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The FBI’s Surprise Recruiting Whizzes

September 2, 2003
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Diversity, Featured Article, Staffing Management

"You aren’t black. You just don’t get it."

    That’s what one student told an FBI agent who was initially dismissive of a suggestion--designed by a student ad agency--to increase the potency of the bureau’s on-campus recruiting efforts.

    Students at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, had designed an advertising campaign to entice others at the historically black college to consider the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a place to launch their professional careers.

    It took some cajoling by the students to get the client to adopt the creative theme they had developed--The FBI: Keeping It Fresh, Bold and Innovative --and use it for marketing efforts in student media.

Road map for hiring
    Eventually, the g-men relented, and much to the surprise of officials at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., the ad campaign, and related efforts, yielded several business benefits, including a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of recruits that the FBI attracted.

    "It's new and it's innovative and it's taken us where we've never been before," says Gwen Hubbard, acting chief of the FBI’s national recruiting office. "We love it. We’re light-years ahead of where we used to be."

    The ad campaigns have generated more than 330 new bureau applications from minorities for an array of jobs, including investigator, chemist, computer scientist, electronics technician and even financial analyst, Hubbard says.

    The project has gained enough attention within the federal government--an employer of last resort in the eyes of many new college graduates--that other agencies are embracing the recruiting model, including the Department of Homeland Defense and the U.S. Navy, says Tony Sgro, CEO of EdVenture Partners, an Orinda, California-based recruiting consultancy that is working with the FBI, and other government agencies, to help them hire new g-men and g-women.

    "One great thing about working with the government is that if something is successful, they will share it with their colleagues in other departments," Sgro says. "They all want to win."

Stretching $2,500
    Frustrated by years of failed recruiting fairs at colleges around the land, the FBI--which is 83 percent white and 82 percent male--decided that it had to try something decidedly different in its recruiting strategy. Hubbard says the FBI has only 600 black agents, out of 11,000 overall. The bureau, however, has thousands of openings, and wants more minority recruits so that its staff better reflects what America looks like.

    The FBI decided to embrace a strategy for minority recruiting already undertaken by General Motors and other Fortune 100 companies. The concept is simple: Let the peers of the targeted recruits, on college campuses around the United States, design the advertising strategies that will lure new talent into the fold.

    FBI personnel and contractors fanned out to three targeted colleges to enact their recruiting campaign: Morgan State University, Clark Atlanta University and Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, which has a 28 percent American Indian--primarily Cherokee--student population.

    "We called professors of marketing and made a proposal to them that would transform the theory of the classroom into a reality for the students," Sgro says. In addition, it would leave students with work samples that they could use to land jobs later on.

    The proposal involved creating an advertising agency for a semester, with the marketing students as the talent. A president is chosen from the class, who coordinates the work. There are also department heads for research, creative work and budgeting.

"Students are very, very creative," Sgro says. "They can stretch $2,500.
It’s like $25,000 for me or you."

    The FBI provided $2,500 for each group, and the students were graded on their creations. As in the real world, the client owns the work product.

    "Students are very, very creative," Sgro says. "They can stretch $2,500. It’s like $25,000 for me or you."

    The final product of this recruiting strategy is an advertising and recruiting plan that is actually executed--and, as the FBI discovered, actually works. Right now, the FBI is using the program in three locations. Hubbard says the bureau will expand it into more of its 26 field recruiting offices.

Niche research
    The student advertising agencies discovered that their peers believed the bureau was a boring place to work and was staffed by white "men in black," Sgro says. To counter that perception, the student agency at Morgan State recommended that the bureau change its acronym to "Fresh, Bold and Innovative."

    That was a tad too radical for the bureau, but they compromised on the final approved slogan: "The FBI is keeping it fresh, keeping it bold, keeping it innovative."

    Print ads developed by the student agency featured students on campus. The agency also arranged an "FBI fun night," where real agents and their families met real college students in a relaxed environment.

    At Clark Atlanta, the students hosted a mixer at a soul-food eatery, Sylvia’s Restaurant, in downtown Atlanta. At first, the agent in charge of reviewing the project balked. It turned out, however, to be a success, as black special agents met with the students at the restaurant, leading to a substantial rise in the number of people expressing an interest in learning more about the FBI.

    One thing the students learned by attending the dinner was that there were arrays of specialties in the bureau, and that not everyone had to be a "super, secret cop," Sgro says.

Timing is everything
    The patriotic post-9/11 student environment certainly helped the FBI’s efforts. Steven Rothberg, president and founder of Minneapolis-based, an online recruiting agency, says that after the triple terrorist attacks on the United States he noticed a significant increase in the number of candidates looking for government jobs.

    "Part of that was attributable to a weakening economy, so government jobs were more appealing to those fleeing more risky positions," says Rothberg, who was not involved in the FBI project. "A bigger part, however, seemed to be tied to patriotism and the desire to give back." also targets Generation Y students in its recruiting efforts, and has found that they are "very community service oriented and highly motivated by the opportunity to make a positive difference," says Rothberg. "Working in the government, whether it is the FBI, CIA or HUD, provides them with that opportunity."

    The FBI is planning to continue the successful recruiting project this fall, targeting eight schools with large minority populations: Clark, Northeastern, Howard, Jackson State, Norfolk State, California State University/Fullerton, San Jose State and the University of Texas/San Antonio.

    This recruiting project is evidence that, for the first time, the FBI is making a "conscientious effort" to hire minorities, says Joseph Akers, a retired Washington, D.C., cop and spokesman for the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

    FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, in a speech before a minority-education group, acknowledged as much. "We have redoubled our efforts in recent years to reach your universities specifically and African-Americans and minorities in general," Mueller said. "We have sent recruiters and minority agents and alumni to your campuses and career fairs. We have gone to conferences held by organizations like the NAACP, Blacks in Government and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. We have attended events like the annual Black College Spring Break Career Fair and the annual Women of Color Awards Conference."

    Mueller said the pilot project with three universities has helped the FBI develop minority-recruiting plans that really work. Hubbard agrees, saying she’s hopeful that the college-ad-campaign program will help the agency fill many of the nearly 2,600 new positions at the FBI next year.

Business Benefits of the Bureau’s College Recruiting Strategy
● Visibility and credibility of the FBI are increased by working with a class of students within a targeted college.
● Aggregate gross impressions of the FBI in student media increase dramatically.
● The FBI obtains access to key influencers on campus, including college presidents, vice presidents of academic affairs, faculty and counselors, during the 15-week advertising course.
● Student ad agencies provide "total immersion" into campus culture, rather than the FBI relying on a recruiting table at a job fair.
● Advertising and PR campaigns developed by students are fresh and unique.
● Real-time research data are given to the FBI.
● The FBI owns any ideas that students create.
● The FBI has the ability to pinpoint diversity marketing.
● Students become zealous missionaries for the FBI, a fervor that can last for several years.

Source: Interview with Gwen Hubbard, acting chief of national recruiting, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, D.C.

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