-of-pocket costs to the client except when there are extraordinary costs in connection with the search. These costs require a prior agreement with the client in order to be reimbursed.

Modified contingency search

Full fee is paid contingent upon a person being hired. Typically a portion of the fee is paid when agreement is signed. Some form of exclusivity is part of this agreement. Either total exclusivity or exclusivity for a defined period of time in which there will be only one designated search firm working on the assignment. After which, one other or others can be added.

Frequently the client is free to advertise, actively recruit or otherwise seek referrals from colleagues even when an exclusivity agreement has been made with a search firm.

Search firm will undoubtedly spend more original recruiting hours sourcing new candidates via phone, database and in-person interviewing. Having an exclusive and/or a portion of the fee up front keeps the search assignment high on the search person’s radar screen.

In this type of search, conditions are often set that require more intensive review and interviewing of potential candidates. Sometimes complete reference checks are made even before a resume is submitted. In some cases, close scrutiny of the candidate’s written samples and portfolio is required before resume submission.

Many of the same elements of search procedures are evident in the Modified version as in the standard Contingency search, only more extensive and more in-depth. Conditional employment guarantees can range from three months to one year. In more senior level searches, it can be up to two years.

Fees are in the same ranges as standard Contingency searches with a prior agreed-upon portion of the fee being paid at the beginning of the search. Those percentages can be one-third, one-half or two-thirds. The balance of the fee is contingent upon someone being hired.

Spring Associates, Inc. is arguably the most imitated search firm in public relations. Dennis Spring created his firm in 1980. In addition to executive search services, the company also handles communications audits, mergers and acquisitions, client/agency reviews and PR agency selection searches.

Article provided by:
Spring Associates was the FIRST to compile and publish The Official PR Salary & Bonus Report. Considered by many as the industry standard for accurate and reliable salary, bonus and PR agency hourly billing rates. The Report has been published annually since 1996.

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