There’s a change taking place in the PR industry, and it’s a change we should all be happy about. It’s a change in the culture we foster in our firms. Those poised to benefit from this are the people we count on the most: the employees who power our industry.
But this cultural change—perhaps surprisingly—also presents a strategic advantage for the firms willing to seize it. Creating an environment where our employees can be happier and healthier will help them be more productive as a result. It will also make them more likely to stay.
This will be a game changer, helping PR firms with one of the greatest challenges we face—hiring and retention.
The Grindstone Has Got To Go
Public relations is an industry that attracts a huge diversity of people, but in my experience, there is one characteristic that virtually unites us all: Our industry tends to attract the go-getters. We like to go fast, not slow. We want to go big, not home. It’s part of what makes our industry great, and it’s part of why the field of PR is filled with some of the most dynamic professionals.
But the need to always be climbing and competing has helped create a culture that takes a toll on our people. Top-down, nose-to-grindstone, grab your place on the ladder and climb, climb, climb—this is the PR industry that I have known for most of my 30 years in the business. It wears our people down and gets them stuck in an endless cycle of job-hopping.
On the business side, this kind of culture has made us far too used to seeing employees’ value in terms of dollars and cents. If you are an account executive, for example—the mid-tier managers who are the backbones of firms—it has been common practice that you’re expected to bring in new revenue each year. It didn’t matter whether there was a recession, or a pandemic, or a personal emergency, or whether you did the rest of your job perfectly. It didn’t matter whether you provided value that defied measurement on a spreadsheet. If you weren’t seen as being directly responsible for a new client or new files worth an additional 3.5% or more—that was it. Your job would have been at risk. At some firms, I wouldn’t be surprised if this still is the case.
How To Stop Driving Talent Away
The change that has been taking place—and that has accelerated through the pandemic—is a re-centering of the people who work for us. The old way would say that putting our people first is putting our clients last. The old way would say that if we’re not worshipping at the altar of the Almighty Hustle, we’re not being hungry enough. I say that’s wrong.
It’s my view that our employees contribute to our firms in ways that are well beyond what is measurable or commensurate with the bottom line. Taking a broader perspective on this will make our employees feel more appreciated. It will also help us create better conditions for business success.
The old-school corporate culture led to a lot of burnout, personal sacrifices, family heartaches and at times cutthroat competition. It also created a revolving door. In my experience, the average shelf life of an account executive, for example, has historically been three years. It often still is. Three years and they would be out the door and onto somewhere new. Three years and your firm would be hiring again, and onboarding again, and once again training new staff members. Three years and you would be back to making up for lost time and lost institutional memory. That is, if you could even find somebody new to fill the same shoes.
It’s Time To Fix PR’s Retention Problem
Hiring top talent, and then retaining them, is a perennial problem in the PR business. It’s felt most acutely by the small- to medium-sized firms that make up the bulk of our industry. A culture of ladder-climbing means that people are always on the move. This leaves firms scrambling every year or two to find someone new and bring them up to speed.
But in a business like ours, where relationships are currency and some experiences can’t be replaced, it comes at a tangible cost for companies. It comes at a cost that’s felt by our employees as well. We know this because they tell us so. They tell us that for the human beings who make our industry run, our industry’s culture can be less than humane. They also tell us that what matters to them is changing. They value their jobs and their clients and their career trajectory, but they also value their happiness, their families and their lives. They want to earn a living, but not at the expense of having a life.
That’s where we have an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to find fresh and innovative ways to stay relevant to our employees so that what we offer aligns with what they value.
If we can do this, we can make it more appealing to stay with our firms—and grow within our firms—rather than leaving through the revolving door. This will have the added benefit of making our firms more productive and more effective in serving our clients. Instead of wasting energy on perpetual onboarding and losing irreplaceable client knowledge, we’ll be better at keeping both our people and their experience in-house.
The PR professionals we rely on are telling us that the nose-to-the-grindstone attitudes of yesterday aren’t working for them anymore. We have a lot to gain by listening.