September 25, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

How can PR agencies evolve to meet changing client—and employee—needs?

How can PR agencies evolve to meet changing client—and employee—needs?

In a recent article on PR Week discussing the death of the traditional agency model, the author lamented the inflexibility of the standard agency workweek, and asked why PRs “sign off” at 6 p.m. on Fridays, and why agencies continue to stick with the traditional workweek when so much has changed within the PR industry.

The quick description of the situation referenced in the PR Week piece is that a radio producer on BBC Radio 2 was discussing how to pitch the station. An audience member asked for advice on what to do as the show was on Sundays, and they “don’t work weekends.” This incident sparked an interesting piece that noted in an “always on” world, how can PR expect to survive if it doesn’t adapt to changing expectations about availability.

First, it would be interesting to see if there are regional or global differences in the hours that are expected of a PR pro, or if there are even differences between different practice groups. Having done public affairs work, I know that particular practice certainly would have made the time to pitch a Sunday show. The weekly political shows on Sundays are a tradition in political circles and no one in their right minds in public affairs PR would suggest a show couldn’t be done because it was on the weekend.

Regardless of how practice groups or regional differences vary, the point made by the piece is an important one: the changing nature of PR work means that the PR work model needs to change. The big question is, how?

High stress, high turnover

PR executive” makes it into the top 10 list of most stressful jobs—annually. Every year. High stress, long hours, demanding clients, a fractured media environment, and a pay level that doesn’t always reflect the work put into the job means high turnover. These have been the conditions for a long time in public relations work.

In an article published in Entrepreneur in 2014 titled “Why the PR industry is ripe for disruption,” author Anna Ruth Williams points out that not only is turnover within PR agencies very high, the average length of time of an agency-client tenure has dropped. In many ways, these two items are linked—unhappy employees leave, which disrupts continuity on client teams, which can then lead to uneven program results. Sometimes change can be good, but when employees take the knowledge of what has been tried and tested along with them—not to mention interrupting the daily client contact relationship—often client service is going to be negatively impacted.

The key takeaway here is that both employees and clients are demonstrating that they are unhappy with the status quo, and this displeasure means that each is regularly picking up and leaving. The client churn then puts even more pressure on remaining employees, who must spend an ever-increasing amount of their time hunting down new business to replace clients they’ve lost, on top of the demands of growing the business.

Billable hours model

When the money a firm makes is directly tied to how many hours it can squeeze out of each employee, the incentive is to work each employee to the maximum number of hours possible. This is a recipe for burnout and high turnover. In agencies set up to operate like this, even in situations where a client pays a retainer, it’s almost always the case that the number of hours worked on a project are closely watched so that hours worked don’t exceed the amount of the retainer.

PR firms are businesses, of course, not nonprofits, so it’s expected that they will make money. The issue with billable hours is that the incentives for the PR firm are not entirely aligned with serving client interests, and the system is potentially damaging to employees. Just as constantly running a motor at top speed will cause it to wear out quickly, requiring PR teams to work at a maximum number of hours, week after week, will have the same outcome.

Some voices in the PR industry are speaking out against the billable hours model. The survey referenced in the linked article points out some of the reasons why it might be time to move beyond it—clients don’t really trust the system, and employees aren’t always diligent about recording their time. Entering time retroactively can lead employees to either over- or under-estimate how much time it took to complete a given task, which isn’t helpful for anyone, as it makes estimating time for future projects less accurate.

What might a future model look like?

The current model—the one that was “ripe for disruption” back in 2014—needs to be rethought. To summarize what has been outlined above, the current model:

  • Generally adheres to a Monday through Friday weekday model, which doesn’t match the 24/7/365 global news cycle and demands of social media;
  • Is incredibly stressful, leading to high turnover of employees, which then leads to
  • Client dissatisfaction, resulting in client churn; and
  • Is frequently based on a client billing model that makes neither employees nor clients happy.

From this list, we can infer that an improved model would:

  • Introduce flexibility of hours into work expectations to better match the “always on” nature of the media cycle;
  • Address stress in a meaningful way while still providing a high degree of quality client service;
  • Decrease staff turnover; and
  • Better align billing practices with client interests.

Flexible scheduling and allowing remote work would address some of the concerns associated with meeting near around-the-clock client expectations, and possibly also alleviate some of the work stress of employees. So why is it so outside the norm for PR agencies to allow employees to work from home, and during hours that don’t match the traditional M-F/8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. workday?

Changing work, changing roles

Defining working from home is probably important here—by this, I mean that the PR pro is predominantly home-based as a regular part of his or her employment. Virtually every PR pro I know is permitted to work from home if it’s necessary to let someone in to repair the hot water heater, or if there is a client call with a team in Europe or Asia during non-office hours. Flexibility in work-life balance isn’t what a new model needs; what it needs is some employees working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., some working 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., some working 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.—and so on.

Obviously, one of the potential problems with this pattern is scheduling and ensuring adequate client coverage, but with so many technological tools at our fingertips, this problem can be overcome if the will is there. Shift work exists in a lot of different industries, and it might be time for PR to consider it too, when it works for client work and employees.

Team work vs. quiet work

Another issue is that much of PR work, by its very nature, is collaborative. This means that having team members in proximity to one another on a day-to-day basis allows for frequent interaction on client work. It also means having ready access to more senior team members, who can provide guidance and feedback on a regular basis, which can be invaluable particularly to those just starting out in the profession.

The flip side of this is that a lot of PR work requires focus—research and writing are core PR functions, and this work not only can be done independently, for some people (myself included) a quiet room without the distractions of being in an office is essential to completing these types of tasks quickly and without errors. So, conceivably, the components of PR work that are not dependent upon team members being in close proximity to one another could effectively be done from home.

Some solutions are beginning to emerge

A few of Chip Griffin’s recent “Chats with Chip,” have touched on aspects of how the PR industry is changing to adjust to some of these issues. During the discussion with Joe Thornley of Thornley Fallis Communications, Joe noted that the “…company was redesigned to include a smaller team of core employees and a larger network of partners who work on an assignment basis.”

Some of these partners might be smaller firms that specialize in different aspects of PR, and some might be individuals—solo PR professionals, consultants, or freelancers. This move towards building flexibility by accessing the “gig economy” can allow firms to address some of the client issues noted above. In the U.S., the move to “gig” work is already raising societal questions, particularly in the realm of employer-provided benefits such as health care coverage and retirement savings.

Large PR firms will begin making changes to their business model whenever it becomes apparent that the prior model is no longer working for them or their clients; the move away from the billable hours model, in particular, will be challenging for them but is necessary. Changing a business model at the scale of PR’s largest agencies will be difficult, and risky—but it could also reshape the entire industry for the better.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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