PR agencies are good at a lot of things.
They’re masters at ‘positioning’ themselves and their clients, at the little dog and pony show we call ‘new business.’ They are peerless in their ability to put a positive spin on just about anything.
But when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent, agencies are notoriously terrible at providing a nurturing work environment that inspires loyalty and encourages their best and brightest to stick around. In my career I’ve witnessed these failings time and time again, and am baffled by the industry’s unwillingness to evolve.
Band-Aid solutions do little to address the heart of these problems: providing free lunch doesn’t negate a hostile work environment; hiring a few ethnically diverse interns doesn’t make up for a lack of diversity at the top; and an open floor plan does not make for a more transparent or collaborative work environment in an office that operates on a need-to-know, haphazard manner.
Here are five reasons why you’re bleeding talent:
1. Your onboarding process sucks.
The first 90 days of any new job are a critical time for learning the written and unspoken rules, defining expectations and building relationships. Solidifying early wins is a must. Far too often, however — and likely due to the billable hours “time is money” structure that a lot of PR firms employ— new hires are expected to hit the ground running from day one. They are given unrealistic expectations, and with a mounting workload, increasing client demands and insufficient support, they inevitably fail. Early failure is a blow to a new hire’s self-esteem, which leads to low morale and a desire to start looking for the exit.
PR agencies need to give new team members a game plan with a reasonable amount of time to hit their stride, provide the resources they need and set them up to win from the get-go.
2. You don’t play to people’s strengths.
I once knew a woman who worked at a PR firm and was masterful at securing high-level media opportunities, but was somewhat socially awkward in front of clients. Rather than shifting client duties so she could spend more time on what she was really good at, the agency let her go because they “couldn’t bring her to client meetings.” The loss of her skillset left a gaping hole at the firm. The best agencies understand that not everyone needs to play the same role, and they’re willing to build job descriptions around each employee’s strengths.
3. You refuse to fire the assholes.
Far too many agencies hang on to poor leaders who may excel in one specific area (e.g. “He’s an excellent process guy” or “Clients love her”), but make their workforce miserable. HR personnel will sit through countless exit interviews which call out terrible managers without making any structural changes. If your employees wouldn’t refer your company to a friend, or they would be loathe to give you a positive review on Glassdoor because of a nightmare manager, then that’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
Agencies that keep bullies around are ignoring the fact that a functioning workplace requires a cohesive team, from top to bottom. And while you’re at it, fire those vampire clients who are sucking the life out of your teams and killing morale.
4. You pay lip service to diversity.
Take a look at your agency’s leadership. What do you see? Regardless of whatever “initiatives” you have in place, agencies whose leadership team lacks cultural diversity send a huge “unwelcome” message to would-be candidates who don’t fit the existing mold. To current employees of diverse backgrounds, it signals that there is slim chance they’ll ever rise through the ranks.
5. You don’t have a clear mission.
What’s your agency’s “why?” Without a common purpose or goal, people feel apathetic and disconnected from the work they do and the ultimate pay-off. Your staff should be rallied around a mission and big-picture vision that is communicated often and reflected in how the organization operates.
Alysha Light is a 14-year PR and communications strategist who has worked in-house and on the agency side. As founder + managing director of FLIGHT PR, she works with a client roster that includes ad agencies, startups, brands and production companies. Follow her on Twitter @lightalysha.