Hearst Magazines HRD: The heart of a multi-brand publisher

Fittingly for a multimedia publisher, Hearst Magazines’ HRD has adapted her department to play to the creative strengths of the company’s workforce and its individual brands for the benefit of the whole organisation

Ninety years ago, the first British edition of Good Housekeeping hit newsstands. Its mixture of recipes, literary articles, women’s issues and product tests proved a success with post-First World War women: the initial print run of 150,000 sold out quickly. 

And, while many other magazines have been and gone, Good Housekeeping is still going strong and recently released its first iPad app. How many 90-year-olds can say that? 

It is just one of the jewels in the Hearst Magazines UK crown: the company also publishes Elle, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Men’s Health and Country Living. Catering to such a range of interests and tastes, it’s not too surprising to hear that Hearst’s 19 magazines and 26 websites reach one in three women and one in four adults in the UK. 

The strength of such brands is undoubtedly a blessing, yet paradoxically it presents HR director Rachel Stock with a tricky challenge. When employees are so connected to their individual brands, how do you encourage everyone to feel part of a wider whole?

“We’re really lucky we’ve got such strong brands,” she tells me at Hearst’s Soho head office. “People say, ‘I work for Harper’s Bazaar, or Runner’s World.’ Our aspiration is that people will also feel pride in the work that goes on across other brands, and feel as much a part of Hearst.”

Connecting Hearst’s 900 people to the organisation is also key for corporate functions, and for attracting and retaining those who work across multiple brands, such as in digital, she points out. “Why come and work in finance at Hearst? There’s got to be something tangible.” But, as challenges go, she concedes it’s “a great problem to have”. 

The heart of Hearst

Trying to get to the heart of why people work at Hearst has been playing on Stock’s mind for the past few months. She joined in April 2012, having previously held HR director roles at the BBC and Random House (she earned her stripes in retail before moving into media with the Random House role in 1999). 

Before she joined, Hearst had recently undergone a major corporate change: The National Magazine Company acquired publisher Hachette Filipacchi in 2011, and Hearst as it is today was born. 

“What is interesting is that this organisation probably doesn’t feel like either [Nat Mags or Hachette],” says Stock. “We are a new organisation, and what’s important now is that we clearly articulate what that is, and that it feels good. There’s a massive opportunity for us to be much clearer about what it means to work for Hearst.” 

This focus on articulating Hearst’s culture and clearly identifying the employee value proposition resulted in a company-wide project that culminated in the first all-staff meeting in more than two years last month. 

For Stock, the starting point was two deceptively simple questions: why do people come and work here; and what’s it really like to work at Hearst? “There’s nothing worse than saying ‘come and work at this amazing organisation’ if it’s not authentic,” she says. 

So, to find out the truth, warts and all, Stock worked with consultancy The Innovation Beehive to conduct interviews, focus groups and questionnaires. “It was very simple – not a traditional satisfaction survey or a cultural audit,” she says. “It was about understanding what’s going on, what people really like and what we need to do better.” 

Opening up

While employees were positive about their brands, there was clear room for improvement. “We need to communicate, be clear about our strategy and improve the working environment,” says Stock. “People didn’t understand where the organisation was heading. They wanted to know what the future might look like.” 

From an HR perspective, people wanted more transparency about pay decisions and career development. “People felt it was easier to move up by going somewhere else, which was a major issue for us,” Stock adds. 

In response, the company has announced a pay rise, a minimum starting salary and pledged to focus more on careers. To improve communications, a team of volunteer journalists are teaming up to produce intranet content. 

In terms of training and development, there are plans to make informal initiatives such as work shadowing, mentoring and job swaps more obvious and accessible.

To enable her to invest more in L&D, Stock hopes to reduce recruitment firm spend, specifically by encouraging staff referrals. “If you’re an advocate, you’re more likely to introduce great talent into the organisation, and our people are massively networked. There’s nothing worse than using an agency, then finding out someone here already knew that person,” she points out. She is also in the “very early stages” of considering digital apprenticeships.

Stock also hopes announcing all this will set a precedence for transparency. And, for her HR team in particular, the focus is on being agile: “I’ve said we’re implementing a pay review, so we’re going to have to get it through quickly. 

It’s about a clear line of sight between the organisation strategy and us delivering. We need to be agile, and we need to say when we’ve got stuff wrong.” She cites HR introducing an overly formal and unpopular appraisal process last year. 

“It was too formal and it wasn’t right for us as a business,” she recalls. “People told us they didn’t like it, so we changed it. What are you trying to achieve? A really slick HR process that ticks all the boxes, or something that enables people to have productive conversations about their performance?” 

This year, ‘career conversations’ are replacing the more formal appraisal. “We’re trying to make it a conversation rather than a thing you dread,” Stock explains. 

“It’s less focused on reviewing objectives and more about you and your career. The time of the vertical career path has gone. We want people to open their thoughts about where they might go next, and they can only do that if you give them the opportunity to find out what’s going on in the organisation. People tend to be focused on their brands, but there are a lot of other opportunities here.” 

Digital innovation

Growing skills, particularly in digital, is also hugely important. “The major challenge is keeping up with changing audience habits and behaviour,” says Stock. “Technology is moving so fast. How do we anticipate stuff we don’t even know yet?” 

But despite that uncertainty, Hearst is still the UK’s largest digital magazine publisher, reaching more than 43 million unique online users a month. Most of its brands are multi-platform, so it’s not about being “a print person or a digital person”, says Stock. “You work on content, on whatever platform. It’s about giving people the skills they need to do that.” 

For editorial teams, digital training is critical, through a mixture of on-the-job training and more formal learning. “People need to be able to put what they’ve learnt into practice really quickly,” Stock says. 

“It’s got to be timely and appropriate – there’s no point going on a ‘writing for the web’ course and then not writing something. Some of the online work is around demystifying digital, because it is scary for some people.” 

However, for very technical roles, Hearst needs to buy in the skills. “The biggest challenge around acquiring those new skills is competition,” says Stock. “It’s not the magazine industry those people want to work in – it’s Google or Amazon. We need to offer a compelling reason for them to want to work here, and that’s got to be exciting work.” 

That includes enhanced digital editions, with embedded video, an active online community for Runner’s World readers, and Esquire launching a weekly tablet edition.  

Such brand-led initiatives have a further impact on HR, allowing it to view the workplace through the eyes of consumers. “A lot of what we do is through the voice of our titles,” Stock explains. 

Elle and Cosmopolitan do a lot on feminism, and because of that we are about to sign up to the Think, Act, Report campaign [the Government framework to promote gender equality at work]. We see things through the lens of our brands and consumers, such as Good Housekeeping’s readers getting worried about unpaid internships [Hearst’s internships are paid].”

As Hearst’s journalists and editors become increasingly tech-savvy, it would be remiss if the HR department was uncomfortable with new media. “We have to be digital, too, and we haven’t been,” Stock admits. “In terms of process, we have to cut out the paper, but also: do we tweet? Do we look at blogs? Do we go into meetings with pads of paper, or do we have iPads? Do we know what digital talent means and how to find it on LinkedIn?” 

Innovation, agility and creativity might not be often associated with HR, but they come up again and again when talking with Stock. She believes HR should reflect the business it supports, and at Hearst that means not being afraid of change. “I enjoy working with creative people because it’s challenging,” she says. “I like being challenged and having to work out how to apply people processes in a creative environment. You have to be creative yourself.”