When it comes to building a first-rate public relations workplace, money clearly isn’t everything.

When we asked employees whether they agreed with the statement, “Financially, I find my job rewarding,” Carter Ryley Thomas ranked 16th out of more than 60 firms—a strong performance, but not especially remarkable. When we asked employees whether they agreed with the statement, “Overall, I find my job rewarding,” however, Carter Ryley Thomas ranked first. Not only did it rank first; it scored a perfect 5.0.

Looking for links between overall job satisfaction and specific attributes, it became clear that what employees are looking for is an agency that treats employees fairly, empowers them to make their own decisions and take risks, provides plenty of opportunities for learning and advancement, and keeps open the lines of communication between management and employees.

Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes apparent that these things don’t happen by accident, or simply because management wills them. Every agency wants to treat employees fairly, empower them, provide them with opportunities, keep them informed. Those agencies that succeed do so because they align their entire organization around these goals; they make the necessary commitment of time and energy and money to create the kind of workplace that employees love.

What do these winners have in common?

1.   They understand the importance of values

The very best agencies have a clearly articulated set of values, and mechanisms for ensuring those values are not just words on a piece of paper.

Among the values at CRT: What’s best for the group comes first; Always be open and honest; Work for and trust each other; Seek responsibility and share recognition; Respect and value individuals—clients, associates and suppliers—and their differences. Fleishman-Hillard, the top-rated top-tier agency, is guided by 10 basic values, of which “respect for the individual” is the first and “teamwork is everything is the second.”   

FitzGerald Communications, meanwhile, emphasizes four key values: a focus on people; a results orientation; open communication; and innovation. 

“In weekly, agency-wide staff meetings, we recognize individuals who have exemplified our values during the week,” says Jill Nunes of FitzGerald. “Winners receive one of four stars, with each star representing one of the main values. As you walk through Fitgerald, you notice that these stars have a place of honor in staff members’ offices.”

At The ProMarc Agency, a 360-desgree Feedback program helps employees monitor how they and their colleagues are living the firm’s values. Employees meet monthly with managers to discuss their progress, and every quarter employees evaluate themselves, a peer, their manager, and the president of the company.

Denver-based Schenkein, meanwhile, appoints a different “ValueMeister” each month to help the firm celebrate behaviors that illustrate one of its values.

2.   They give employees a sense of ownership

The very best agencies give their employees a sense of ownership, and understand that the best way to do that is to give them actual ownership.

“When we opened our doors in March of 1996, employee ownership was something we knew we had to have,” says Anne Bruce Ahearn of Carter Ryley Thomas, which topped our “Best Agencies to Work For” study. “Every single employee of CRT is an owner of the company: not just the top executives but everyone. This type of widespread ownership inspires all the employees to work extremely hard to make CRT successful.”

More than half the firms in our top 30 have employee stock ownership or stock purchase plans, and another six have profit-sharing plans that give employees at every level a stake in the financial success of the agencies.

3.   They are deeply committed to professional development

The days when successful agencies could vacillate over whether to invest in training are long gone. Firms that don’t offer their people the opportunity to learn are going to attract people with no interest in learning—a formula for disaster. So the very best agencies are investing heavily in training. Porter Novelli, for example, has committed to invest 1.5 percent of revenues in professional development. In addition to in-house Learning Lab and Passport to Services programs, the firm provides a professional stipend that employees can invest in external training and education.

Says agency president Bob Druckenmiller, “To reinforce the importance of learning for us as an organization, Commitment to Learning and Development is a core competency requirement for all staff and an important part of every manager’s assessment is the extent to which they are supporting the career development of their staff.”

There’s also an increased recognition that the best professional development doesn’t come in a “one size fits all” package.

“We offer adult learning that is self-directed and experiential,” says Celia Berk, managing director of human resources at Burson-Marsteller. “Employees can assess their needs and determine their growth requirements to achieve person goals. We make a commitment to our employees to seek out the best experts in all subject areas, and to provide multi-track training that takes into account each employee’s level, practice, and career development aspirations.”

Smaller agencies can take an approach to professional development that is designed around the individual employee’s needs. At Denver-based Schenkein, for example, every employee is assigned a coach—a more senior staff member who is responsible for his or her growth and development. Together, employee and coach develop a Personal Development Program customized to reflect the personal and professional goals of the individual.

Says vice president Leonna Clark, “Our coaching system gives employees a touchstone, someone they touch base with regularly, use to work through issues, and even use as a resource to talk about what’s goin on in their lives. The coaching system creates an open dialogue between all staff and management, allowing for continued professional and personal growth.”

4.   They help people balance their professional and personal lives

Employees understand that public relations is not a nine-to-five business, that crises and other client demands may necessitate long hours and lost weekends. But they don’t expect to have to sacrifice a fulfilling personal life in order to succeed in their PR careers. They have children and parents to care for, domestic chores to handle, and they need stimulation from sources other than the office. The very best agencies are helping their employees cope, providing flexible work options including telecommuting, summer hours, and in some cases the ability to work four 10-hour days in order to take the occasional three-day weekend.

Some firms have introduced a host of onsite activities—yoga classes, masseuses, concierge services—to simplify their workers’ lives.

“The benefits of having fun in the workplace can never be underestimated or overlooked,” says Steven Brewster of Cunningham Communication. “Keeping in mind that a smile goes a long way, Citigate Cunningham sponsors regular ‘beer busts’ and employee celebrations. Onsite weekly massage therapists and yoga classes enhance our fun and comfortable atmosphere. These little extras help people grow, feel secure, and above all smile and have fun.”

Other firms have created benefits packages that include incentives to get involved in activities outside the office.

“The logic behind our benefits plan was to make sure our employees have a passion for life outside the office,” says John Metzger, president of Boulder’s Metzger & Associates. “While many companies are offering concierge services and chefs to keep their employees at work, we offer ski passes, fly fishing lessons, vacations and sabbaticals to make sure our employees stay happy.”

5.   They give back to their communities

Increasingly, employees want to feel that the agencies for which they work are making a difference—not only for their clients, but also for society as a whole. The very best agencies are responding by giving their people an opportunity to get involved in good works.     

Says CRT’s Anne Bruce Ahearn, “One of our company goals is to donate 10 percent of our after-tax profits to charitable organizations in the community in service and cash contributions. But one of the unique things about CRT is the way we give. Rather than simply donating dollars, CRT employees donate a significant amount of time to various causes. For one full working day each December, CRT closes its office and the employees spend the day at four or five different organizations throughout Richmond.”

After Boston-based cause-related marketing specialist Cone was sold to Omnicom last year, agency founder Carol Cone decided to donate a portion of the proceeds to sponsoring a Habitat for Humanity House in nearby Roxbury. Cone committed not only the financial support for the home’s construction ($75,000) but also set aside 10 “build days” for employees to work alongside the future homeowners in the creation of the house.

“In May, Cone work teams put on their tool belts with the goal of turning a recently excavated pit into a livable dwelling,” says vice president of business development Stephanie Doherty. “With hammers, saws, nails, a lot of drinking water and a lot of team spirit, employees have been able to see the house begin to take shape, and feel the positive energy generated by knowing they are helping a young family move one step closer to their dream of owning a home.”

Among the giant multinational agencies, Porter Novelli is well known for its commitment to the community, especially since its roots are in the social marketing sphere. Its programs include one day of paid leave each year for volunteer work; a payroll deduction program through which the firm matches 50 cents for every dollar donated by employees; and the Kids    ThinkLink project, which uses the Internet to bring together young people from around the world.

Says Druckenmiller, “A variety of community service initiatives were developed in response to our annual surveys, which showed that our staff want Porter Novelli to be involved in and supportive of our communities. They are important in promoting work-life balance, and fostering a culture of success through teamwork and communication.”

6.  They know there’s no magic bullet

Above all, the very best agencies understand that great workplaces cannot be created by managers who don’t have a genuine feel for the issues confronting their employees. Great cultures are created by managers who really care, not by executives who have read a newsletter article and decided they want to be one of “The Best Agencies to Work For.”

Says Paine PR president David Paine, “All the neck massages, café lattes, concierge services, and day care centers mean little if a firm still operates in traditional ways that ultimately produce unnecessary overtime, competition between peers, conflicts in the workplace, high turnover, and unfair compensation between men and women, and between newly hired employees and those who have been loyal and stayed with the firm for a long time.”
Paine and the others featured in this article have a commitment to creating a healthy workplace that dates back to before the boom in public relations, before the need to find new ways to attract and retain the best people became so acute. It’s a commitment that will live on if and when the boom ends. That’s one reason these firms are “The Best Agencies to Work For.”