THOUGHT LEADER: A tough economy only heightens the need to retainyour best employees

There's a new storm coming to the PR agency business, and it will shake up firms that don't prepare for it now. It will wreak havoc on client relationships, upset management structure, break up account teams, increase bottom-line pressure, and give CEOs, owners, and partners a royal pain.

There's a new storm coming to the PR agency business, and it will shake up firms that don't prepare for it now. It will wreak havoc on client relationships, upset management structure, break up account teams, increase bottom-line pressure, and give CEOs, owners, and partners a royal pain.

Job switching, the inevitable curse of good times in the agency business, is developing ever so slowly, far off in the distance. But don't be fooled.

It is inexorably moving closer, fueled by increasingly tiny (yet positive) signs that our stagnant economy is starting to move forward again.

PR firms, while by no means out of the doldrums, are beginning to see more new business opportunities with decent and, in many cases, healthy budgets. Granted, these opportunities are more competitive than ever before (if that's possible), but they are also more frequent. The agency business may not get back to its rarified heights of 1999-2000 for a long time, if ever, but it is starting to show some new signs of life. And, as it continues to improve, those key managers, account directors, practice leaders, specialists, and other valued employees lucky enough to have kept their jobs through the recession will begin to develop a new sense of confidence that maybe now it is time to look for that next, better job.

I believe that there are many very senior, very good, very unhappy employees too scared to look for new jobs for fear that they may wind up losing the one they have if their current firm gets wind of their search. But that fear will erode, and there are signs that it's starting to already.

A recent survey by Workinpr. com revealed that 70% of PR pros "are not at all satisfied or only "somewhat satisfied with their jobs. What should disturb agency management even more is that 58% indicated they were going to leave their current employer within the year. What that number fails to take into account is the recruiting efforts that will commence as firms begin to lose people and seek replacements.

Retaining employees, always a key need in good times, may be even more important now when times are bad.

In today's agencies, employees are asked to work longer hours, handle more business per staffer than ever before, develop new business (a task many never dealt with before), supervise juniors without proper training, take on new responsibilities for which they are unprepared, and handle less than "glamorous clients that 18 months ago the agency would never have even considered.

Tempers flare faster today, job frustration is higher than ever, and the malaise that has affected agencies over the past year - as revenues plummeted and profits remained flat or slid downward - continues unabated in many firms, large and small.

Add to that the stress that all this creates, the life changes that many are going through as a result of 9/11, and the increasing awareness of the need to balance work-life issues, and you have a recipe for wholesale people moves later this year and into the first half of 2003.

Now is the time for agency management to take a new look at their organizations and figure out how to repair the fragile employee contracts that are certainly cracked in many cases, if not broken altogether. With a little thought, sensitivity, and some solid planning, agency management can begin to identify and start working on changing attitudes and cementing their relationships with their own staffs. But they had better start working fast.

Farsighted managers and owners are communicating more with employees to really understand their feelings and needs. Some are beginning to put in place measures that they hope will, in part, compensate for the dissatisfaction.

Whether it is new training programs that better equip employees to take on new responsibilities, in-house seminars and workshops to help people express and deal with their frustrations, or innovative benefits like personal coaching, those agency leaders who recognize and respect the old adage that "their only product gets on the elevator every night" will be the ones with the best chance to protect their firms and clients from the coming storm.

George Rosenberg is co-principal of The Rosenberg Group, a New York City consulting and coaching company that specializes in working with PR firms.

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