The Secret Worries of a PR Firm Boss

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Disagreement in OfficeMel Brooks once famously observed that “it’s good to be the king.” It’s probably also pleasant to be Bill Gates or Michael Arrington. I’d even guess that some folks think it’s pretty good to be me.

What is it like to have responsibility for running a PR firm?  You might be able to imagine the upside, but there are struggles too.  Here are some of the pain points — and some of the issues that folks like me think about on a daily basis:

  • Public Relations Budgets Can Be Small, So We Need to Position Ourselves More Broadly: We’re not the “big cheese” in marketing services – the advertising industry is (at least for now). Advertising  agencies command huge budgets and the attention of CMOs. Maybe the digital explosion will truly change that, but we have some work to do first. In the meantime, our job is to reach beyond PR wherever we can and demonstrate our ability to seamlessly integrate with other areas of marketing.
  • Employee Turnovers Force Cultural Changes: Every time we lose an employee, we lose a piece of who we are as a firm. This can be hard to live through, especially since the ones who are left behind have to pick up the slack. However, if you hang in there, you do get the benefits of seeing how new employees can infuse and improve the culture.
  • A Larger Bonus For You May Mean Less for Someone Else: There are many well deserving employees who ask for significant raises and perks at review time. Here’s the problem. We can’t afford to give everyone exactly what they want. And if we manage to pull it off one year, we are unlikely to be able to do it the next year.  Simply put, there are trade-offs involved when you try to share equitably.
  • Good Firms Are Not a Dictatorship: In our firm, we don’t issue commands. Instead, we hope to mount a convincing case for many of the major decisions we make. Employees get to have input. This helps morale, but it means that decision-making takes longer than the group wants it to take.
  • Really Talented Individuals May Not Like Each Other: The only asset that a PR firm owns is their employees. But what happens when the best media relations professional can’t connect with the account manager? Simply put, it gets messy. Since we can’t solve personality conflicts, we try to broker compromises. This is time consuming and usually involves hurt feelings. Worst of all, it can trickle down and affect other team members. This is uncomfortable, but a fact of life.
  • We are Always Anxious About Losing a Client: We’re very lucky to have low client turn-over. Most of our big clients have been with us for 10+ years.  Still, each year will bring some losses – that’s a fact of life for any agency. Very often the relationship ends for reasons we can’t control, such as budget cuts or a new client leader or a change in marketing strategy. But no matter why we lose them, it’s our job as leaders to constantly hunt for replacement clients. The hunt never ends, and in times of economic instability, it gets even harder. We can’t afford to take our eye off the ball if we want to keep paying you.

So why am I sharing this with you? In order for us to work well together, we have to try harder to understand each other – and the challenges we each face. That’s true whether we are the boss, the seasoned employee or the new hire. We need a common understanding and language in order to help each other, our firms and our industry grow.

Let’s start now. Were you surprised by what I shared? What are your secret worries as an employee or a leader?

Elizabeth Sosnow is a Managing Director with BlissPR, a B2B based public relations firm in New York and Chicago. Elizabeth leads BlissPR’s social media strategy development, helping clients and colleagues assess and maximize customer engagement via evolving communications tools. You can also find her blogging at http://blog.blisspr.com/
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  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Hey Elizabeth – great post!

    Having been both a new and seasoned employee it's an odd balance for everyone. Frequently new employees have little idea regarding their firm's financial health and the Green can be one of the biggest issues for green employees (when can I expect a raise/bonus/promotion (and therefore raise)), especially with (new & terrifying) student loans. This seems particularly true over the last 4 or so years when self-branding and promotion have really taken off and been in the grasp of everyone.

    While academically (I would hope) every employee knows a firm's bank account isn't a never-ending pot of coffee – erm, funds – they're also acutely aware that they are one of the largest line items in a budget (behind rent) and one of the easiest to cut if business falls off.

    For the employee a little straight talk about the company's financial health goes a long way. Obviously dollars and cents aren't necessary but an indication of potential business in the pipeline, whether they'll be assigned to said business, what the agency heads suspect might fall off, etc. give the employee not only a more complete picture but also show a level of trust and faith in the employee and their ability to handle the 'real' world. As an added benefit, it also helps them prepare for more experienced roles where they'll be dealing with budgets, etc. and they can gain a more complete appreciation for the business aspects of running a business (either as a whole, or an individual account/division).

    As before, great post — I'm looking forward to reading more from the top.

  • http://twitter.com/LauraScholz Laura Scholz

    You made a great point about institutional knowledge. I currently have one employee and three interns, and my employee started as an intern and has “grown up” with me. She's been a huge part of my company's growth and success–I fear the day she leaves!

    I think another thing faced by people like me–tweeners, if you will, between solopreneur and full-fledge boutique firm–is cash flow. Kind of along the same lines as losing clients, but because I have a smaller “staff,” it's much more impactful and worrisome.

    I will also agree with Cog about “straight talk.” My first job post-grad school was at a small non-profit, and because we were kept in the loop about finances, the other employees and I were able to make a decision to not take raises on year to save our secretary's job. That meant a lot to me–like I had power and control and was in the know. Conversely, I worked for a large non-profit where executives were never up front with money. I never got a raise or would get slapped on the wrist for buying paper clips, but I also knew they were dropping $30,000 for a single donor party or $500 on a bottle of wine at dinner. I applaud you for being so transparent with your employees.

    Thanks again for your perspective!

  • elizabethsosnow

    @PRCog I really appreciate your thoughtful comment. You are absolutely right, Cog. Everyone needs to know where the “money train” is or is not headed. At our firm, we share our financials with our employees on a quarterly and monthly basis. That helps folks understand our decisions in good — and bad — times.

    @Laura Thanks for your kind words, Laura! First, let me say I understand your fears about losing a valuable employee. That's what keeps me up most nights…

    Cash flow has an uncomfortable way of pointing you towards difficult (and sometimes even heartbreaking) decisions. The silver lining? I think cash flow also provides focus and clarity. As human beings and leaders, we really need those gentle and not-so-gentle reminders.

  • http://twitter.com/LauraScholz Laura Scholz

    Thanks for responding! I totally agree about cash flow and clarity. I think it makes for much better decision-making when you're cash-strapped! It's easier to prioritize. And since I started out solo, I can take baby steps with spending money. My unpaid intern eventually became an employee, but part-time, with increasing hours every few months. It's saved money in the long run, because I KNOW she's a great fit.

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  • ginidietrich

    These are so true! So very, very true.

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  • http://www.bradfarris.com/ Brad Farris

    I love the transparency of this post and sharing the financials. This is especially true now, when everyone is scared, but it also helps when things are good, so people understand where we are investing and hope to grow. If we get everyone on-board with that there's less pull for “I want mine”.

    So many talented people are switching jobs right now; I'm thinking about my talent pipeline – who will I bring in to fill gaps, where can I opportunistically grab some key talent? It's the flip side of losing sleep over who's leaving and gives me more of a feeling of control.

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  • http://sashahalima.com/blog/ Sasha H. Muradali

    I just read this thanks to a link via Ragan and I have to say that I really appreciate the honesty of this post. I am working at a new agency and this puts a lot of things that us, employees, never think about into perspective.

    Thank you for sharing this, I’m bookmarking it as a lesson/future read/refresher.

    :) Sasha

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