Study finds far fewer optimistic employees at large PR firms

PR staffers are generally happy with their work, but there is more angst at larger companies.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

NEW YORK: Staffers at large PR firms are less optimistic about their companies than people at small or medium-sized firms, according to a PR Council employee retention study.

The PR Council’s board of next-generation agency leaders, PRC Next, conducted an online survey of 367 comms pros with agency experience (most were currently at an agency), in May. The survey grouped people by company size, as well as by age and family status.

The council released the study at a panel discussion on Wednesday at Communications Week New York 2018.

Overall, the survey found that PR pros of all age groups felt good about the industry, with 85% saying they are optimistic about its future. Respondents aged 18-to-25 were particularly optimistic. In addition, 80% of people surveyed said they were optimistic about the firm they worked for.

But when broken down by agency size, the results weren’t quite as sunny. The study found that 63% of people working at the largest firms — those with 250 or more employees — were optimistic about the future of that firm.

While that’s a majority, it’s a much smaller number than what was found at smaller PR agencies. At firms with 50 or fewer employees, 89% felt positively about the future of their company.  And at medium sized firms, with 51 to 250 staffers, 93% of people were optimistic.

The study also found that people at the larger firms have the lowest optimism about the PR industry in general, feel the least valued by their companies, and are roughly twice as likely to be ambivalent about their job.

"It’s a time of constant growth and also some painful moves," said PR Council president Kim Sample. "With the reorgs into single P&Ls, it’s painful in the larger shops."

Rebecca Ballard, head of communication and culture at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and one of the study’s authors, said it can be difficult for people at larger firms to have a sense of control over their careers.

"It’s so much easier to see that at a smaller firm," she said.

Another study author, Greg Mondshein, the cofounder and managing partner of SourceCode agreed that a lack of control at large firms might be behind the results.

"I think people like options," he said. "And I think what I’ve heard fairly consistently is that people will start in larger firms, say, as an account coordinator in the health care practice. And now they’re healthcare PR people and they didn’t really make that decision. The options to do different things and experience different things and the general flexibility and pace you can get in a smaller agency is appealing."

Donna Renella, president of PR recruiting company ABW Solutions, said the real cause may be the general business climate PR firms have faced in the last several years.

Renella pointed to the restructuring of large agencies as major source of uncertainty for employees, including moves like Hill+Knowlton Strategies divesting its content division SJR and WPP’s merger earlier of this year of Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe into Burson Cohn & Wolfe.

"If you look at Omnicom or WPP or any of the holding companies, the agencies are all being intertwined with each other," Renella said. "So your brand, who you were always told who you are, can be taken away from you in a blink of an eye. That will lead to feelings of great instability in employees."

Renella also said that while some agencies, such as Weber Shandwick and Edelman, have had stable upper management teams, many others have not. 

"So you have the two things going at the major firms," she said. "The holding companies are taking and merging the PR firms and are purging the structures, and the presidents and C-level executives are changing. Those two things explain the [angst]."

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