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A lot of PR agencies struggle to retain people. Seasoned PR professionals who get real results don’t exactly grow on trees. The job requires a lot of training and practice, and you don’t want valuable talent walking out the door after that kind of investment.
Because of this, I put a lot of effort into making sure my people feel supported. That way, they’re not questioning whether the grass might be greener somewhere else. Someone can always pay a higher salary, so how do you create loyalty? Here’s what’s worked for me.
1. Don’t throw your people under the bus
Three weeks into the job, a junior employee sent me a PR pitch intended for a reporter. There was a typo in there that I didn’t catch. The client did. They weren’t pleased. (There was also a comma that was arguably unnecessary). And they went just a bit crazy over it.
In fact, they immediately asked me to remove my PR associate from their account. Since we had a smaller team at the time and the rest of the agency was busy, that would have meant me taking on this account personally… and the client actually knew that.
Not an outcome I wanted. Frankly, not an outcome that I thought was going to make a difference, anyway. Don’t get me wrong: Most of the time, that old line about the customer always being right does apply. But when a client goes to Defcon 2 over a typo, that’s a sign that there are deeper issues at work, and it’s not meant to be.
Rather than throwing my employee under the bus to save face, I simply told the client the PR associate would remain on their account, but that I’d personally review her work thoroughly.
Long-story short, that client was gone three weeks later. Fine. Clients come and go. But that employee has gradually evolved into one of my strongest leaders — one who is particularly known for her attention to detail and client-management skills. It would have been a shame to throw that overboard for a typo.
2. Treat your people like heroes
Pay attention to what your employees actually care about. What do they hope to accomplish, not as a cog in your elaborate machine, but as people? What are their goals? What do they want to learn? When your employees feel respected, they are more likely to remain loyal to the company.
There’s often more than one path of career progression, and sometimes a lateral move can feel like upward momentum, if an employee wants to try a different kind of role. For instance, I had a PR associate who wanted to spend more of her time handling SEO and website copywriting. Until then, virtually 100% of our focus was on media relations. But I’d been thinking of expanding our service slate (and telling prospects about that) for some time. The employee’s desire for change came at the right time — and now she’s heading up that division of our work for several clients.
3. Give your people a reality check
Top-down command-and-control isn’t really a solid way to manage a nimble startup. Hire smart people and get out of their way — that’s a solid strategy for business success. It also works well for training.
That might seem counterintuitive if you’re trying to get everyone on the same page when it comes to processes and best practices. Fair enough. Maybe your processes work…but they don’t work as well as they could. Are you actually doing things better than your competition? How do you even know?
One thing I like to do about every quarter or so: I’ll get my PR people on a call with a team from a different agency. I’ll put it out there to the other agency: “This is purely information sharing. If you have a secret sauce that makes your approach or your agency very different and you want to keep that secret sauce, don’t tell us. Please, don’t tell us that special thing only you do.” (Maybe this isn’t viable for a company that’s got hundreds or thousands of clients, to share potentially useful intelligence like this. On a smaller scale, where our agency would max out at a client list in the dozens, it’s pretty safe.)
Then, we’ll go over day-to-day PR processes. How they do it. How we do it. Everything from strategy to pitching style to really granular details like subject lines for reporters. Occasionally, we will actually hear techniques and think, “Whoah. That sounds cool. We haven’t tried that yet.” Fantastic. Now we’ve got a new tool in our PR toolkit. And we typically will share much of what we know in the same way.
But most of the time, when we go through this exercise, my group comes to a nice conclusion: “It sounds like we’re doing everything as well as, or better than, everybody else.” And that’s a comforting reality check for your people to come to on their own. Seeing their reaction is a nice reality check for me too.