In his 2006 book, The Ultimate Question, Bain & Company consultant Fred Reichheld makes the case that the answer to a single question—whether customers or employees would recommend your company to a friend or colleague—is the most accurate predictor of future performance. A number derived from the answers to that question—he calls it the Net Promoter Score—tells you whether your company will benefit from positive word-of-mouth or suffer from the bad-mouthing of detractors.

The Net Promoter Score is arrived at by deducting the number of detractors (those who respond to the ultimate question by giving a score of six or less) from the number of promoters (those who give a score of either nine or 10). According to Reichheld, companies with the most efficient growth engines—companies such as, eBay, Costco—operate at net promoter score ratings of 50 to 80 percent. The average firm has an NPS efficiency of only 5 to 10 percent.

The public relations agency business, as a whole, has a Net Promoter Score among employees of more than 60 firms participating in our Best Agencies to Work For survey of 56 percent, suggesting that the 4,623 respondents to this year’s survey are generally very happy with the firms they work for.

But they were not quite as happy as last year. The overall score declined from an average of 8.25 to 8.18. When employees were asked whether overall, they found their job rewarding, the average score declined from 8.03 to 7.96. When they were asked whether they were committed to building their career with their current firm, the average score declined from 8.11 to 8.07.

That decline was somewhat anomalous, in that in previous years scores have risen or fallen in synch with the economy, but in 2006 the economy improved—public relations firms grew more rapidly than in recent years—but scores declined on 43 of the 46 dimensions that were the same from survey to survey. They remained unchanged on one dimension, and improved on just two. (One of the dimensions we asked about was new to the survey this year).

What Employees Like and Dislike

Once again, employees were most likely to agree with positive statements related to their firm’s commitment to client service. For example, when asked whether client satisfaction was a top priority at their firm, the average response was 9.05 on a scale of one to 10—the highest score on any single question. And asked whether people were prepared to do whatever it took to get the job done for clients, the average response was 8.99. Although scores were significantly lower (8.04) when employees were asked whether their firm placed a higher priority on serving current clients than on chasing new business.

Employees also gave their firms high marks on questions related to ethics. When asked whether firms dealt ethically with employees, employees gave an average score of 8.93, and there were high levels of agreement when employees were asked whether firms would turn down assignments they considered unethical (8.84), whether firms dealt ethically with employees (8.63) and whether they trusted management to do the right thing (8.49).

Employees also believed overwhelmingly that their firms provided equal opportunities to all, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation (9.04).

And yet again, employees reserved their lowest marks for questions that related to their financial compensation. The lowest mark of all (7.19) was reserved for the question about whether people found their jobs rewarding in financial terms, and they were almost equally unimpressed when asked whether they were compensated fairly for their contribution to the firm (7.27) and whether they felt their compensation to be competitive with other firms (7.38). They were somewhat more satisfied, however, when it came to satisfaction with their healthcare benefits (8.11).

Some of the questions related to empowerment also elicited low marks. Employees were not convinced that their firms had eliminated unnecessary bureaucracy (7.36) or that they did a good job of delegating work to the appropriate level (7.59). On cultural questions, too, many employees expressed concern. They were not convinced that their firms had done a good job of eliminating office politics (7.54) or that they received enough personal recognition (7.82).

And there is cause for concern when it comes to professional development. Employees did not feel that their firms did a good job of explaining all the career options open to them (7.37) and whether they were satisfied with the overall level of training at their firm (7.81). The marks were better when employees were asked whether their immediate supervisor was a coach rather than a boss (8.23) and whether they were encouraged to learn new skills (8.27).

Two other areas provided warning signs for agencies. In the realm of communications, employees were not convinced that their firm did everything to keep them informed (7.89) of that management listened to what employees had to say (7.95). And while firms received good marks for attracting high caliber employees (8.53), they scored significantly less well in retaining high caliber employees (7.85).

Giving Back the Gains on Work-Life Balance

Last year, the question about whether employees could effectively balance the demands of work and family saw one of the biggest improvements, with the average response up 1.4 percent to 7.71. This year, however, the same question saw one of the most dramatic declines in the survey, down about 2 percent to 7.56—giving back last year’s gain and more.

There were similar declines on some of the questions about client service, including whether client satisfaction was a top priority (down 2.2 percent); whether firms did a good job of keeping clients informed (down 2 percent); and whether an agency placed a higher priority of serving existing clients than changing new business (down 1.6 percent).

Employees apparently also sensed—as agencies returned to healthy growth after several troubled years—that the attitude toward growth was that shifting; when asked whether their firm would rather be the best than the biggest, there was a decline of 1.8 percent.

The two questions on which employee scores actually improved involved whether agencies provided people with an opportunity to use their skills on causes that mattered to them (up 1.4 percent) and whether firms did a good job of explaining all the career options available (up 0.5 percent).

There was no significant change in the responses when employees were asked whether their firm had done a good job of eliminating office politics.

Industry Demographics

The public relations industry business continues to be dominated—at all but the most senior levels—by women. Almost three out of four respondents to our survey (72 percent) were women, up slightly from 70 percent in our 2005 survey.

But once again, the percentage of women declined with age, so that among those aged 22-26, women made up slightly more than 80 percent of the population, while among those aged 51 and over they accounted for just slightly more than half (51 percent) of all respondents.

The industry also continues to be dominated—at all levels—by whites, with the percentage of non-white respondents actually declining slightly over last year, despite the industry’s continued discussion of the importance of diversity. Last year, 3 percent of our correspondents were African-American, 4 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian-American. This year, the percentages of African-American and Hispanic respondents remained unchanged, but there were fewer (3 percent) Asian-American responses.

And the number of minority responses is likely inflated somewhat by the fact that several firms distribute the survey to support staff as well as to professionals.

Finally, the public relations industry continues to recruit from a relatively diverse educational pool. Almost a quarter of respondents (24 percent) indicated that they had received their bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts; 19 percent have a public relations degree (up by a single percentage point over 2005); 16 percent have a journalism degree (also up slightly); 7 percent studied business; 4 percent studied marketing; and 1 percent studied law. Four percent of respondents have no degree at all.

Differences by Age

There was an interesting change in the quality of responses by age this year.

In our 2005 survey, there was a strong correlation between age and employee satisfaction. The very youngest employees (26 and under) were slightly more enthusiastic than their closest cohort of peers (those aged 27-31), perhaps reflecting an initial enthusiasm that quickly wears off, but after that satisfaction rose steadily with age, until the oldest respondents (52 and others), who exhibited a slight decline in enthusiasm.

But this year, while the trends held for younger employees, satisfaction peaked among those aged 37 to 41 (the average score among this group in response to a question about whether overall, they were satisfied with their job was 8.41). Those aged 46 to 51 provided an average response of just 8.07 to the same question.

Similarly, there was a decline in financial satisfaction among older employees not seen in previous surveys—although this was less marked than the decline in overall satisfaction.

Finally, those aged 26 to 36 felt least able to balance the demands of work and family, while those aged 51 and over enjoyed the best work-life balance.

Other Demographic Differences

On most issues, men felt far more positively about their employment than did their female colleagues, and while some of that difference could be attributed to the fact that there are more men at the more satisfied senior levels, it held true among respondents from the same age group.

So men were more likely to say that overall, they found their job rewarding (8.4 compared to the average response of 7.96 for all respondents) and that they would recommend their current agency to a friend or colleague (9.00 compared to 8.64 for all respondents). They were considerably more likely to feel they could balance work and life demands, and they were also more likely to find their job financially rewarding.

Women were, however, slightly more likely than men to give their firms high marks on questions o client service (clients satisfaction is a top priority at our firm, we do a good job of keeping clients informed) and on questions related to people, particularly the question about whether they like those with whom they work most closely.

Multicultural employees were all more likely than their white counterparts to express satisfaction with their jobs. Hispanics (8.47), African-Americans (8.16) and Asian-Americans (8.09) were all more likely than respondents as a whole (7.96) to say that overall, they were satisfied with their jobs. And they were also more likely to say they would recommend their current agency to a friend or colleague.

However, while Hispanics (9.29) and Asian-Americans (9.13) were more likely than the overall population (9.04) that their firms provided equal opportunity regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation, African-Americans (8.43) were significantly less convinced that their employers were even-handed in that regard.

Regional Differences

The industry’s happiest employees are in Minneapolis and San Francisco, its unhappiest are in New York and Chicago.

Minneapolis respondents were most likely to find their job rewarding overall (8.44 compared to an industry average of 7.96) and to express willingness to recommend their current employer to a friend or colleague (8.99, compared to 8.64). Some smaller markets, including Florida and California (excluding Los Angeles and San Francisco) scored higher, but the number of respondents was not large enough to make the difference statistically significant).

San Francisco respondents were most likely to say they could effectively balance the demands of work and family, while Washington, D.C., respondents, not particularly happy overall, were nevertheless the most likely to say they found their work intellectually stimulating.