MANAGEMENT: Best of the Bunch

Which are the best PR agencies to work for? Steve Smethurst speaks to two consultancies that recently achieved three-star accreditation.

The greatest restaurants have the venerated Michelin star as recognition of their culinary expertise, and luxury hotels have four or five of the emblems on their frontages. Last month, the firm behind The Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work For table – Best Companies – announced its second star ranking of the UK’s best employers.

Launched last year, Best Companies awards firms on a one to three-star system, according to staff feedback on management, staff training and employee engagement. And this year, PR companies were among those that performed particularly well.

A one-star company is ‘first class’, two stars means ‘outstanding’, and three signify ‘extraordinary’.

Of 432 entries, just 42 companies received the most-coveted three-star accreditation. Of these, two were PR firms – Firefly Communications and PPS Group (see case studies, below).

It demonstrates that despite the press­ure they are under, these PR people are committed to the organisations for which they work.

To produce the accreditations, Best Companies read thousands of em­ployee questionnaires, in which people were asked to rate eight areas: ‘leadership’, ‘wellbeing’, ‘my manager’, ‘my team’, ‘my company’, ‘personal growth’, ‘giving something back’, and ‘fair deal’. Each has equal value.

Staff were also faced with statements such as: ‘My work is stimulating’; ‘I am under too much pressure at work to perform well’; and ‘I am bored with the work I do’. For each, they selected a response on a scale, ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’. Then, each company was given a score between one and 1,000.

Best Companies says its ultimate aim is to capture the elusive measure of ‘employee engagement’. Best Companies chief executive Jonathan Austin says: ‘We call it a measure of how prepared an employee is to go the extra mile. It’s an absolute measure of workplace performance.’

Permanent praise
Unlike The Sunday Times listing – which is purely an annual ranking for the newspaper – Best Companies gives permanent accreditation to those firms that make the grade.

‘It’s like Inv­estors in People, except it focuses on the levels of workplace engagement rather than organisational processes,’ says Best Companies head of research Pete Bradon. He adds that achieving three-star accreditation is difficult, and he was pleasantly surprised to see PR firms featuring so strongly in the latest round of awards. He adds: ‘All sectors have a problem with staff eng­agement. It doesn’t matter how many days at the races a company arranges for staff – if staff are not eng­aged in their work, it will be reflected in the accreditation.’

Bradon singles out ‘wellbeing’ as a crucial area for PR firms to address. ‘High workloads are rife. PR practitioners may work 12-hour days for a while, even two years, but then they’ll go. It takes good leadership to prevent a retention crisis, particularly in expanding companies.’

In recognition of this year’s three-star winners PRWeek speaks to Firefly and PPS on what makes their companies ‘extraordinary’.

Later this year, PRWeek will launch its own league table of Top Agencies To Work For – so, watch this space.

THREE STARS: PPS GROUP

London-based niche PR and lobbying firm PPS offers communications and consultation advice to the property industry. ‘We hire the best people we can, set them clear goals and give them as much autonomy to go off and thrive as we possibly can,’ says managing director Stephen Byfield.


He adds: ‘If they fail, we pick them up, dust them down and point them back in the right direction. Our culture is one in which we want to be friendly and supportive of all our people.’

Although Byfield says he always aims to hire the best staff, he argues that company culture is more important. ‘We don’t do duvet days,’ he says. ‘You get commitment when people are engaged in their work. Long working weeks are part of PR, too. Obviously, you need to keep an eye on work/life balance, but it’s about loving the work you do. PR is such a fascinating area – I should think it’s enough to motivate anyone in the industry.’

THREE STARS: FIREFLY COMMS

Firefly, which has 70 employees, was last year ranked the ninth best SME to work for by The Sunday Times, and is a former winner of PRWeek’s Consultancy of the Year award.

‘When we first made The Sunday Times list, we were 13th,’ recalls chief executive Claire Walker (pictured), who says being named an employer of choice is good for recruitment and retention. ‘There is a dearth of good people out there. We’re suffering a real skills shortage in PR, so anything we can do to differentiate ourselves from other potential employers is something I have always been keen to pursue.’

She adds: ‘PROs are being pulled in one direction by the media and another by the clients and I know they can burn out quite quickly.’

Walker argues that anything which prevents such a situation developing is worth the investment. Adding weight to her theory, the number of speculative job applicants to Firefly increases when The Sunday Times prints its annual report.

‘We see some fantastic people attracted to us because we’re considered to be one of the best companies to work for,’ she says. ‘Interviewees at all levels mention it.’

Recently, Firefly hired personal fitness trainers for all staff, and gave them the chance to run a free PR campaign for homelessness charity Shelter. It also encourages them to embrace its CSR strategy. This has included employees giving up their time to repaint an old people’s home. ‘I was stiff for three days afterwards, but the team spirit was tremendous,’ says Walker. ‘We don’t have many hard measures for how happy staff are, but this clearly encour­aged friendship. You’re having fun with your colleagues and you’re giving something back to the community.’

She adds: ‘A lot of agencies view their staff as commodity items and don’t look after their wellbeing. They just pay lip-service to training and development programmes.’

So determined is Walker to understand what makes her employees tick that when the company drops down The Sunday Times ranking she endeavours to find out why. ‘We did drop down into the 70s one year, so I had to thrash myself with birch twigs,’ she jests. ‘I studied the numbers carefully to see where we fell down. It was clearly down to one area: “giving something back”. It was something staff wanted to do, and it was principally the reason I started investing more in our CSR.’

Since gaining Best Companies’ three-star accreditation, Walker is again keen to study her scores. ‘I now want to know what people think of our CSR projects and how important they are to them,’ she says. ‘I’m 44 with children, so perhaps I have a different view of the world to someone who is single and in their early 20s.’


THE PR SECTOR'S OTHER WINNERS

Two-star winners
107 organisations won two stars – three were PR agencies:

The self-proclaimed ‘work hard, play hard’ culture seems to be paying off at Lansons Communications. ‘We view staff retention as a key measure of how satisfied people are – not only with their work, but also their working environ­ment,’ says chief executive Tony Langham, referring to Lansons’ 12 per cent staff turnover compared with an industry average of 27 per cent.

Policies that help to keep staff turnover low include the Milestones scheme, which recognises long-term commitment and hard work. ‘For every five years worked, employees receive two weeks’ paid holiday in addition to their annual holiday entitle­ment,’ says Langham.

According to Rac­hel Gilley, director of Bite Commun­ications, commitment to openness is crucial. ‘We hold company meetings every week where people have the opportunity to highlight client, people and new-business succ­esses,’ she says.

Lexis CEO Hugh Birley says that as more firms catch up on flexible benefits and CSR, it will become more important to have ‘interesting’ clients: ‘That’s what people stay for, a well-managed and develop­ed programme with real opportunities for professional growth.’


PR VERSUS MARCOMS


1. PR agencies scored better than ad/marcoms agencies in all cate­gories except ‘wellbeing’, where they were one per cent below the average.

2. ‘Giving something back’ shows the greatest difference between the two sectors, where PR agencies scored four per cent higher on average.

3. Ninety-one per cent of PROs agreed their job is good for their personal growth, one per cent more than staff in the ad/marcoms sector.

4. Ninety-six per cent of PROs felt their team is fun to work with, one per cent higher than ad/marcoms staff.

 

Click HERE to listen to more from Firefly chief executive Claire Walker in this week's Podcast, produced in association with CTN Communications.

 

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