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Protecting your “assets”: Tactics to use against agency management’s devious traps

by | Oct 10, 2023 | Public Relations

On September 25, a headline in The Wall Street Journal read, “Bosses Say They Want The Truth. Do They Mean It?”

How you would answer the question above if it was asked of you could determine your status at public relations agencies—which statistics show is short-lived no matter how you answer it.

The above question is a “heads management wins, tails you lose” query: If you answer it truthfully and list faults with your supervisor, you can be certain that it will be held against you. You’ll be considered a disgruntled employee. If you only praise your supervisor, your supervisor’s supervisor will say that you’re being dishonest.
Questions like the above are only one of several tactics used by agencies to keep employees “in line.”

Below are a few other devious management tactics that employees should be aware of:

The Office Party

This is used, management says, to show appreciation for the good work done by employees. Actually, it is done to get employees to think that management really cares about them.

The Let’s Meet For a Drink Invite

At these one-on-one meetings with supervisors, employees will be asked to talk freely about any concerns they have and will be told “what you tell me stays with me.” Don’t believe it. Any negative feelings will be held against you when promotions or salary increases are being discussed.

The HR “We Care About You” Ploy

Employees will be told that if they have a problem, the HR department is there to help them. Nonsense. Employees should remember that HR personnel’s main responsibilities are there to help management, not you. Never tell them anything that you don’t want to get back to the top brass. But be certain to tell them what you want to get back to the highest management levels.

The Title Game

When I was initially promoted to vice-president at Burson-Marsteller, that title meant that you might be in line for perks. (But not necessarily.) Several months later, there were so many new vice-presidents anointed that the title was worthless. Cynics said that titles were awarded in lieu of salary increases to placate restless employees (and maybe to show clients that a senior person was supervising their accounts). Eventually, I was promoted to “Senior Vice President” and then “Senior Vice President/Senior Counselor” to differentiate between a title that meant nothing to one that meant something—perks and salary increases. Employees should remember that the only titles that are meaningful are the ones that come with salary increases and perks.

The Annual Review

This is perhaps the most devious of all management ploys. Employees are expected to list their deficiencies and state how they will attempt to improve on them in the future. Of course, the negatives you write about yourself will be used against you at management’s timing. As is the question that leads this essay, it’s a “heads management wins, tails you lose” situation. I suggest you consider the following when filling out the review forms. 

  • List all your accomplishments, even though there might not be a place on the form to do so, attach them. Don’t be shy about patting yourself on your back. 
  • List a few areas in which you think you need improvement—but never, ever be too critical of yourself. 
  • Flatter your supervisor by saying that following his/her lead will be an important learning tool for you. 
  • Attach any positive client notes you might have received to the review form. Important: Make a copy of the form before you submit it. You might need it in the future, when management over-emphasizes the negatives about yourself that you listed, which they are certain to do when they deem it necessary.

Of course, not all tactics used by management are devious. Some are outright lies, particularly when it comes to hiring and employee retention.

It’s not unusual when recruiting new employees to talk about the great chance for advancement, while not divulging how difficult it is for an employee to advance because of the corporate culture. Likewise, management is not above torpedoing an employee’s future when an employee is about to leave for another job by making promises that they have no intention to keep.

The prudent employee should take anything management says with a grain of salt, and that’s especially true when the subject concerns your future with an agency

That’s because year’s of experience in the public relations agency business, which is known for treating employees like cannon fodder, shows that in the big agency world management does not know about the ability, or lack of, of most employees. They rely on what their underlings report, not exactly the most truthful, scientific or accurate method of knowing who does what.

In his book The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance politician, diplomat and philosopher, wrote, “The  promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.” Employees should remember that at all times.

My suggestion is that from your first day on the job to the last one, you should keep a daily diary of what transpired between you and your supervisor. And if you are on good terms with your client, ask if they would send you a note saying how satisfied they are with your work. Some day you might need it. 

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.

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