Enhancing & Retaining Top Talent in a Recession

Historically, the goal of management at midsize and growing PR firms has been to provide an atmosphere in which each employee can reach his or her full potential within the budgetary, time and resource constraints that running a tight-margin business provides. Even in this economy, to lose sight of this goal places your firm in long-term peril of losing “the good ones.” They may stay now because they have to. But when things turn around—and they will—what then? Providing the means to assist each individual in your firm to attain certain levels of proficiency in skills that are relevant to the business goals of the organization will give you a competitive advantage during the recession and beyond. The foundation of any effective training philosophy should be that of a shared effort in which the ultimate responsibility for continued growth and education lies with the individual employee, but with an understanding that the firm also carries a responsibility for providing opportunities and support. In this economy, with many firms teetering on the edge of profitability and often running on slim to nonexistent margins, what does this mean in terms of financial commitment? The answer is as varied as the number of firms in the marketplace. But those who ignore the need for employees to feel valued and appreciated because the current economy limits their employment options are missing an opportunity to build long-term loyalty and dedication in their team, to the firm’s long-term detriment. MAKING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT A PRIORITY Limited financial resources is not an excuse to ignore an attempt to formalize a training and educational program. Depending on limiting factors, the program may need to include a mixture of both formal and informal techniques, including mentoring, in-house staff training, the use of community and other external resources, experts and online training. In all instances, though, it must be based on a corporate philosophy that emphasizes individual advancement and training using all available resources. In addition, it should be clearly communicated to each individual that they are expected to seek out individualized skill training and knowledge that will enhance his or her professional capability. The centerpiece measurement tool of individual growth should be a formalized process that provides, at minimum, an annual review of performance against mutually agreed upon goals. This review should recognize: • Educational accomplishments. • Continued growth and accomplishments. • Professionalism. • Account, project or task management. • People management. • Personal interaction. • Business development. • Creativity. • Performance against individual goals. • Financial management. • Administrative skills. EXTERNAL RESOURCES On limited budgets, and with a broad range of responsibility for firm growth, business planning and profitability management, continuing education resources necessary for a formal training program may seem out of reach—but it doesn’t have to be. In many cases, it’s possible to explore and take advantage of homegrown talent right in your own backyard. Universities, colleges and even community colleges can provide a wealth of teaching and learning resources that can be used by your firm. Additional resources may be available through local professional relationships and interactions. For instance, financial services firms, law firms and tech firms may be willing to make some of their senior staff available to share their expertise in exchange for PR training for their staff. In addition, there is often a wealth of writing and news expertise available through members of the local media. INTERNAL OPPORTUNITIES Whether developed internally by the firm or obtained through other organizations, case studies that provide detailed information as to what has worked or not worked in the past are a valuable resource in educating new employees to the successes and/or failures of efforts on behalf of clients, corporations and organizations. Another option successfully used by many firms is internal continuing education retreats or seminars. Larger multinational firms may have their own “universities,” but smaller firms can use the same strategy in a cost-effective manner. The Internet also provides an increasingly useful tool for education through online seminars and teleconferences focused on various management and account service subjects. These are available through professional associations, as well for-profit and media-sponsored organizations. Many firms also implement ongoing writing improvement workshops on a once or twice a month basis, taught by an experienced senior level or mid-level executive within the firm. Another option is using a faculty member from a local educational institution or one of the senior writers or editors from a local media outlet or online writing courses. The bottom line is that there is a great deal of discussion in the profession about the need to attract and retain the best and brightest talent in order to allow public relations firms to grow and prosper. The answer may lie in creating a structured and ongoing environment that values continuing education and communicates that value on a regular basis to those who toil in the vineyards. By implementing an individualized training and evaluation program, you can help each member of your team reach his or her personal potential and help the firm reach its potential as well. Effectively implementing such a program isn’t hard; you just have to: • Create a plan (hopefully with team involvement). • Explain the plan early and often. • Follow the plan and revise it as necessary. • Create metrics to determine its effectiveness. • Analyze and change those metrics as needed. • Make sure that the program is embedded in the culture. PRN CONTACT: Mike Herman is CEO of Communication Sciences International, and a member of the PRSA Counselors Academy. He can be reached at mlherman@comsci.biz.

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