The unspoken overlord of client/employee/agency relationships: Self interest

by | Aug 18, 2023 | Public Relations

Let’s be honest. Looking out for themselves is the primary priority of businesses, both private and public. And since public relations agencies are businesses, both private and public, that definitely applies to them. The importance of client relationships to PR agencies is a close second. Employee relationships, except for a privileged few, lag far behind.

During my long career in the PR business, employees were told “doing what’s best for the agency” trumped all other considerations.

This post will examine all three of my above assertions. High-ranking agency execs will, of course, disagree, but that’s to be expected. Thrown-under-the-bus employees and clients will agree.

I’ll begin by discussing the employee problem

Employees here are treated like “cannon fodder,” one high-ranking exec at a major PR agency told me in a rare moment of management honesty. But that was not always true because the individual who told me that was for years one of the privileged few, even though his PR acumen was questioned by people who reported to him. (But he had a powerful friend in high places, so he didn’t have to worry.)

Certain top-level management execs would promote individuals based on “loyalty” to the exec. And the competency of the person promoted was often not a factor. Thus, more proficient PR practitioners were often denied the promotions they deserved, leading to a disgruntled workforce. Also, new hires out of communications schools were assigned to accounts replacing more experienced workers, who were terminated because their salaries reached the level that they were no longer “profitable,” thus improving the bottom line because the new hires would receive a lesser salary. 

In effect, this resulted in the new hires learning on the job at the client’s expense, as a client once complained to me when the supervisor of his account was transferred to one that the agency deemed more important. Translation: it had a larger budget—and that supervisor was replaced by a person without the qualifications needed for the prior specialized account. (Full disclosure: That experienced person was me, and after my replacement messed up the account the client insisted that I clean up the mess and have a supervisory function over the account, even when my assignments took me overseas, which it frequently did. The agency was not happy with the client demand, but the client was happy and so was I.)

I spent most of my full-time working career at three agencies, when I transitioned to PR as New York City dailies and a wire service I worked for went out of business

The first agency was what today would be considered a “boutique” shop. It was Earle Associates, a political PR firm, where I worked for a few years on local, state and presidential campaigns. That shop is non-existent today: the proprietor, the most generous, creative and employee-caring individual I ever met in our business, died too young and the shop closed.

A newspaper pal of mine suggested me to Arthur Cantor, the Broadway and London theatrical producer, where I toiled for 10 years. Cantor also ran a national public relations firm, Advance Public Relations, and I soon was asked to supervise the PR business until I was recruited by Burson-Marsteller (B-M). The Cantor agency also ceased being when the proprietor suffered a stroke.

During my tenure at B-M, I was always considered a too-employee-friendly manager and was labeled “a camp counselor,” a “maverick” and an “outlier” by a very high senior manager for a few reasons

One reason was because when account executives who reported to me asked my advice about leaving for another job, my answer was always “do what’s best for you, because the agency will always do what’s best for itself.” Nevertheless, I was assigned, more than anyone else in the agency, to manage and/or play key roles in flagship national and international accounts during my almost quarter of a century there.

Another reason for my label was because I never screamed at or threatened to fire an employee whose work was unsatisfactory. Instead, unlike other managers—who thought managing meant they no longer had to do actual grunt, day-to-day account work—I always helped an employee who needed help.

After a few years, B-M created a new title for me, “senior VP, senior counselor,” which meant I was available, if time permitted, to work with any account group that requested my help, in addition to managing some accounts. That meant I worked with more individuals than any other person, which led to the third reason for my being labeled “too employee friendly”—because I refused to name account execs whose work I thought was sub-par and should be placed on the firing list, saying to top management, “Let the managers they report to do that. My job is to help them, not be their executioner.”

Agencies expect their employees to be loyal to the agency. And I agree that employees should be loyal while on the company payroll. But that doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that an employee should go against his or her beliefs

The first example I witnessed of an employee standing up to management occurred early in my PR career: I was called into a creative meeting. Midway through the meeting, a young lady got up and said, “I’m not going to work on this account. What the client wants us to do is to camouflage the environmental harm they are doing.” Then she walked out of the room.

I admired her for not going against her beliefs and over the years I refused to work on several accounts whose missions went against my beliefs. Doing so made management temporarily unhappy, but it didn’t deter my career. Because the final analysis was, “he can make money for the agency and clients love him.”

The client retention problem:

Usually, it’s the client that dumps an agency, sometime for being unhappy with the agencies work; other times because a new client PR head wants to retain a firm that he/she had previous experience with or that the client worked for.  

History shows that while agencies expect their employees to be loyal, the loyalty by an agency to a client depends upon the size of the budget. I personally know of an instance when an agency dumped a client because they were after the account of a more prestigious one with a larger budget and told me that they would sacrifice another client whose account I managed if necessary for the same reason.

My bottom line: Agencies do what’s best for them. Clients do what’s best for them. And PR practitioners should do what’s best for themselves.

This is because even though you’re told that you’re “like a member of the family,” the family—especially when the bottom line is weak—often turns out to be a dysfunctional one “characterized by abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction,” as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. And when that happens, “the family” acts like the one in The Godfather trilogy crime films with the employees suffering the fate of Fredo, who was killed for the good of the family business.

Novice PR people should remember the above. Seasoned pros have probably lived it.

PR people should also remember what political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli said in The Prince: “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.” If you haven’t read the book, I suggest you read it. It will give you an insight on how your management thinks.

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.