Why poor talent management is undermining public relations

At a time when the industry has greater opportunity to grow in importance, significance, and business impact than ever before, many agencies seem bent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Seven years after coming to the public relations industry, after many years working on the client side in knowledge management and strategy roles for CPG companies, I am still shocked by the way our industry works against the basic tenet of any commercial enterprise — to create value.

At a time when the industry has greater opportunity to grow in importance, significance, and business impact than ever before, many agencies seem bent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Public relations is a profession driven by talent — with competitive advantage derived almost solely by the insights, commitment, and expertise of employees and their ability to drive real business results for clients.

In my role as COO for Porter Novelli, which includes oversight of the talent function, I have had an opportunity to meet many prospective candidates. And what I have heard consistently is an almost methodical dismantling of employee trust by the managers and executives charged with delivering value to their clients and their own agencies.

In what ways? You name it: Inconsistent compensation; lack of meaningful or consistent feedback resulting in people going for years without a formal review; an underdeveloped ability to deal with conflict, particularly between employees; and a conscious collective decision by management to keep talent uninformed, even clueless, about the financial health of the agency.

If you are looking for the quickest ways to ensure that you have uninspired or unhappy employees, these are all great places to start. Just don't then turn around and ask them to drive value for clients, because it is not going to happen. Trying to derive excellent service from disengaged employees is like pushing a rope.

It is really very simple: If employees and colleagues are not engaged, it will be reflected in how they relate to clients.

Employees who know they are not respected or valued soon become order takers. They slowly cease having new ideas and insights. They stop looking for opportunities or threats to a client's business. Eventually, they are just going through the motions of client service — often in ways that are difficult to spot outside their relationship with the client, especially without a strong and effective internal communication mechanism.

There are many ways for an agency to gauge its employees' levels of satisfaction and commitment. Unfortunately, many agencies use the most inefficient and destructive method imaginable. They watch clients leave — often suffering through a few years of dwindling budgets and rumors of meetings with other agencies.

When this happens, it should serve as a huge wake-up call for an agency and inspire major changes and no shortage of institutional soul searching. In reality, it generally does just the opposite.

Often, client attrition causes managers to intensify the behaviors that created the lack of engagement. They ramp up the command-and-control management style; they demand more billable hours; and they create an internally focused culture that can quickly turn cutthroat. The dysfunction is then perpetuated — quarter after quarter, generation after generation — from agency to agency throughout the industry.

It is time for agencies — and the industry as a whole — to take a moment to reassess what real value is and what it means for clients, agencies, and employees alike. Communications leaders need to abandon the mechanical way talent is treated and recognize that there is a straight line and direct correlation between employee engagement, client satisfaction, and business growth.

If you have any doubts, just ask a client what he or she values.

Clients don't assess agencies merely on the quantity of their work. (“Oh, they have 1,000 billable hours, they must be doing great.”) It is absurd to think of a client reviewing an agency this way. And yet this is the way agencies regularly task and measure their employees — driving a monumental disconnect everywhere you look: between clients and agencies, agencies and talent, and talent and clients.

Value is driven by the creation of consistent and incremental business for clients. An agency is hired to create transformational change that improves the client's position in business, reputation, revenue share, or sales growth — or all four. This is impossible if the employees tasked with these serious, creative, and insight-driven challenges are treated like mechanical commodities to be run as hard as possible, for as little cost as possible, until replaced.

As an industry, we need to move past an insular and simplistic definition of value and take every measure to ensure we are inspiring engagement from our talent. An individual's value cannot be assessed through billable hours and inconsistent, simplistic metrics. It must be viewed through the broader context of what clients really need and care about.

As the disciplines of marketing, communications, and public relations become more important — and more closely scrutinized — than ever, clients are directly measuring their allocations against actual business impact. It is time agencies did the same with employees, recognizing how real value is created. It isn't through the lazy, mechanical math of billable hours and domineering micromanagement, but through the kind of engagement that is only inspired with respect, transparency, professional development, and genuine commitment to employee satisfaction.

Joseph Russo is COO at Porter Novelli.

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