Reflections on how public relations agency culture can drive mental health disorders and best practices in supporting your employees in 2022
Anyone in the marketing industry will tell you that public relations professionals are wired differently. They’re gregarious. They’re relentlessly curious. They’re junkies for breaking news. And maybe above all else, a savvy PR person is well acclimated to chaos.
These are just some of the reasons I pursued a career in this field. However, many of the values I was taught to cherish as a young public relations professional in the agency world have also proven to be harmful when pushed to an extreme level. Namely, the obsession with hustle.
Modern hustle culture is a byproduct of the ability for companies to scale to whatever workload is needed to accommodate healthy new business pipelines. All too often, the burden of stretching the business falls directly on the backs of those executing the day-to-day work i.e. junior-level staff.
David Ogilvy talked about this dynamic in his 1963 classic Confessions of an Advertising Man, where he reflects on how to successfully manage an agency and the people within it:
“In the advertising industry to be successful you must, of necessity, accumulate a group of creative people. This probably means a fairly high percentage of high-strung, brilliant, eccentric nonconformists. Like most doctors, you are on call seven days a week, day and night. This constant pressure on every advertising executive must take a considerable physical and psychological toll.”
While PR is not advertising, many of Ogilvy’s thoughts on agency culture remain true nearly 60 years later
Not only do agencies demand their employees’ complete, undivided focus on every account, but they also aim to ensure that the number of accounts the agency maintains continues to grow. More accounts mean more money flowing around the agency. But that money doesn’t always trickle down to the lower limbs of the pyramid, where junior and mid-level staff are asked to do more with the same amount of resources.
Generally, this approach nets one of two ways—either you break through with amazing results leading to promotions, bigger titles and more responsibilities. Or, as happened to me recently, you burn out, lose sight of reality, and walk away from a well-paying job because your mental health won’t allow you to do it another day.
So then if these are the accepted requirements for top-shelf talent in an agency, are PR industry jobs exclusively reserved for the wildly eccentric and obsessive-compulsive?
My answer is that they don’t have to be. I believe that agency culture is the single greatest determinant in producing good PR work. If PR people enjoy logging in, whether it’s in an office or in their living room, they will continue to do so. If they don’t, they won’t.
For agency leaders still trying to navigate and adapt their operations to support their PR employees, I salute you. Here are some of my suggestions—as a former junior-level staffer and current agency leader—for how to do that effectively:
1. Give employees ample time to do their work
Nothing is a bigger threat to good PR work than the demand for more in a shorter period of time. PR is a deadline-driven business, and the people within it are wired to execute. They understand that clients pay them for their ideas and work, and that sometimes they need to deliver quickly. However, when PR people are expected to produce a higher quantity of work in less time, quality suffers. Full stop.
2. Provide access to mental health counseling
I don’t know which businesses living under a rock need to hear this, but a lot of your employees are coping with some form of a mental health disorder. Even in 2022, many company-provided health care plans do not allow individuals to seek counseling or therapy without having to pay out of pocket, which significantly decreases the likelihood of those individuals seeking help. The good news is that the mental health conversation is being elevated to higher levels, and business leaders are beginning to recognize that access to counseling isn’t a job perk, but rather a business imperative—not to mention a basic human right.
3. Reject the normalization of hustle culture
PR professionals soaked in hustle culture become a danger to themselves when dealing with mental health issues because one, they have a lot of self-confidence. This confidence makes them believe that even despite the current situation, their perspective is the correct perspective and any disagreement with that perspective is a personal threat. Second, PR people are fluent in rhetoric which means they can argue like crazy to find a take that matches their own pathology. In an environment where employees are asked to pound the pavement for results, it’s up to the leadership to say “enough.”
The dystopian glamorization of working yourself into burnout is doing nothing for anyone but driving more people into burnout. There is also a growing disconnect between companies’ business goals and their employees’ personal priorities that the Great Resignation has underscored. Want your employees to be aligned with your goals? Show them first that you align with theirs.
4. Show employees that you have their back
PR people have thick skin; another byproduct of their environment. However, when clients dictate outrageous demands and even act rude to employees, many agencies will blame their own employees for shortcomings. Don’t get me wrong, accountability is critical to any team’s success, but throwing employees under the bus for a lack of results is a completely tone-deaf approach to engaging and keeping good PR people. Moreover, the will of PR people to go to the mat for their clients rapidly dissolves when they feel that neither the client nor people on their own team value their work.
Leaders must show clients and their employees where their priorities lie. Sometimes this means pushing back on unreasonable demands from paying clients. In the event that clients are bullying or openly questioning the intelligence of their agency partners, it means resigning the account. If leaders can’t see that toxic client behaviors have a compounding toxic effect on their teams, soon they will not have a team to do the work.
I don’t need to tell you that COVID forever changed the PR game. You’ve seen it in the Great Resignation, the shuffling of the client and personnel deck across agencies, and even a spring of new startups committed to doing things differently. Still, PR people have soldiered through and are continuing to produce incredible work despite unforeseen changes to the landscape.
It underscores what I have believed to be true for a long time—which is that I have only ever found success, personally or professionally, when I’m allowed to throw out the rule book. I hope agencies recognize this need for change and take steps to adequately support PR pros everywhere.