Distribution: A Mysterious Word?
After reading HARDI President Bill Bergamini’s letter in this issue, l was struck by the truism of his observation that arguably, the distribution industry “seems” to lose out to more glamorous professions for attracting budding talent. Does anyone outside the industry know who we are or even think about us? In all my years of covering this industry, I’ve never heard or seen of a solid study that measures the general public or nondistribution world’s perception of our industry.
Which is PRECISELY the reason for this column. It’s the idea of perception or rather the lack of it, that is a major obstacle to attracting and retaining talented young professionals to the industry. It’s not rocket science. They don't know about us, they don’t think about us, which translates into not being on the radar for potential job seekers.
The topic of attracting talent is broad, but the implementation of my suggestion is quite simple. You don’t need a physics degree to implement it, and you can fine-tune it at a local, regional or national level.
Start a public relations campaign for your business. It might sound naïve or basic, but promoting your business to the public and nonindustry media, and NOT just the trade press where your customers swim, is an act of exposure that helps your business and, with it, also raises awareness of the HVACR industry.
People in our industry recognize that we haven’t lost the PR campaign for talent because we don’t even have one. Bill correctly cites some of the exposure we get, but these are through contractor advertisements, which is more correctly under the umbrella of advertising and marketing, NOT public relations. (A small point to establish my own bona fides on this subject. I have owned a PR firm for 21 years and have written a highly praised 250-page book about the subject.)
If we hope to attract people from outside the industry, we’re going to need to develop some attention- getting mechanism outside the distribution world to influence the talent we’re seeking. When one makes a career decision, it’s seldom a firecracker idea that explodes and the person decides, “That’s it, I want to do …” Rather, it’s a culmination of bits and pieces of information and experience that filters throughout our brain, until we arrive at that decision point.
But how do we as an industry create that spark? Haven’t we all asked someone how they got started in their career only to drill down to the beginning and find out that a book, magazine article, teacher, family friend or, now, even a social media post contributed to a career decision? (There is, of course, the family connection, which certainly creates a path of less resistance and familiarity.) Our industry seems to employ (especially at the entry managerial level) what I term the “lightning strikes” approach to PR. Clasp your hands in a prayerful position and hope for some positive media attention.
As a distributor, you need more local recognition in your market as a business AND as a target for potential employees. There isn’t enough room in this column for a laundry PR list of what to do, so I’ll limit it to one basic approach.
At least four times each year, contribute an Op-Ed article to your local newspaper. (Read Jon Melchi’s important comments on this in his column regarding this issue.) Write an opinion piece, keep to the word limit, about 700 words, and generally do NOT submit to multiple publications. Offer exclusivity. (Most newspapers will offer specific guides on their website. Read it first and don’t deviate.) Offer some insight about our industry and why OTHER business people and even consumers should care about what we do. (I would easily argue that explaining our industry to the public via the consumer press is as important as the business media. Why? Many people, including the talent we’re seeking, are consumers too.)
Now this is where a client turns to me and says: “OK, Tom, if you’re so smart, what would be that first Op-Ed article? Gulp. I feel the warmth of that heat lamp on me. Here’s the answer: An article with the working title of Why You Never Thought of the Distribution Industry as a Career or some variation should work just fine. Be bold, be honest and be blunt. And here’s the best part. In that carefully written and tightly edited column, you not only raise the issue of what we (as an industry) need, but you have the opportunity to outline what we have to offer. Do you have to be 100 percent right? No. After all, it’s the opinion page, which means it’s your opinion. What it must convey is a sense of insight, intelligence and logic in a style that is at least modestly impartial — though passion is always a good thing — in an objective and reasonable manner. That’s all. Is it easy? No. Ask any writer, which is also why almost no one does this. But it can be done. Allow me to shock you. Your writing talent is almost irrelevant. It’s the idea that matters. Good editors abound who can turn your thoughts into crisp, compelling prose. Then send it to the newspaper that matters most in your area.
In short, go outside of our industry to attract talent to the industry. One small, local PR effort at a time.
Here’s what is exciting about my suggestion. In the old days (pre-Internet), writing an Op-Ed article was a zero sum game: A newspaper published it and you won; they rejected it (which happens frequently) and you lost because of the time and effort expended. But today, EVEN if they don’t use your Op-Ed article (after going through your local media outlet list), you can post it on your website or include it in your newsletter. Someone will read it and it will have influence on someone, at some point, even if you don’t know it.