Why Flexibility is Key to Retaining PR Talent


One of the great things about working in PR is the variety. No two days are the same and if you’re working with the media, let’s face it, anything can happen. It’s also a competitive industry. There seems to be no shortage of PR graduates looking for jobs and the numbers of journalists wanting to move across to PR is increasing.

The problem the PR industry has, is retaining that talent. When I started my career in 1998, PR, at least in agency land, was very much about ‘climbing the ladder’ – from account executive, to senior account executive and so on. It was about money and status.

Today and in the future, talent retention has got to be about flexibility. In your early 20s, you don’t mind so much putting in the 12 hour days, heading into the office five days a week. Your work life and social life blur together. Once you get into your 30s, the novelty starts to wear off.

Forget the ‘duvet days’

Agency HR teams can come up with as many duvet days, cakes on your birthdays, or free massages as they like. Having worked in a number of agencies both in the U.K. and Australia, what many are failing to provide is true flexibility and accountability.

Yes, the media cycle today is 24/7. Yes, editorial teams are shrinking and journalists have to write increasing numbers of stories every day. If your job involves working with the media, social or otherwise, you need to be putting in those hours, chained to the desk. Right? Wrong.

Focus on outcomes

The problem, as a female dominated industry, is even more acute after women have had children. There is a reason why there are so few people in PR agency land after the age of 35. They’ve either burnt out, gone freelance looking for flexibility or in-house, choosing to work for companies that offer more than a few weeks paid paternity leave.

As an industry, we have to get better at making flexible work, work. The focus should always be on the deliverables, rather than the hours spent in the office. In PR agency land, you’ve no doubt seen the following: PR goes on paternity leave to come back ‘three days a week’, which as we all know, is four or five, just squashed into three days, to find she (let’s face it, it’s usually a she) is not ‘allowed’ to do client or media facing work. ‘What if the client calls her on her day off?’ So she’s left to write case studies and media releases. She gets bored. She leaves. She goes freelance or finds herself a job in-house.

Scrap the hierarchy

As if coming back to the PR industry isn’t hard enough. Already a tough job, being away from the industry for even six months, journalists have moved on, publications have folded, new ones started, clients have come and gone, existing ones have changed their focus – it’s so incredibly hard to get back into. You can’t just rock up and start rolling out the lesson plan you delivered last year.

One of the reasons I left my agency job in Australia was because I couldn’t work one day every couple of weeks at home. ‘You have a team to manage’ my boss would say. And there I think lies the problem. Not only do we have to embrace flexibility in our industry and give people the tools they need to work from anywhere they choose, but we need to scrap the hierarchy.

Trust is key

We have to get away from the ‘what you can’t see you can’t manage’ mindset. If we had more trust in the PR industry, between ‘employer and employee’, we wouldn’t need ‘managers’. We don’t have them at BENCH. We didn’t have them at an agency I worked for in the U.K. We had a flat structure. And it worked. It does work, extremely well.

Companies in the U.S. such as Zappos have scrapped their managers. Australian companies such as Atlassian and Canva are following suit. It’s a bold move for PR agencies which have structured themselves this way for decades, but it just doesn’t work. Staff churn remains too high and the client suffers. They have a new ‘account manager’ to bring up to speed every three months. And pity the journalist who has to try to remember the PR’s name.

Finding good PR talent is always going to be a challenge and that won’t change in the future. What we need to stop is the ‘burnout’ and offer flexible roles (and decent paternity leave) to enable both men and women to continue working in the PR industry or be able to come back. We have to trust that the people we work with, will do their jobs to the best of their ability and it’s up to us, as employers, to provide them with the flexibility and tools they need, to do just that.