Running any company is hard work and PR agencies can be especially challenging. Not only do you need to kick all your goals, you also have to juggle looking after your existing client relationships while being constantly on the hunt for new ones.
Doing any of this successfully and sustainably requires a great team. Hiring driven creative A-players is the first step, but anyone who has launched a business quickly learns that keeping those team members who clients love and deliver results is key. So in many ways, as a PR leader, your staff are your most important clients to keep happy, fulfilled and challenged to always go for bigger goals.
This is why building a great team culture is essential. At Flaunter, keeping our team and clients happy is an obsession for us, so we wanted to dive into some of the latest thinking and practical steps you can use to build the best workplace culture possible for your team.
Why culture matters
When you’re flat out with campaigns and clients, it can be hard to find the energy to care about anything other than the immediate goals. But having a great culture is essential to ongoing performance. The highest-performing companies in the world – everyone from Pinterest to Facebook to Airbnb – are obsessed with their team culture.
The good news is you don’t need their squillions in revenue to create a culture that enables your team to deliver exceptional results. As Airbnb’s co-founder Brian Chesky puts it this way: “Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with a passion.”
You went into PR with a passion and you’re building a team that gets along and gets stuff done. So investing the time to keep improving your company culture is key.
A good culture is the difference between a team member turning up to work on Monday clutching a coffee while sporting a smile that could pass as a grimace, and the same team member turning up full of ideas and heading out to grab their morning kickstarter coffee with colleagues so they can connect before a productive week.
It’s about creating a team that says yes to each other even when deadlines shift, goals evolve and suddenly success is going to take a lot more work. It’s a team that asks “how do we do this as best we can?” rather than “how can I get this done on time so I can go home?”. It’s the difference between a team member appreciating constructive feedback and stepping up, rather than getting defensive or withdrawn. And it’s about creating a team that’s nurtured and confident enough that staff come to you with ideas about how a campaign or your team could take it to the next level.
A good culture in your PR agency not only helps you get results, it also helps you hold onto staff for longer, while discovering and unleashing more of their talent for the team.
A good culture matters for acquiring and retaining clients
You don’t need us to tell you how much a good company brand matters. PR agency’s core business includes spending hours getting to know your client’s team culture or products, and the image they want to portray to the world.
Sometimes there’s a gap. But you’ll know how much powerful it is for any new or current clients to meet with a team that not only is on brand, but is genuinely full of bustling energy, big ideas and armed with the ability to get the job done. That energy and cohesion makes your job so much easier. As Simon Sinek, the powerhouse behind the Start with Why movement puts it: “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.”
A good culture helps your team members hold onto the clients you have, even when they’re being tricky or if a campaign hasn’t gone as well as you might have hoped. Because a good team’s energy and enthusiasm is magnetic in a business that is as people-focused as public relations. A great reputation is an incredible asset in the highly competitive world of PR.
The two easiest ways to build a shitty agency culture
We’ve got a three-step process for developing a great culture shortly, but before we do let’s take the time to understand why it’s so important.
Imagine you’ve been working your butt off to get good outcomes for a handful of the agency’s least exciting clients. You’re hoping to upgrade to the headline, sexier clients for the agency sooner or later, but your coworkers on those accounts are doing great so you need to be patient. You’re ok with that, and willing to work for your shot.
But every team meeting and every celebratory event, your work is either not at all mentioned or only barely. Your clients (and your work) are treated like an afterthought by the team. At first you don’t mind, it’s fine, you get you’re not on the most important accounts. But time after time it turns into a long, slow erosion of your self-esteem, as well as your commitment to the clients and the agency. It can easily fester and will make things uncomfortable for the team. And then all of a sudden your emerging star is working for another agency.
Here are the two most common ways agencies compound this and breed an unhealthy culture:
Oh, you’ve finished your project? Great because clients x & y need results asap…
Juggling clients is part of a PR agency’s job and you need people who are flexible. But routinely failing to recognise hard work and good outcomes as a whole team because there is always more work to be done leads to rushed work, unhealthy competition and resentment. Busy teams need to take the time to recognise good work and each individual’s role in that, or it inevitably leads to staff leaving and clients getting shoddy results.
The A-Team & The . . . Other Team
Not everyone gets to manage your agency’s headline clients. Not every team member gets the opportunity to step up into a leadership role. And frankly, some of your team are going to perform better than others. These are inevitable tensions in a company. Companies that don’t take their culture seriously can fall into the trap of celebrating their A-players far more than others, and letting the rest of the team get nervous and hopefully try harder. Culture makes or breaks employee motivation, and this is a good way to break it. It turns a company toxic fast, especially if your most celebrated team members start to bend and break rules.
Three steps to creating and improving a great culture
The good news is that it’s not hard to steer your company in a great direction. Plus culture compounds: unhealthy cultures lead to toxic team behaviour and it gets worse, whereas healthy teams and positive investment tends to lead to a constantly improving team dynamic (and therefore, better results and a better bottom line for the agency as a whole).
1. Do an audit of your culture.
Make some time to open up your heart and mind to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not in your current company culture. Do this step alone first, so you can switch from identifying the cultural practices that make you love coming to work and then brutally honest about the behaviours you wish would disappear.
Once you’ve identified the highlights and areas for growth, talk it over with your leadership team. Let them know what you want to have a chat about, and then all head out for a coffee or a tea, or a conversation over a glass of wine or two. As the team leader, you may need to demonstrate how to raise areas for growth constructively, and you will definitely need to model how to listen to feedback on the less than perfect parts and not get defensive.
In this conversation with your team, you’ll most likely start to notice themes in what your team cares about and how they express this. Keep a note of these, because these are about to become fundamental to your team culture work
2. Identify which values matter to you and take your team on a journey to embrace them.
Remember those few themes that you kept coming back to in your discussion with your leadership team? It’s time to distil those into short and punchy sentences as your articulated values.
The ongoing advice is to aim for only a handful, because more than three to five becomes hard to remember. Examples could be:
- Clients are king.
- Look out for each other and enable each other’s success.
- Compete as a team, not against each other.
- Work hard, get it done and then celebrate together.
This process is not about setting the rules for your company’s behaviour, although it’s useful to have these as pillars you can return to if someone is being difficult. It’s more about defining who you are and what matters. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg put value identification as a task through which you define “What are you willing to give up?”
3. Live it, breathe it and review your culture often.
Now you’ve identified your core values, it’s time to continually reinforce them as central. This takes leadership and also, the kind of consistent campaign any PR agency worth its salt can roll out.
Find ways to explore these more deeply with your team, either one-on-one in everything from coffee runs to performance reviews, or as a team before or during a strategy day. Regularly reiterate them in your key documents. These values should serve as mantras guiding every decision. Many companies choose to make their values visible to their team constantly, such as turn their values into wall art, or computer desktop backgrounds, or emblazon them on mugs or similar.
“We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to. And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them. If you’re willing to do that, then you’re well on your way to building a company culture that is in line with the brand you want to build.” Zappos’ founder Tony Hsieh
Your values, or at least how you articulate them may evolve as your agency does. A team of four creates focus differently to a team of 15, and a team of 40. So while you’re energised and excited about your culture fresh after your values-identification session, mark some time in your and your leadership team’s diary to review your culture and find ways to improve every three or six months.