EDITORIAL: PR thought leaders should join Jack Welch in trumpeting the importance of strong staffing

Jack Welch, Larry Bossidy, Tom Peters, and Edward Zander were among the speakers at the World Business Forum in Chicago, a traveling road show of high-profile business and political leaders.

Jack Welch, Larry Bossidy, Tom Peters, and Edward Zander were among the speakers at the World Business Forum in Chicago, a traveling road show of high-profile business and political leaders.

While much of the content of these thought leaders' presentations focused on high-level issues, a surprising amount of time was also spent on the fundamental issues of personnel management.

Welch, in particular, did not dwell on his well-known 20-70-10 philosophy, by which staffers are grouped according to the top-performing 20%, the essential 70% in the middle, and the bottom-performing 10% (who would, in the Welchian world, be fired). Instead, during his Q&A session, he talked much more about the importance of CEOs hiring people smarter than themselves, and of managers giving regular performance appraisals as the key function of their jobs. Failing to do so, he pointed out, was "criminal." He added that no one he fired was ever surprised about it because regular feedback left no one in doubt about how little or highly they were valued.

I have written before in this column about the potentially treacherous times that the PR industry faces as the market shows increasingly robust signs of recovery and competition for great performers becomes more fierce. The issue has been identified as a top priority by Harris Diamond, incoming chairman of the Council of Public Relations Firms, who officially takes over the role for MS&L CEO Lou Capozzi this week.

During the past year, the Council has been re-energized in its efforts to increase its relevance to its membership and demonstrate its value, concentrating on, as Capozzi puts it, "understanding the client perspective and identifying the things about our dealings with clients that are a challenge, things that are common to us all." The organization's procurement analysis is one example. Increasingly, the Council has also provided more meaningful operating data for firms, including benchmarking performance across agencies of different sizes.

But among some of the smaller firms I have spoken to, there is still a perception that the Council is geared more towards large-agency issues and, as such, must continue to strive to meet the needs of smaller members. I have no doubt the Council and its leaders would refute that, but nevertheless, the perception lingers. But it is one that the Council has a great opportunity to change.

There are many thought leaders covering various PR areas - including Bill Margaritis of FedEx on reputation, Larry Smith on crisis, and Doug Pinkham on public affairs. But on issues of running an agency business - everything from recruitment and training to profitability and Sarbanes-Oxley legislation - thought leadership remains fairly unspecific.

Diamond has personally navigated the biggest merger in PR history, with the joining of Weber Shandwick and BSMG. He is, in some ways, the Jack Welch of the agency business in terms of relative scale of operations and his own personal prominence. He and other board members should seize the opportunity to share not only high-level thinking and strategy, but also insights into the day-to-day grind of management. The Council provides an essential platform to do this.

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