WASHINGTON, DC — With public relations agencies around the world struggling with issues such as the return of employees to office and the so-called 'quiet quitting' trends, agency principals at our Entrepreneurs’ Forum in Washington, DC, discussed the ways in which internal transparency, work-life balance and the duty of care owed to employees could build trust in their agencies.

In a panel entitled “Beyond the Barometer: A New Look at Trust” and sponsored by Entrepreneurs’ Forum partner thenetworkone, senior leaders from agencies in the US and the UK discussed the ways in which PR firms are building trust on behalf of their clients. But the conversation quickly turned to the trust between agencies and their employees and the ways in which it could contribute to success — and also create new challenges.

The question of how to handle the post-pandemic return to work was one that suggested there may be no “correct” answer to some of these questions. Josh Rosenberg, co-founder & CEO of Day One Agency said his firm had decided during the early days of the pandemic that his firm was not going to embrace remote working on a long-term basis, and so it never hired people outside of the core markets where it has an office.

On the opposite end of the continuum, however, Greg Mondshein, co-founder & managing partner of SourceCode Communications, said his firm had remained 100% remote as others had brought people back into the office and said he believes many employees were not ready to accept a return to the office now that remote options are widely available.

And so the discussion came down to a discussion of the cultural and team-building benefits of bringing people together in the office and the desire of many employees to enjoy the freedom and independence that goes along with working from home.

Said Jo Carr, co-founder and chief client officer at UK-based Hope&Glory PR, “We are all together three days a week and that has worked well in terms of communicating our culture. I really believe our people are a lot less stressed for being together. If you are working remotely and you have a problem, it sits with you. If you are in an office with 90 or 100 people, that problem can be shared. Being together like that builds trust in management and each other.”

Farzana Baduel, CEO of Curzon PR, also based in the UK, has a slightly different perspective because the firm has global reach, with colleagues in Argentina, India and Nigeria among other markets. “I am pro-remote, but I can see the other side,” she said. “Those of us who do meet up regularly in London, we do work together closely.

“So we make an effort to bring everyone together once a year to forge a connection and to have fun, not to do work. There’s only so much fun you can have on Zoom. Zoom is very efficient for meetings, but that’s because everyone wants to get a Zoom meeting done as soon as possible. So you get a different kind of interaction in person.”

But one thing that all the panelists agreed upon was that the “duty of care” agency principals need to embrace for their employees is significantly different now than it was before the pandemic.

Said Mondshein: “We have seen over the past three years that we have had to become more than just employers, we have had to become caregivers. There’s some benefit in that from the standpoint of your employees’ mental wellness and overall healthcare for those organizations that have chosen to respond.”

Baduel, in particular, felt that expectations of agencies in markets like the UK had changed in recent years — in part because of declining trust in other institutions. “We have found that if people have healthcare needs, if someone has lost a loved one and is struggling to afford the funeral, they come to their supervisor and their boss. There’s more reliance on employers because they no longer feel they can get help from the medical establishment and the government.

“I think we have to ask, where does that end? To what extent are employers responsible for employee happiness?”

Carr said her firm was wrestling with similar issues about employee satisfaction. “We do want our people to be happy, obviously. But in addition to being highly supportive, our culture needs to be high-performance, to challenge our employees. So we have to find a middle ground. I think of it as offering a warm bath — but at times you also need to provide the cold shower of honest criticism.”

Another challenging issue in terms of employee trust involved transparency, and the amount of information shared with the team. Said Mondshein, “For us it’s about keeping people informed and being honest with them. We have bi-weekly meetings at which we talk openly about how the business is going. We are honest about our concerns as leaders of the business, and about changes in the business environment.”

Carr agreed that the expectations about transparency had increased. “I think there is an expectation from employees that you will share your vulnerability,” she said. “At the same time, people still expect you as the leader of the company to have the answers. So we have to be calm and you have to communicate that.”

She added: “I feel like over the past three years my main role as CEO has been as head of internal communications. It started with the pandemic, and it continued through the other crises, including the invasion of Ukraine, that have followed.

“Generation Z have a different view of what they want out of work. There is an expectation that they will work nine to five and that work-life balance is important to them. At the same time, they need to learn the craft, and that takes time. It’s all about balance.”

The panel, under questioning from thenetworkone’s Julian Boulding, addressed other aspects of the crisis in trust identified by the Edelman Trust Barometer and other consumer surveys.

Said Rosenberg, “A consumer brand needs to stand for something, you need that corporate purpose. We are the ones in communications who can make a real difference, who can help our clients understand the need to say what you mean and do what you say, and to help a brand find its ‘why.’”

Added Carr: “I think all the evidence is that Gen Z is buying brands based on their values and who they trust…. But when people ask you to trust them, most of us are quite skeptical. In the last few weeks in the UK, we have learned that words mean nothing; it’s about actions. That’s a lesson for our clients and our brands. It’s the ones that do things to show they are worthy of trust that win the confidence of consumers.”

Baduel, meanwhile, focused on agencies and the need to stay away from “clickbait” content. “A lot of journalists have left the big media houses and gone into brand journalism, but at the same time there has been a race to the bottom and a feeling that for media and for PR, it’s all about eyeballs. There’s a trade-off, it seems, between getting attention and being true to your values. You have to make sure you are true to your values.”

And finally, Mondshein shared an initiative that he believed had a tangible impact on SourceCode’s own trust. In early 2020, he said, the firm talked with a private equity firm that worked mostly with businesses run by people of color or female owners. SourceCode offered to provide pro bono advice to clients in its portfolio.

“It has become a point of pride for us, and I believe it has been a contributor to our financial growth over the last three years. I think doing good legitimately impacts business.”