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10 Cultural Signals for Changing ‘PR’ Firms

People working at desk in office cubicle

PR agencies talk a lot about culture. They also talk a lot about how they’re not just PR agencies any more, as our industry has changed and their services have evolved with it.

Which made me wonder – culture is obviously important to commercial success and employee well-being, but can it be an active ingredient of the evolution agencies are going through too? Can it help them change and better align with new communications opportunities?

Maybe. Those of us who work for agencies know all-too-well that we’re people-based firms, and without those people we are nothing. So surely the commitments we make to culture and the action we take to sustain it can have a direct impact on what we need to do to evolve?

These are things that went through my mind when I was going through some good thoughts on enviable workplace culture in Fast Company a few days ago.

It sets out some strong indicators that culture is a strong asset for the business and the people who work for it. Personally I agree with all of them. But it got me thinking which of these, and others, are our cultural priorities as PR agencies transition to become more integrated, more about communications rather than just media relations, and drive more value across marketing. In other words, firms that ‘do’ PR rather than ‘are’ just PR in the conventional sense.

Here’s the list I came up with:

1. Tuned-in: having a crystal clear vision as a business, so that everyone knows what direction they’re pulling in, and why that’s the right direction for the firm and for them. Which comes from thinking about it, ensuring people understand it and enabling them to act upon it continually. This is more important than ever as agencies change.

2. Transparent: sharing information willingly and being frank with people about the state of the business, its priorities, its decision-making and its focus. Good for most firms, particularly important in communications firms.

3. Mutuality: making sure that people understand the collective success they are trying to achieve and the individual success that it will bring to them. Getting that balance right can be tricky but is fundamental. At a time when the industry is shifting, individuals all want to know what that means for them and their place in it.

4. Desirability. Having a strong recruitment brand is always a positive thing, but being actively desirable as a place to work because of how the business is run, what it achieves and how its people share in that makes is easier to find and retain great people. Client mix and softer benefits will be a factor, but agencies need to share publicly how they’re really changing, rather than just apply lipstick, so that canny candidates are inspired.

5. Confidence: good agencies with positive cultures can be a cauldron for it, bad ones can eat away at it. So much industry upheaval is happening so quickly that people need to be able to tackle new challenges without fear, and knowing they have full support to do so.

6. Bitching: it can’t be stopped, but it can be tackled. Gossip can fuel unease and that can fuel bad-mouthing. Often, it can be a storm in a teacup. A culture that acknowledges it happens and seeks to counter it through conversation rather than try to suppress it can keep a grip on the forces of speculation. In times of change, the stakes are upped.

7. Multiple cultures: while culture cannot be imposed and is driven both by leadership and the attitudes of individuals, positive culture needs headroom to mean different things to different people, and to be played out differently across teams. Sure, a strong cohesive culture should go hand-in-hand with vision and a strategy for achieving it. But to get the best from people and help them do their best, department X and team Y within agency Z will always need to have some sense of individual and collective culture. It’s natural that there will be some unevenness amongst teams through periods of evolution, and that’s when values should be the anchor.

8. Bravery and blamelessness: bravery goes without saying, as trying new things and changing some methods needs guts. Equally, cultures that discourage finger-pointing and encourage exploration of unexpected avenues are well-placed to tackle change.

9. Smiling: yes, corners of the mouth upturned, in full public view. Businesses full of humans should have a strong human streak, no? Leaders can’t mandate smiling of course, but they can inspire it and cherish it. So much in our world is changing and holds new opportunities that we should be happy about. So look out for grin-flashers, and even give it a go yourself!

10. Communication: should I even be including this here? Isn’t this what we do? Yes, but we’re not always perfect. We need to practice what we preach. We need to remember that the communication is not only our business but is the oxygen of positive culture. Mouth, ears, eyes; use them.