Adaptability, generosity, empathy: what makes a truly great PR employer?

PRWeek celebrates PR’s Best Places to Work, but which employer is best of the best? We compiled a ‘league table’ and analysed their success.

Best Places to Work winners (clockwise from top left): CCgroup, Manifest, Citypress, Lansons
Best Places to Work winners (clockwise from top left): CCgroup, Manifest, Citypress, Lansons

Winning any PRWeek award is a huge achievement, but there’s something unique about a Best Places to Work accolade – click here to see the 2021 winners.

It’s a colossal task: creating an enlightened, effective working culture that allows talented people to excel while handling day-to-day challenges. There are no fluke results, and to win across multiple years, especially given the recent turmoil, is truly impressive.

PRWeek ranks best employers over multiple years in Employer Premier League

PRWeek has recognised agencies that have consistently outperformed since Best Places to Work debuted in (broadly) its current format in 2015.

We’ve created a table – the Employer Premier League (or EPL, if you like). Agencies are ranked using a scoring system based on results over the past seven ‘seasons’, including this one.

Having analysed the Awards in depth, here are three crucial ingredients for a great PR employer.

First: generosity. It’s no coincidence that the top three in our table all offer equity options to staff.

Citypress and Brands2Life both recently gained Employee Ownership Trust status, which means 60 per cent and 50 per cent of equity in the businesses, respectively, are owned by staff via a trust. It gives an opportunity for generous tax-free profit share bonuses, and pay-outs should the business be sold. Meanwhile, a third of Lansons’ employees are partners with a financial stake, and the group is to introduce a scheme that will bring the founders’ share down to about 20 per cent.

Revealed: PRWeek UK Best Places to Work Awards 2021 winners

Agency bosses can be forgiven for being nervous about reducing their stake in a business that they have, in many cases, built from nothing. But giving staff ‘skin in the game’ can pay dividends, figuratively, for employers.

Brands2Life, which became an EOT last summer, views it as a huge morale boost for staff during the pandemic, and doubtless a major incentive for employees to remain at the firm. Citypress (an EOT since January) explored models for about six months before deciding on employee ownership as the best way to enshrine its staff-first principles in the business. Crucially, the agency leader saw alternatives, such as a sale to a third party, as a compromise on this point.

Bonuses

The approach chimes with other generous policies at the consultancies.

At Citypress, for example, interest-free ‘lifestyle’ loans of up to £4,000 are available to staff, and a huge 40 per cent of the operating profit is made available for performance-related bonus rewards. Lansons and Brands2Life also share a hefty slice of their profits in staff bonuses: 25 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively.

The second ingredient, innovation, may sound obvious, but the need to adapt swiftly has become more urgent in the COVID-19 era. Best Places to Work Awards judges have been impressed by the speed with which employers shifted working policies, bypassing internal bureaucracy to ‘JFDI’.

Kudos again to Citypress: its ‘quick pivots’ included redeploying staff whose roles could no longer be undertaken under lockdown restrictions to help in the HR, IT or finance functions. No staff were made redundant or furloughed over the period.

Several employers adapted their training sessions to shorter, more focused modules that are more suited to online learning in the era of ‘Zoom fatigue’. CCgroup, winner of this year’s Training & Development category, innovated in its training to match the challenges, focusing on issues such as home working, work-life balance, and resilience – in a novel twist, the latter course was delivered online by comedian Stuart Goldsmith.

Elsewhere, since December, Brands2Life has been working with a workspace consultant to redesign the office for the new ‘hybrid’ working model. Once more, it points to a culture of innovation for the new era.

Hearteningly, the best employers have been quick to adopt the innovative practices of their peers. Dynamo, ranked sixth in our table, claimed a UK industry first when it adopted blind recruitment in 2018 to boost diversity. The practice is now common among the ‘fast followers’ of Best Places to Work finalists and winners.

Innovation and generosity are byproducts of a third attribute shared by the best employers: empathy. It sounds easy in principle, but taking time to see things from the perspective of others is a big challenge and an under-appreciated quality that doesn’t readily come from an HR handbook.

Support

Citypress, again, is a model in this regard. Take mental health support: the agency’s leadership recognised that financial worries are a key factor behind stress at work, particularly among younger staff. This informed some of its approaches – for example, extending its loan scheme to partners of employees during the pandemic.

This year’s Diversity & Inclusion Award category winner, Manifest, also deserves a mention. The agency has gone as far as any to appreciate and understand the barriers to a successful career for professionals from BME backgrounds, and acted accordingly.

These actions have ranged from placing a big emphasis on Juneteenth, the annual holiday celebrating the emancipation of people who were enslaved in the US, to putting clauses in client contracts saying its campaigns will be representative and inclusive.

Often the most effective policies come from listening to employees and understanding their priorities. It’s striking how many Best Places to Work entrants have increased the number of staff surveys and other opportunities to give feedback over the past year or so.

There’s no single solution to being a good PR employer. But there’s also no doubt that a focus on generosity and constant innovation, underlined by a culture of empathy, have been hallmarks of Best Places to Work Award-winners over recent years – and will continue to be for the challenges ahead.

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