With the threat of recession still looming large, you would think
that the well-documented staff retention problem which dogs the PR
industry would be resolving itself.
However, many PR companies still face the problem of high staff
Despite the fact that these days, good training programmes are vital in
attracting and keeping staff, research suggests many PR companies are
just not putting the money into training.
The PRCA 1998 Benchmarking Study on training by Harris Research
certainly makes for disappointing reading. PRCA deputy director, Damian
Beeley says: ’The survey reveals that an average of only one to two per
cent of members’ net fee income is spent on training’. He emphasises
that the PRCA would like to see this figure at between five and 10 per
But there is a greater commitment to staff development made by some of
the big players. Particularly in sectors which are still recruiting
furiously and face a shortage of good calibre staff - notably hi-tech
and healthcare PR -there is a commitment to staff training policies
which are far-thinking.
Although boasting a modest staff of around 40, Grant Butler Coomber
(GBC), spends roughly eight per cent of revenue on training and
development, according to board director, Melissa Geddes.
She points out that rather than relying solely on home-grown stars, it
is vital for a successful company to bring in occasional new blood.
However, she stresses that training alone is not enough to hold staff.
’The main reason people leave is because they feel they are getting
stagnant,’ she says. ’Training and development have to go hand in hand
with challenges to use new skills and career opportunities, otherwise
you are setting people up for dissatisfaction.’
Geddes says a prime reason for GBC’s good staff retention record is that
employees are very much tied in with the future of the business. ’We
have a clear idea of where we want to take the agency and involve and
communicate that to staff,’ she says.
This is a view shared by Deborah Lewis, joint founding partner of
strategic business communications agency, Republic. ’Growing people with
you is the most important thing you can do, so they feel the scope of
the company is always embracing their aspirations,’ she says.
As director of a young operation, Lewis dismisses the idea that a small
agency’s lack of internal vacancies makes it difficult to meet
individuals’ career hopes. ’The opposite is true,’ she says. ’If people
want it, there is huge scope for them to develop their interests.’ To
underline the point, Lewis highlights that in an expanding consultancy
culture, staff can entertain all sorts of future possibilities, such as
heading up a specialist division.
At the top end of the scale are large organisations such as Countrywide
Porter Novelli which ensures that every employee has at least 140 hours
of training and learning time a year. In addition, there is a vast
in-house pool of talent for less experienced employees to learn from.
’What motivates talented people more than anything else is being
stretched and working with other talented people,’ says Barry Winter,
director of personnel and development.
CPN is also able to satisfy employees’ considerations. With an
international network, staff with wanderlust can broaden their horizons,
without necessarily leaving the company.
Miranda Kavanagh, director of corporate and public affairs at
pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, says her UK staff are able to broaden their
experience in the company’s international corporate and public affairs
departments in New York and Brussels. Pfizer also has a staff
development system that recognises the way people perform their jobs and
rewards long service.
This approach is echoed by Isabel Greenwood, managing director of Biss
Lancaster who says: ’The point is not to stop people leaving, but to
reward loyalty.’ As an incentive to employees who stay the course, Biss
Lancaster has introduced a sabbatical scheme, where after five years
service staff can take a four-week paid break.
In addition, as a company that since 1996 has had Investors in People
accreditation, staff development is very much focused on contribution to
the business. Everybody in the agency has a development manager -
usually somebody two steps further up the career ladder - and appraisal
of senior staff includes input from those they manage. As proof that
this approach to staff retention really works, Greenwood says that
personnel as senior as board director Fiona Noble originally joined the
company as a graduate trainee.
On a similar note, Manchester Airport is also prepared to sponsor staff
on lengthy training initiatives. Sally Sykes, head of press and PR says
that since 1995, her company has been funding a member of the PR team
through a part-time MA in PR at Manchester Metropolitan University.
More impressively, there is no tie-in clause involved. Sykes says: ’We
take a long term view and training is one of our contractual agreements
with employees.’ She admits that in an in-house department it is hard to
satisfy promotional hopes as there is not much movement of staff. But
instead, she places importance on variety and investing in people’s
’It is short-sighted not to develop people’ says Sykes. ’But you have to
accept that people leave for a variety of reasons. There are some wishes
you simply can’t fulfil.’
It is widely accepted that many of the recruitment problems facing the
PR industry currently stem from lack of investment in training
throughout the last recession. Although a straw poll among agencies
which invest heavily in training reveals that there are no plans to
reduce training levels at present, when push comes to shove in an
economic downturn, the reality is that training is one of the first
areas to suffer.
Chairman of the PRCA and managing director of the GCI Group Adrian
Wheeler is adamant in his views. ’I would urge any manager planning to
work in PR for longer than the three-year cycle of the average downturn
to think twice before economising on training. Short-changing our
employees is no way to behave, and the whole industry will pay a stiff
price if we sacrifice long-term quality to short-term gain.’
If the industry is to survive this recession, it would do well to
remember that its people are its main asset.
IN-HOUSE INTERACTION: BIG BROTHER REALLY IS LISTENING TO YOU
Most PR consultancies conduct staff appraisals annually or every six
months, with interim check ups. While these address career aspirations,
skills gaps and specific goals, the focus is very much on the big
So in the meantime, how do employees solve problems and sharpen the less
tangible aspects of their professional skills?
’Mentors are not quite Catholic priests, but they are definitely the
next best thing,’ says Melissa Geddes, board director at Grant Butler
Increasingly UK companies are turning to the idea of mentoring. By
allocating each employee an experienced member of staff as a
confidential ear, worries over workplace problems can be discussed
But how the concept works in practice varies enormously between
Grant Butler Coomber’s mentoring programme has been running for 18
Geddes says it not only provides a safety valve for staff, but also
gives the mentors themselves extended management experience.
In addition, she highlights the way the scheme benefits the company’s
bottom line. ’It enables us to put back into the pot all the GBC senior
experience and helps mesh the company together,’ she says. And while
there is the guarantee of complete confidence, the company has certain
escalation procedures in place for emergencies.
While some companies have very formal mentoring structures, at
Countrywide Porter Novelli, the scheme tends to be run by the staff
themselves. Barry Winter, director of personnel and development says:
’There are clear principles and we train mentors in coaching skills, but
it is very much based on need.’
Other differences include those who allocate a mentor and those who let
employees pick their own. For the most part however, these counsellors
are usually a senior member of staff at account director level or
But at Harvard PR, employees are likely to be assigned a person with
only slightly more experience than themselves.
PR director, Gareth Zundel says: ’It is a very flexible system and there
are various options, but having someone who is almost a peer looking
after you can be useful.’
However, many agencies have also refined their programmes to reflect the
input of staff. Annabel Abbs, client services director at Firefly says
her company has experimented with many things over the past four years.
’Originally, everybody at Firefly had a mentor, but this has now been
honed down to just the junior staff and a time limit of a year.’ She
adds: ’We encourage more senior people to find mentors outside the
agency or even outside the industry.’
And it’s not just the junior staff who find it useful to have a
confidential sounding board - mentors say can also benefit from the
JUST REWARDS: MORALE BOOSTING RECOGNITION EXERCISES
Whether it is winning a piece of new business against the odds, or
struggling into the office at death’s door, there are occasions when
staff deserve a big thank you. Undoubtedly most people are motivated by
money and enjoy the occasional financial bonus. But when staff go beyond
the call of duty, how do you reward that extra effort?
According to managing director Isabel Greenwood, Biss Lancaster has
moved away from a formalised recognition system for outstanding effort.
’We felt it was quite patronising and it ended up causing more problems
than it solved,’ she says.
Her agency still offers weekends away and spot bonuses, but these are
focused on specific criteria relating to business performance.
Day-to-day achievements are rewarded with champagne at the monthly staff
As part of the Shooting Stars staff development programme at Key
Communications in Birmingham, employees are annually audited on the
sorts of rewards they would like. Managing director, Christine Arthur
says: ’This year, financial remuneration only ranked fourth. People
considered issues such as pride and recognition and job satisfaction
above financial rewards.’ In response to these findings, Key displays
employees’ outstanding achievements in the agency for a month as a
public ’well done’ and Arthur says she is constantly looking to improve
However, while Key rewards all employees with the usual meals and social
events Arthur says ’it’s the little things that matter’. For instance
every new employee receives flowers or a bottle of wine on their first
day, and in December, staff were each given an afternoon off to go
But the most common way agencies afford staff respect and recognition
from their peers, is by holding annual awards ceremonies. For the most
part these recognise serious achievements, such as the best campaign of
the year. However, others are more oriented towards morale, so focus on
the fun elements of, say, who best handled a difficult client.
But at Countrywide Porter Novelli, such awards are judged on criteria
relating to the success of the business. Barry Winter, director of
personnel and development says the agency has a range of recognition
Among these is the ’Four Is’ awards for initiative, improvement,
imagination and irreverence. Winners receive a bottle of champagne.
Winter says: ’All rewards are in recognition of achievements that really
help move the company forward in meeting an ambition.’