The Insider’s ‘PR Agency Report Card’ (Part 1)

In the words of a noted scholar, "Let's start spreading the news." 

It is often muttered around the water cooler that the one thing PR agencies don’t do well is…their own PR. Other than awards submissions, corporate communications for most of the touted corporate communications agencies is led by a band of crickets that hold reputation together with duct tape and a few words of prayer.

As we attempt to provide news on our fellow firms by discussing key appointments, unfortunate departures, impressive signings and the occasional case of thought leadership, we have noticed one thing: PR agencies don’t really think about their own public relations. 

That said, it is our public service to help each of the champions of communications with look inward. As what we would like to think is one of the top PR blogs around, we have a few (dozen) insiders. This was a confidential poll taken from people of all levels within each of the agencies in question.

In other words, this was a serious fact-finding mission…but our sources are protected.


Our goal is to encourage everyone in charge of reputation management at these global agencies to take a look in the mirror and aspire to live up to that mantra about sharing stories and relating to the public. We’re here to help.

burson-marstellar-logo1. Burson-Marsteller

Reputation: If you need crisis communications and public affairs work, look no further than Harold Burson’s agency. When you think heavy business and politics, you get the stereotype that comes with it: very stiff, buttoned-up individuals that speak more jargon than they realize. This is a highly regarded agency that does many things but really only earns accolades for two…so where does that leave the “Burson Persons” who do not major in crisis or politics?

Impression: The firm’s bailiwick is the “oh crap” moment most companies get before they are about to get in BIG trouble. Unfortunately, this feeds the “hired gun” myth about Burson-Marsteller: people go to them when they need good PR, not when they want it. This is not the calling card you want when the industry is trucking along. We’re certain there are people who do not wear tweed jackets with elbow patches at B-M, but ask around–more people think that than don’t.

Recommendation: To escape the myths and stereotypes, Burson-Marsteller should consider hiring experts in other fields of communications — and promoting those hires with industry publications. The AOR announcements that get news are the crisis ones. Feeding the animals at the zoo, much? And the neck ties can be left at home, people. It’s 2015. Lighten up folks … much like your new (and fan-friendly) CEO has done.

fh logo2. FleishmanHillard

Reputation: New-ish logo. New-ish leadership. Old-ish stereotypes. We have heard from many former and current FH folk that this is the company that loves to work people…second only to the most renowned taskmaster on this list. However, it sounds like a job at FH is worth the long hours because FH has some sweet clients to represent. Furthermore, CEO Dave Senay has a near-sterling reputation in this business.

Impression: There could be (and are) much less pleasant places to work in PR. Nice clients and good people make up for what seems to be an asymmetrical work-life balance. In fact, 98 percent of those queried mentioned this issue. Another chief concern was the wide chasm between those below the VP level and those on the other side of the PR tracks…which may contribute to the balance issue mentioned above. Sounds like those “who have arrived” at FH don’t have to deal with that issue.

Recommendation: If FH is as good as it clearly seems, then it would presumably be that much better if everyone felt as if he/she had a voice. Junior staffers in PR firms rarely complain that they have no voice when they didn’t really care to have one in the first place. Apparently, there are many people on the foundational level who love their jobs–and management may want to listen to why that’s the case.

go all in3. Golin

Reputation: A place with great internal community support. In a nutshell, that’s what our PRNewserverse tell us. One of the firm’s key interview questions may say it all: “How would you brand yourself?”

That interesting take may be the filter; however, those who don’t have a spunky comeback to that one may find themselves back on the scrap heap. From what we are told, if you “don’t exhibit creativity,” you will be shown the door somehow. Great news for prospects, but one could be getting a cookie-cutter approach to nouveau PR as well.

Impression: What was Golin-Harris has gone “all in” on a more progressive brand, and for the most part, it’s working for two reasons. First, the agency got a much-deserved face-lift as a place where the cool kids work. However, its paramount concern is what many think the logo and tagline are covering up: politics. We heard more insiders voice concerns about internal politics and perceived “suck-ups” getting the golden key to success than anything else. That’s not typical of “cool kids” offices…at least from what we’re told.

Recommendation: If Golin is really all-in, the agency may want to consider how such competition tends to stifle the creativity in people rather than bring it out. Furthermore, it breeds contempt based on the perception that if you don’t suck up, you don’t get put up (as in promotions). Golin is that close to ridding itself of yesteryear’s reputation. Internal communications could ensure that process is complete.

weber4. Weber Shandwick

Reputation: Smart clients, smarter people. This summarizes what people think they know about the “engaging, always” agency. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is Weber tends to have a character concern in upper management. This may have to do with our insiders sharing that junior staffers are placed (firmly) in a box, which leads to significant turnover. It could also lead to promotions used as an incentive.

Impression: When prospective talent hears this (and they always do), it deters people from applying because they’d preferably want to be there instead of signing up because they need to be. For the most part, PR professionals want to be around others who will challenge them and lift them up. If senior-level account leads aren’t pulling their weight, how can you expect them to pull others? And for an agency that has good things to offer, that’s a bad look.

Recommendation: We understand the need to groom junior staffers. There are too many risks from staffing turnover (which clients hate) to lack of team building (which agencies hate) that can affect the status of a cherished client. However, much like money hiding in the cushions, undiscovered potential does no one any good if it’s not part of a discovery process. Just imagine how many more smarter people there could be walking down the Weber hallways.

ketchum-break-through-logo5. Ketchum

Reputation: It’s no secret that public relations has gone the way of digital, and these are the guys who like to play “King of the Mountain.” In fact, that notoriety is so strong that PR people who wax more traditional have felt too intimidated to apply. When a business wants to be known for one thing, it tends to assume the other things are wrapped up. They’re good, but there is always room for improvement.

Impression: If this is the place to take lessons from digital masters and professionals who can walk/talk both public relations and social media, then one would think this would be a place where one can learn a thing or two. However, some people we have asked share that, while learning opportunities are readily available, those at several levels aren’t allowed to show off what they have learned. And in a fast-paced environment like that of your fully integrated PR agency, that showcase can help with workplace cardio.

Recommendation: Clients want to know they are working with one of the leaders in the industry…a pioneer, even. They enjoy bragging internally when they make the coveted AOR hire. So, if the people around the table all think they know it all already, how can the client offer anything to the relationship? Pitch teams are what old agencies do and segment experts are what good agencies do. Ketchum is one of those, but to get better, that learning curve needs to be a bit straighter.

We are grateful to the many people who have shared their earnest opinions in the agencies in which they work because they care. This was not a forum to air grievances and “stick it to the man.” Our hope is to make the PRNewserverse a better place.

Stay tuned next week for the second part of this report card…