Company hopping may seem in vogue, but some PR pros have found total satisfaction with long-term stints at one organization.
The idea of “climbing the career ladder” seems, for the most part, to be outmoded in the current PR industry environment. Today, progress often means hopping laterally to a different ladder every few years, hoping that its ascent to the top proves to be faster than the one at your previous location.
Still, hopscotching to the top by switching agencies or companies frequently is not the only option. Though many – or even most – young PR pros believe that it is to their advantage to join a new organization in return for a small promotion or a raise, some industry veterans say that building a career within a single organization can have its own advantages.
And even if you have moved around a few times already, these same experts point out that it's never too late to plant a flag in the ground and start building a foundation that can support you for decades to come.
From the bottom to the top
Dale Bornstein, a partner and director of global practices at Ketchum, may be the epitome of rising from the bottom: she joined the agency not long out of college as an assistant account executive more than 20 years ago. She garnered successively higher positions over the years, gaining responsibility in the consumer practice and the New York office, and eventually landed on the executive committee.
In 2005, she took a step back to have a baby, but returned in her current position – proving that deep roots in an agency can help one's career and family-life balance.
“Every day I felt like I was learning,” she says. “Every day I felt like I was challenged. I've had real opportunities to, at times, reinvent myself. Every one of those jobs required a new and different skill set.”
That sentiment is a common theme among those who have built long careers. In order to advance, one must learn everything from standard publicity skills to management tactics at different points along the way.
Moreover, the mentoring that goes along with long-term employment can make those skills transitions that much easier.
While Bornstein says that many of her own colleagues have spent most of their careers at Ketchum, she acknowledges that such instances are relative rarities.
“Today, three years, five years, or seven years in one place is an eternity,” she notes. “That's the challenge for the industry at large...The idea of building a career in one place is absolutely not the typical career track for a lot of people entering the field today.”
Loyalty is good for your career
Then again, staying put can lead to top spots in the largest agencies.
Pat Ford, US CEO of Burson-Marsteller, started his career as a newspaper reporter before taking a public affairs position in Washington, DC, in 1980. He joined Burson in 1989 as a mid-level public affairs pro. He spent much of his career doing client work before accepting a job as the corporate practice head three years ago. He was named US CEO last year.
“The great thing about working at an agency like Burson-Marsteller is [that] it's a meritocracy at its best,” he explains. “We have enough critical mass that you can build a very strong career without getting too much involved in the administrative [duties].”
Ford is in a unique position to truly appreciate the benefits of loyalty. He has not only lived the experience of staying with one agency for a long period of time; in his management role, he occupies the perfect vantage point to see how the trend affects the entire industry's hiring practices.
“I always assume that somebody who's stayed in one place for a little while, and therefore has worked through some issues... there's more value in building your skills,” he advises. “Don't jump around for a few thousand bucks. You really need to think in terms of how you build your long-term career.”
Alison O'Brien, an EVP with Waggener Edstrom Worldwide who has spent 18 years with the agency after holding earlier positions in technology and consumer PR, recalls how she did not join the firm with the intention of being there for almost two decades. Rather, it has been the quality of work – including important programs for Microsoft – that has kept her there.
“I've never had a boring day in all my time here,” she says of her tenure at WE. In addition to her client work, O'Brien teaches a class on storytelling within the agency – something she truly enjoys. It's part of her engagement with her colleagues and clients that have kept her happy at the firm for this long.
“I think [the long tenure at WE] happened because the work has always been good,” she says. “It wasn't a conscious decision. I just followed my heart and my brain.”
Agencies are not alone in exhibiting the benefits of staying in one place. The corporate world can be just as friendly an environment for those patient PR pros who are willing to forgo the quick rewards of job-hopping for a long-term investment in a company career.
Howard Gordon, SVP of corporate communications and marketing with The Cheesecake Factory for the past decade, didn't even set out to be in the communications industry. His family is three generations deep in the restaurant business, and he got restaurant and hotel management degrees with a plan to continue the family's track record.
After spending years in that industry, he became a partner in a coffee and tea company, of which The Cheesecake Factory was a client. He joined the company in 1997 as its first SVP, and took over responsibility for developing and implementing a communications program.
Gordon says that finding a corporation in his own area of expertise, not to mention the precise role that plays to his own personal strengths, has helped him to remain with the company for such a long period of time.
His natural affinity for PR has also played a big part in his success.
“[We have] never paid for advertising, ever, in the 29 years that this company has been in existence,” he proclaims. “It's all about making sure that our guests get a great experience that makes them continue to come back, as well as be our word-of-mouth advertisers.”
For Gordon, the question of when to remain with one company, or in his case at the same job, or when to go is a decision made simply by listening to your gut.
“You just feel it,” he explains. “Probably more than in any other profession, in PR or communications, you know when something feels right.”
When to stay
You are truly interested in the organization's work and/or in the agency's clients
You have an opportunity to switch to new posts within the company
You enjoy working with your colleagues
Your work is intellectually stimulating
Your company has a solid culture of promoting from within
When to leave
You find your day-today work boring
Your company doesn't offer significant opportunities for advancement to new specialties
Your company will not offer an opportunity similar to a competitor
Your company does not place a premium on developing in-house talent
Your boss is inflexible and you can't communicate with him or her effectively