Ask any company looking to hire a public relations firm what attributes they’re seeking, and they rattle off a list of qualities they assume all PR agencies possess. They want:
• A creative team that interacts regularly with the public and stays on top of all the latest cultural and industry trends.
• A group of hip strategists that chat on the phone for hours a day; they are everyone’s best friend and take the time to understand new phenomena. • Most important, an agency that gets them results.
Though these are precisely the qualities a company should seek (and expect) from a PR agency. Unfortunately, the agency model has become antiquated—stifling creativity by focusing on the billable hour, maintaining old-school workplace policies, and enforcing obsolete values on employees. This attrition is startling. Our industry has one of the highest rates of employee turnover. Nobscot Corp. estimates voluntary and involuntary turnover reached more than 55 percent over the past 12 months. Not surprisingly, when unhappy employees leave agencies, it results in unhappy clients. The average “agency of record” tenure has decreased dramatically. According to the Bedford Group, client/agency tenure has shrunk from more than seven years to less than three years. The PR agency model is ripe for disruption. All around us technology and the creative class are turning industry on its head, and I believe the PR agency model is about to undergo a dramatic shift—one that will better serve clients and provide greater meaning and value to employees. Since the recent economic recession, we’ve already seen a shift in demand for smaller, more specialized agencies (which are typically more nimble and progressive). Public relations is a $13 billion industry, growing at a rate of 8 percent. Small, midsize, and independent firms are outpacing large and multinational firms. These smaller, specialized firms report 10.4 percent revenue increases compared with that of publicly traded firms, which report revenue growth of only 6 percent. Clearly, the winds are beginning to shift, but there’s still more to be done. Gender In 2010, Ragan.com revealed that 73 percent of the PR industry is female, yet an overwhelming 80 percent of upper management is male. I’m not here to bash the male gender (I happen to love them), nor get on a “Lean In” soapbox about workplace gender inequality. The point is that countless human behavioral studies prove that men and women think very differently—especially as it relates to processes and problem solving. The PR agency world is broken today primarily because of gridlock in idea creation and thought process. When men sit at the top of the org chart driving company strategy, their leadership (despite the best of intentions) doesn’t work for the majority female workforce in the ranks below. Professional associations such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) should place more emphasis on developing female executives and encouraging female entrepreneurism within our industry. In addition, we should work to diversify our workforce and attract younger male professionals to seek PR careers. Since 2000, PRSA has awarded 11 men and just three females its prestigious Gold Anvil Award. Clearly, we have a female leadership deficit that must be addressed in order to bridge and diversify agency thought processes. Workplace culture In full disclosure, I’m a millennial and I’ve been called every name in the book by Baby Boomers—from “entitled” to “fantasizer” to “hard to manage.” In my experience, it’s not that millennials are horrible agency employees, it’s just that Boomer bosses resist workplace change. This gridlock only exacerbates employee and client turnover. By 2025, three-quarters of the global workforce will be millennials. These fresh professionals bring with them a keen desire to work in a team environment, a desire for personal fulfillment, and the need for flexibility. To prepare, traditional PR agencies must shed their hundred-page employee handbooks, processes, strict workweek regimens, and heavy management styles. The good news? Millennials are digital natives, which means we’re typically multitaskers and seek roles in which we can balance many initiatives. This makes us perfectly suited for an agency environment. Some agencies are already embracing this trend. For example, Allison+Partners employees receive paid time off for individual community service activities of their choosing, and Coyne PR offers a “Zen den” with massage chairs, a pool table team room, a nail salon, and a bar for happy hours. At AR|PR, our millennial-centric culture is rooted in one simple motto: Believe the best IN each other. Want the best FOR each other. Expect the best FROM each other. This enables us to infuse fun and teamwork into our everyday efforts, while always focusing on client results. It also means we don’t have a dress code, and we give employees unlimited vacation. To prove this decision was wise, I calculated how much time I would have given employees in sick, vacation, and holiday PTO over a six-month period, and they actually took less time off. It’s all about creating a culture employees want to be a part of and feel fulfilled by. Shifting media landscape Today’s evolving digital landscape and media shifts are forcing PR agencies to adapt. Media platforms are moving far more rapidly than traditional agency pace, and I predict the agencies that don’t change will die. I once had a boss tell me that our agency should have a policy of turning press releases around in 48 hours, and clients shouldn’t expect same-day, priority treatment. Au contraire. When CNN2 (now known as HLN) launched in 1982, the 24/7 news cycle was born. Most recently, social media (Twitter, specifically) has ushered in a light-speed news cycle that forces PR practitioners to respond at a rapid pace. Moreover, traditional news media outlets are morphing into digital news engines, churning out more content than ever before. At the same time, this content is more concise and is created with a social-media-savvy audience in mind. Boomer and Gen X agency leaders must recognize that their millennial colleagues embrace new media platforms in a much more authentic way. For example, when I was in college in the early 2000s, Facebook was just being rolled out to selected campuses. The younger team members at my firm today use social media in a way that blows even my young mind. For this reason, agency leadership should co-mentor with younger team members. I encourage older generations to learn and absorb the practices of these digital natives and empower them to lead the agency in these respective functions. The future I understand that many readers will balk at my assertions, and I can now kiss my dreams of winning a PRSA Gold Anvil goodbye. But after representing dozens of cutting-edge, disruptive technology companies, I was inspired to share my perspective on how our 100-year-old industry can collectively dream bigger, do better, and work harder. The world relies on PR pros to tell the stories that should be told. With innovation all around us, we now have the tools and knowledge to tell these stories with more gusto than ever before. Let’s move our agencies into a new era, one that preserves our industry legacy and credibility yet attracts a new generation of talented storytellers. Anna Ruth Williams founded AR|PR in 2012. The firm operates offices in both Atlanta and New Orleans. To learn more, please visit arpr.co or follow @ar__pr on Twitter.