The Public Relations Strategist

Talent Show: How to Find and Retain Key Staff

January 3, 2017


Finding and keeping top talent is a priority for every PR agency and, in fact, should be viewed as a top priority for leadership.

From interns to executive vice presidents, staff is the most valuable asset an agency has, and the critical thinking and skill sets they bring to the table are the reason many clients first engage with, and then ultimately stay with, an agency. Unless agencies are able to retain a happy, engaged and dedicated workforce, they won’t be able to win and keep new business or meet current client needs.

A variety of current social and economic factors (such as employee attitudes toward staying with an agency “too long” and local job markets) impact both the hiring and retention of employees at PR agencies.

As such, it’s not surprising that according to a 2016 report by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, both agency and corporate executives agree that the ability to attract and retain the right talent is the greatest challenge preventing them from achieving their future goals.

Although agency leads may be quick to blame talent turnover on millennial employees (according to a 2016 Gallup poll titled “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” 55 percent of millennials are not engaged at work, meaning they’re keeping employment options open), the truth is that it’s essential to engage employees of every generation to ensure agency success.

Recruiting properly

So what’s the key to finding the right talent? Needs vary from agency to agency, but in the simplest terms, we just need to find the people who are the right fit for the client. Then we need to make sure we’re spending the time to refine these employee/client relationships over the long term. Once we have them, we want to make sure we keep them.

What do we mean by the “right fit”? In the health care space, employees generally fall into two categories: “science” people and “consumer” people. That is, some employees embrace the more technical aspects of the work — such as data and regulatory milestones — while others lean more toward consumer-facing work, such as events and celebrity campaigns. Given that, GCI Health makes every attempt to feed an individual’s interest and give him the opportunity to take on something new and challenging. Experience shows that nurturing this interest is generally rewarded with superior work and outstanding results.

Keeping talent on track

Once you’ve scored the perfect hire, the obvious goal is to keep her happy and continue the positive momentum. That’s often easier said than done, but GCI Health’s methods for nurturing employees has paid off. We’ve been able to achieve a high level of retention through traditional benefits as well as nontraditional, highly motivating, fun, hands-on engagement programs: Of note, our senior managers have been with the company an average of 11 years and for as long as 23 years, and we have 14 staffers who were hired at the junior levels who are now in senior positions.

Beyond the traditional benefits and competitive salaries, setting your agency apart with a host of nontraditional perks is also a great way to strengthen company culture and keep employees engaged. At GCI Health, nontraditional perks fall roughly into three categories: work-life balance, recognition and personal achievement.

Perfect work-life balance is the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and it’s an important component of job satisfaction. So while it’s great to offer flexibility in work schedules, agencies should also consider other ways to help their employees balance work and life.

For instance, we’ve recently implemented a “Summer Lovin’” program as a thank-you to employees for the particularly hard work they’re putting in with existing client accounts as well as new business. Among many components of the program (including meals, snacks, raffles and more), two of the most appreciated are the early closings and breaks we surprised staff with as we headed toward Labor Day.

In terms of recognition, there are so many ways to show employees they’re appreciated. It’s simply a matter of figuring out what’s most meaningful to your staff. For instance, monthly shout-outs and small gift cards for great work (in GCI Health’s case, we honor those who are “doing something differently”) at all-staff meetings allow employees to enjoy the admiration of their colleagues and encourage them to strive for future accolades. Also, sending emails recognizing staff who participated in a new business win or a great client achievement goes a long way toward making employees feel their work is appreciated on a consistent basis.

Not surprisingly, food is also a successful route to employees’ hearts as a way of expressing appreciation. The occasional free lunch, bagel Mondays and snack carts (GCI Health rolls out themed snack carts with treats and beverages) are ever-popular methods of showing staff how important they are to your agency. It also recognizes that employees don’t always take the time to stop and enjoy a meal.

Finally, in terms of personal achievement, there are so many ways to ensure every employee is reaching his or her full potential and making strides within the agency. For starters, it’s essential that each employee not only have a mentor to support, encourage and motivate her (sharing advice for tricky situations, offering career guidance, etc.) but that each employee also meets regularly with his direct manager. Direct managers are held accountable within the agency to ensure employees are on the right track for career growth and that they’re feeling professionally fulfilled as well. They should work with the employee to come up with solutions to any issues in real time before they escalate. In addition to internal management, you can foster an employee’s sense of personal achievement by giving her opportunities to spread her wings within the agency.

For example, GCI Health’s U.S. offices offer an “exchange” contest with our London office. Staff have the opportunity to pitch senior management on why they should be chosen to work in our London office (all expenses paid) to expand their global mindset; our London colleagues have the same opportunity to come to New York. The program allows participants to broaden their perspectives, foster collaboration and ultimately expand their thinking to benefit their clients. What’s more, we also encourage employees (and top staff at every level) to participate both in real new business as well as new-business boot camp (a program we offer in which employees team up to practice the new-business process for a simulated RFP in order to hone and polish individual skills).

Across the board, there are multitudes of ways to keep employees engaged once you’ve found the perfect hire. Options are limitless, so I hope some of GCI Health’s retention examples serve as an inspiration for you.

The point is to find what works best with your employees and have fun doing it, because as you recruit and support your most valuable assets, you’re ultimately supporting the success of your clients, and we can all agree that’s something worth striving for.


Wendy Lund
Wendy Lund is CEO of GCI Health, an award-winning PR agency with professionals in the U.S., Canada and Europe. She was inducted into the 2016 PR News Class of Top Women in PR, was one of PRWeek’s True Women Champions of PR and was a finalist for PRWeek’s Agency Professional of the Year.


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