Employees who get challenging and rewarding assignments are most likely to stay in their jobs at public relations consulting firms, according to a study commissioned by the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) and the Institute for Public Relations.

“People who choose a career in a consultancy are a different breed,” said Louis Capozzi, president of ICCO. “Our study shows that to keep them, you’ve got to constantly bring them new challenges and opportunities. In other words, ‘stretch’ them more. The tougher the challenges, the more likely your highest potential people are to stay with your firm.”

Staff turnover has been identified almost universally as one of the most costly and difficult issues facing public relations firms today. And since public relations is a service and relationship-based business, high rates of employee turnover can have a profound impact on client satisfaction and retention.

Accordingly, the study points to seven specific opportunities to guide firms in reducing unwanted turnover. They are:

  1. Provide employees the opportunity to work on challenging projects of various types. It is essential that work be delegated fairly and also with development in mind. In the primary research, respondents’ level of responsibility was ranked the most important factor to an employee in terms of his or her intent to stay at a firm.
  2. Create an aggressive management development programme that includes training to help managers improve relationships with their direct reports. Direct supervisors have the most influence on the day-to-day life of an employee. In the long run, good people managers will nurture an environment where employees want to stay. In turn, employees will want to do their best for a supervisor they respect and admire. They will pursue more challenging projects and learn to be better supervisors themselves.
  3. Make sure your employees know your firm’s mission, and work to instil a sense of shared vision among your employees. Employees who feel they really matter as individuals are more likely to stay at your firm; they’ll also be better performers. They want to see how their efforts contribute to the firm’s overall success, and, in order to be able to discern that connection, they must know what it is they are ultimately working towards: fulfilment of the firm’s vision. Create a vibrant, competitive environment – not internally, but with your competitors. Drive your firm for growth by making your goals ambitious and communicating them broadly. Make sure your employees know they are part of the team that’s pitted against the competition.
  4. Refine your hiring practices. It takes a certain kind of employee to thrive at a public relations firm. Individuals who are cut out for agency PR (as opposed to working on the corporate side or in an entirely different industry) thrive on challenge. Develop a means to target your searches, and, once in the interview phase, assess what kind of an individual you are meeting so that your firm won’t waste time, money and effort developing an employee with no interest in staying on the agency side.Characteristics of the firm’s culture should be identified, and interviewers should seek out candidates with attributes that “fit” with the firm’s culture. Open the hiring procedure to current employees and ask for their input. To keep especially high potential talent from getting bored once they are in, implement a “high-achievers programme” that identifies these employees and offers special training, development and rewards.
  5. Place an emphasis on work/life balance; if possible, tie it to incentives to stay.Work/life balance is important to today’s workforce, and its importance continues to grow. Creating a programme that builds in flexibility, for example one in which a given number of years’ tenure at your firm entitles an employee to extra holidays or a sabbatical, helps to mitigate unwanted turnover in two ways: by improving work/life balance, which was found to be one of the top factors in determining an employee’s intent to stay at a firm, and by providing a direct incentive to stay on for a given number of years and beyond.
  6. Create an environment and corporate culture that are diverse and different from the rest. Working in a public relations firm can be extremely difficult with long hours, constant pressure and fewer intrinsic rewards than similar positions in corporate companies. According to our findings, these employees want more – more challenging work and more opportunities for advancement – which in turn amounts to more pressure. If you celebrate this type of person in your public relations firm, employees will feel the attention they may be lacking.
  7. Spark a robust dialogue within your organisation. Communication is a must. It supports all of the other six recommendations above and helps develop specific tactics to identify shortcomings and devise remedies. Participate in an ongoing discussion among your employees. Use the conversation to create a sense of team in winning new business, sharing recognition both in trade publications and among the wider public. Celebrate the wins, and mourn the losses – together.

The study, co-sponsored by ICCO and the Institute for Public Relations, was conducted by graduate students from the New York University (NYU) School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The authors, Vanessa Tremarco and Pamela Blum, amassed primary and secondary research to complete the Capstone requirement for a Masters degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communications at NYU. Data sources included: a secondary research study and analysis of secondary data amassed from the 2007 Holmes Report Satisfaction Survey, two international studies of employees of public relations firms, and personal interviews with Human Resources directors of major organisations.

The International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) is the voice of public relations consultancies across the globe. ICCO membership comprises national trade associations representing independent public relations consultancies in thirty countries around the world: from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. These affiliated trade associations collectively have over 1,000 PR consultancies as their members, who between them employ some 25,000 staff.

ICCO President Louis Capozzi is Chairman Emeritus of the Publicis Public Relations and Corporate Communications Group. He is available for media interviews relating to the study on talent retention.

The Institute for Public Relations is an independent foundation dedicated to “the science beneath the art of public relations™”, bridging the academy and the profession, supporting PR research and mainstreaming this knowledge into practice through PR education.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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