Retaining Professionals Who Thrive on Challenge

This post appeared original on the Institute for Public Relations blog, written by Pamela Blum and Vanessa Tremaro. In any service based industry, client retention and employee retention are inextricably linked. In public relations consultancies, a firm’s success hinges on its employees and the level of service they provide. Their creativity, diligence and intelligence are firms’ most valuable resources.

We conducted a study that evaluated and analyzed the factors that contribute to employee disengagement and turnover and uncovered six key areas for preventing the loss of key talent in PR firms.

Many of us have found ourselves unhappy with our position, projects or bosses at one time or another in our lives. Hopefully, just as many of us have also been inspired by new and challenging endeavors that expand our capabilities and leave us fulfilled. Each of our stories – the triumphs and the tribulations – is unique. So is it possible to really hone in on what drives retention and engagement? Or are these reactions too individualized, too personal to really address on a large scale?

Throughout our study, which included extensive secondary research and two primary research elements – an online survey of PR professionals and in-depth interviews with HR executives at PR agencies – we were continually surprised that although our participants’ backgrounds varied widely, there were staggering similarities in their responses.

One profound conclusion emerged – it seems people who choose a career in consulting are a different breed – driven by different factors than those who might choose a life in a large corporation, a non-profit organization or even government. Employees of public relations consultancies – especially high performers – are not best motivated by the standard factors top-rated in most employment studies, like pay, benefits or work-life balance.

Employees of public relations consultancies are best motivated and feel most fulfilled when stretched — driven beyond the norm and reaching for a new pinnacle.

So, how does a manager keep the level of challenge high and the work fresh on a daily basis? Based on our study, we recommend six key opportunities to guide firms in avoiding unwanted turnover among their best people:

1. Variety – Provide employees the opportunity to work on challenging projects of various types. It is essential that work be delegated fairly with development in mind. In the primary research, respondents’ level of responsibility was ranked the most important factor to an employee in terms of his or her intent to stay at a firm.

2. Training – Create an aggressive management development program that includes training to help managers improve relationships with their direct reports. Direct supervisors have the most influence on the day-to-day life of an employee. In the long run, good people managers nurture an environment where employees want to stay.

3. Direction – Make sure your employees know your firm’s mission, and work to instill a sense of shared vision among your employees. Employees who feel they really matter as individuals are more likely to stay at your firm. They’ll also be better performers. Drive your firm for growth by making your goals ambitious and communicating them broadly.

4 Selectivity – Refine your hiring practices. It takes a certain kind of employee to thrive at a public relations consulting firm. Individuals who are cut out for life in a PR firm (as opposed to working on the corporate side or in an entirely different industry) thrive on challenge. Characteristics of the firm’s culture should be identified, and interviewers should seek out candidates with attributes that fit with the firm’s culture.

5. Culture – Create a distinctive environment and corporate culture that is diverse and different from the rest. Working in a public relations consulting firm can be extremely difficult — with long hours, constant pressure and fewer intrinsic rewards than similar positions in corporate companies. According to our findings, these employees want more – more challenging work and more opportunities for advancement – which in turn amounts to more pressure. If you celebrate this type of behavior in your firm, employees will enjoy the attention.

6. Communicate! – Spark a robust dialogue within your organization. Two-way communication is a must. It supports all of the other five recommendations above and helps develop specific tactics to identify shortcomings and devise remedies. Participate in an ongoing discussion among your employees. Use the conversation to create a sense of team in winning new business, sharing recognition both in trade publications and among the wider public. Celebrate the wins, and mourn the losses – together.

Some of these recommendations may seem like common sense measures, and many PR consulting firms may have some form of these programs in place already. But are they working? What more can we, as practitioners, do to motivate one another to be a valuable contributor to our teams and achieve success on a large scale, yet achieve as individuals?

The answer is consistency. Creating a work environment that will remain attractive to the best and the brightest is a continuous challenge for management. It requires truly living by these best practices on a day-to-day basis. Remember, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

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4 Replies to “Retaining Professionals Who Thrive on Challenge

  1. Thanks Toni – that sounds like a real culture of professional development.

    I think it is inevitable that individuals will have to increasingly be responsible for their own development – but those employers who recognise the value of investing in such programmes will undoubtedly benefit.

    Sadly, most consultancies and clients don’t seem to be this enlightened, especially with budget constraints when “training” is one of the first things to be cut.

    I’ve always believed that if you don’t prepare for the skills you need for tomorrow, that you will be capable of only dealing with yesterday’s problems.

  2. Following up on Heather, I remember (this of course is a personal, and therefore biased, account as I was then the principal shareholder and ceo) that in the mid eighties, when Jim Grunig and his fellow scholars were doing the Excellence research, SCR (strategy, communication, research), then Italy’s leading public relations agency, required mandatory professional training for its appx 100 employees of a minimum of 20 full days per annum prepared ad hoc and delivered by Methodos (then merely a management training company and today my employer and also change and transformation management consultant).

    Also, between 1984 and 1986, the eight practice directors of the company were mandated to carefully review the more recent 50 completed agency projects and identify the commonalities present in all, in order to define a systematic and methodological approach to the profession which was named gorel (governance of relationships…) and made the process available to the entire professional community with no copyright.

    Today, the gorel methodology has reached its 11th revision, is generally accepted as the most advanced professional methodology in Italy, and today Weber Shandwick (who bought SCR in the late eighties) is still Italy’s leading agency, while a great many professionals in private, public and social and other consultancy organizations have begun their career in that agency.

    I am fully convinced that one of the major reasons which have lead to the commoditization of agency services as we see it today is because the quality of professionals on the demand side has greatly increased (and this is positive) while on the offer side the extreme commercializaton of the pr business has greatly damaged the quality of agencies (and this is negative).

    Also, the possibility of self professional training and updating allowed by the Internet has disintermediated one of the fundamental reasons for professionals wanting to join a global consultancy, and organizations are quickly learning to select their own consultants/consultancies on a case by case and country by country, rather than through a one stop global shopping pattern.

  3. I just wanted to pick up on “training”. In my experience, PR consultancies today aren’t good at professional or personal development. There is too much focus on training “on the job” or with internal “courses”. This lacks any robust underpinnings and doesn’t necessarily develop anyone.

    (I could say the same for a lot of external training also).

    Shouldn’t the advice be for employers and employees to understand and develop lifelong learning that draws on a wide range of stimuli.

    That may include self-directed learning (online or from traditional means, including reading!!). Or quality training courses – that have clear learning outcomes and are competency focused. Or, access to academic qualifications which should not be thought of something in PR that is only for undergraduates. And, what about mentoring and other great development opportunities?

    Encouraging professional development programmes that help to recognise, implement, and monitor, progression would also help ensure a culture of development.

    I believe that only a strategic commitment to development rather than training will ensure long term retention.

  4. Some comments, section by section.

    These are based on being in the PR buisness since 1970; three agencies until mid-1974. One with strong federal poltical connections, but handling broad PR, plus while there I started a photography / video operation. 10 perople.

    The second specialized in investor relations, with a section devoted to consumer PR, but not a lot of B2B. 14-15 people.

    The third was Canada’s largest agency at the time. I worked in Tourism, and for several provincial govenment ministries, including speech writing for cabinet ministers.

    Then a decade in giant high tech telecom businesses; manufacturing for 8 years and a facilities based common carrier for two more.

    Then a year at the Toronto office / Canadian headquartrs of Burson Marsteller, the world’s biggest PR firm.

    Since late 1986, worrked in my one one-person or , more rcently, some else’s two-person, general broadly-based PR firm.

    VARIETY — Depends on the clients the agency has, of course. In favor of smaller agencies is the fact that everyone gets involved in the big projects. In the second agency, we spent a fair bit of time drinking wine and eating sandwiches late on a Friday afternoon, with everyone talking about what they were doing.

    At Burson, there was an organized effort to keep employees informed. We were divided into three groups — health care and science; marketing; and corporate. (I was in corporate) Every Friday afternoon we had a group meeting, briefing each other on what we were doing, and discussing who appeared to be fully billable the next week, and who had free time. Then Monday morning, the senior people from the three groups met, briefed each other on the highlights of our group, and then loaned our not-fully billable people to the other groups that were understaff that week.

    This meant that many people from each group met and worked with people in other groups, and met their clients and solved their problems.

    On the downside, juniors at BM back then very rarely were allowed to talk with, let alone meet, clients.

    More recently, while observing bigger agencies in Canada, I see many where each consultant fights to protect his or her billable hours and refuses to let other people get anywhere close to an account. So, minimal variety nowadays.

    TRAINING — Maybe there are agencies where it’s necessary to hire outsiders to tell managers how to deal with their staff. I would hope that the top dogs would ensure that middle managment dealt well with lower management and the serfs.

    But where training is good is when it helps PR people get better, either by improving a current skill or developing a new one.

    Again, Burson was good at this. Every few months we woud all get together in a giant meeting room, and gt a lesson or two or three from experts, often from other Burson offices. And these were well done, so that, for instance, at a writing workshop, there would be stuff to get the juniors better, and not offend the seniors who already thought they could write. Plus we had some specialized courses, one — thinker, feeler, censor, intuitor, analyzer — of whioh I still use day after day.

    At all the agencies, back then, the senior people made sure we explained the why of what we were doing, and with the exception of keeping juniors away from clients at Burson, we tried to get everyone out to events and client meetings, even if we ate some hours doing this.

    DIRECTION — it seems to me that the mission and direction of most agencies now is to soak the client, think short term, and get as much money sent back to holding compnies with names that are only strings of letters.

    The mission is to eliminate staff in order to maintain the thickness of the envelope going to London or New York or Paris.

    SELECTIVITY — Well, seems like a no-brainer, but some agencies have HR departments made up of intellectually challenged dumbos who are clueless about PR. Like most HR people, their goal is to minimize wages, minimize bebefiuts, make sure there are easy ways to fire people without severance, etc.

    So for selectivity to work, the first point of contact between a prospective employee and the agency MUST be a real PR person. And that hits billable hours. (At Burson, every inbound resume hit my desk, and I then fanned them out to appropriate othr managers, or sent out a personally signed FOAD letter.


    All the agencies had distinctive cultures; two based on staff eating good meals in restaurants and private clubs. Senior staff more often than juniors, but even the secretaries were out for a good meal, either at ann owner’s home or a good restaurant, quarterly.

    At Burson, the positive culture was the inter-group interaction. The negative culture was an avoidance / forbidding of creativity on the part of the real PR people. WE ordered plans from other branches and we used mediocre creativly department people instead of being allowed to use our own ideas.

    At the third agency, I left because I was tired of nagging by the owner, coupled with a great offer from a corporation.

    COMMUNICATE — my observations today are the pr peopel in agencies keep info as close to themselves as possible, protecting their billable hours and competing against each other within the same firm.

    Besides, should the client pay two billable hour charges when Sam tells BArbara what’s going on with Ajax Widgets?


    At Burson, I left because the

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