League tables of workplaces purport to show which are the best companies to work for. In a sector where firms have traditionally oriented themselves towards getting new business rather than new staff, PR agencies have been quick to see the potential value of appearing in the Financial Times 50 Best Workplaces or The Sunday Times 50 Best Small Companies to Work For.
But are these accolades becoming increasingly important as the PR recruitment market picks up, with the balance tipping in favour of jobseekers again?
Median Recruitment manager Christopher Lee-Roberts points to how the idea of 'if they want us, they'll wait for us' is becoming increasingly redundant, using the example that the company is now receiving more briefs than it has ideal candidates.
The way in which agencies are viewed obviously has a major impact on who wants to work for them. While some agencies have the reputation for high-quality work, high-quality clients and good back-up to employees, others may have the opposite.
Nevertheless, while reputation is important, it's not the only thing everyone is looking for. Junior to account manager level, for example, might be looking more into the name and the background of a certain company, while senior candidates tend to go more for the entire package, such as benefits on top of salary and flexibility.
But at an even more basic level, simple issues such as workplace environment cannot be overlooked. The provision of 'duvet days' may sound enticing, but ensuring that the office temperature is comfortable will win greater long-term appreciation among employees. BBC head of internal communications Russell Grosman admits: 'Our worst example was at BBC Leicester, where (for some staff) the nearest toilet was half a mile away.'
Feedback on employees' performance and introducing some kind of forum for discussing grievances should not be undervalued either. In April, the BBC launched a communications scheme emphasising that staff have a right to be told regularly how they are doing. Grosman explains: 'We've been running workshops teaching people how to have feedback chats, and we are sharing more information with staff.'
This is an important element to employee satisfaction, says Personnel Today editor-in-chief Jane King. 'People feel that they can thrive in an area in which information is free-flowing,' she says. 'Historically, UK plc is very weak at that, but staff want to be managed by people who communicate well.'
She adds that CSR is part of that mix too, particularly for the younger PROs. 'Good people in PR like to work for PR companies and clients who demonstrate good corporate governance and a sound approach to business.'
Straightforward though it seems, this all means that good line management is essential in both attracting and retaining good staff.
Rebecca Jones, director of Colette Hill Associates, an agency that specialises in PR around human resources issues, explains: 'You want someone who is good at coaching you, who'd recognise that you are not coping and step in to help. That level of support is critical and highly motivational.
Staff are looking for tailored development that takes their interests into account.'
A good start
For this reason, flexibility, such as the ability to work from home and do compressed hours or work part-time, is becoming increasingly attractive to employees. 'People are increasingly basing decisions on the work/life balance issue these days,' says Peter Childs Recruitment founder Peter Childs. 'They take jobs for a variety of reasons: money, content, clients, team, boss, environment and location all add to the attractiveness of a package.'
Once good people are found during the interview process, it is imperative they are retained. Even for agencies that can offer a wide range of benefits, multiple interviews and lengthy gaps in feedback to candidates might persuade some to take other jobs because they feel they have waited too long.
Lee-Roberts suggests that the mechanics of the recruitment process can be honed. 'If you know it's a good candidate, try and find a slot when the person who would do the second interview is around, so that if things are going well they can pop in,' he says. 'It is not necessarily a question of speeding things up, but of being more flexible than having a standard recruitment procedure and rigidly sticking to it.'
The reputation of an agency or in-house team is important, however it's the culmination of a pleasant working environment, flexibility, benefits and salary that drive the good candidates to choose them. Applicants want to feel valued and need to know that an agency has an interest in developing their career.
King believes that people don't leave jobs in companies, they leave managers.
This comes down to good line management. And that remains a key element that encourages people to choose certain companies to work for.
FIREFLY COMMUNICATIONS: THE SUNDAY TIMES 50 BEST SMALL COMPANIES TO WORK FOR
Claire Walker, MD
'We constantly benchmark our salaries and benefits to ensure that we are in line and above the industry average. Benefits include: private medical insurance, alternative health scheme, subsidised gym membership, pension and 25 days holiday. Everyone has an appraisal every six months, a personal development plan and four days a year to go out and spend time with a magazine that is a key publication to their client or work with a client's sales force.
'We communicate constantly about company performance, client campaigns, new business and people news with stories every day on our intranet, weekly company updates, monthly company awards and six-monthly company off- sites for a full day. We also hold quarterly confidential feedback sessions.
'Our average length of service is three years. Our retention figure for our current financial year ending in July is 60 per cent. We mainly use recruitment companies, but we also get a number of people applying to us directly. We get an average of three CVs a day on a speculative basis.
'Other staff benefits include Wellbeing Days, which is basically a spa day. We think duvet days treat the symptoms of a stressed workplace and are not preventative. A recharge room gives people a chance to go and spend 30 minutes having a power nap to increase their productivity or creativity. We have a table football area and we're currently building a Birds Nest relaxation area with nail bar supplies and weekly gossip magazines. Music is played everywhere softly and there are TVs and radios around the office for essential broadcast monitoring and to watch the summer of sport.
'Our charity of the year is The Meningitis Research Foundation and we hold company wide fundraising events for it. We also work for pro bono clients such as The Community Channel, The Samaritans and Charity Bank on a project or retainer basis.'
FISHBURN HEDGES (UK): FINANCIAL TIMES 50 BEST WORKPLACES
Philippa Dale-Thomas, joint MD
'Central to our culture is the fact that we don't have a formal line management system, so there are no bosses in the traditional sense. Instead, we have a mentoring system. Everyone has a personal manager who is everything from your coach and guide to your confessor and assessor - we all have one, including the chairman. It helps to keep our culture individual and open.
'We are client-focused in our work, with everyone including our chairman and chief executive being first and foremost client handlers (a minimum of 60 per cent of their time) for others to work with and learn from.
'There are no divisions and no departments, and minimal job titles (none of which appear on business cards), so sharing information and opinion are second nature and integral to the way in which we all work.
'We keep the workplace personal by looking for ways to make a place feel small, even as it gets bigger. My favourite is mixing everyone up, so you don't sit next to your team mate or someone doing the same job, and having regular seating changes moving 20-plus people every six months.
This, admittedly, is a nightmare for IT and admin, but great for relationships and keeping people's experience of the company and clients fresh.
'We work very hard at finding the right people in the first place and then keeping them. A gruelling process of eight interviews, a writing test and maybe a drink with peers helps ensure the best possible decision and match for both company and candidates.
'We do all of the things designed to reward people for the great work, the business growth and the financial performance that goes into making us a successful business: parties, trips abroad, Selfridges vouchers and champagne at Christmas. In 13 years there hasn't yet been a year when we haven't paid out an end-of-year bonus to staff.'