When we started out back in the mid-90s, we were like a lot of entrepreneurial PR firms — a small team trying to do big things. I always felt it was critical to share information with the whole staff, so we communicated constantly. There were regular weekly staff meetings, impromptu brainstorms, emails at all hours, catch-up sessions and follow-ups to the catch-ups. Everyone knew what everyone else was up to — upper management, client relations, marketing, you name it.
This strategy worked well for many years. As we grew to 10, 25, 55 people, all in one office, we kept communicating at the same pace. There were more people to catch up with, more meetings to schedule, and the hallways were longer. I stretched myself thin. But we managed.
About 15 years in, growth-stage PR companies like ours often hit a wall. There are business pressures to deal with, like the 2008 recession, which cut U.S. PR employment by 15% over four years. In our specific case, we felt there was another factor getting in our way. We were overcommunicating. Maybe you’re experiencing the same kinds of growing pains. You may be trying too hard to act like a small business — keeping everybody in the loop, funneling all decisions through the person whose initials form the firm’s name. Your processes may be slowing you down.
To take a firm to the next level, leaders need to let go a bit. That was hard for me. I’m a communicator at heart. I love to talk and share everything with my staff. We are in the communications business, after all, so filtering discussions goes against my very nature.
Still, you need to change. As the leader of an agency, you need to communicate more strategically and decide which communications practices to cut and which to hold onto.
Here are some changes you can make to communicate more strategically and take your firm to the next level:
This isn’t revolutionary advice. Leaders need their staffs to step up to scale their business.
What growth-stage PR firms have to do is make some specific decisions to start thinking — and acting — bigger. Define job responsibilities more strategically to give individuals more clarity and accountability. Elevate leadership roles in fields like finance and HR and create underlying structures, with assistants managing tasks and programs. Give senior leaders responsibility over certain functions in the firm like IT, marketing, client relations and geographical expansions.
For example, one of the biggest changes we made was to adopt a “dedicated model.” We retained a matrix management structure for client work, with teams reporting up to supervisors, directors and vice presidents. But we realized we needed a management channel to make sure communications were flowing up and down the organization. We assigned every VP a dedicated team to meet with regularly and own employee career development.
Create ‘swim lanes.’
It’s not enough to just hand out new titles and responsibilities. To scale an organization, you need to create lanes for employees to maneuver in so they can accomplish their goals without distractions. That means less cross-channel reporting. When marketing pursues a new initiative, that department owns it. When client relations wants to implement a new policy, let them hammer out the details. Colleagues can join meetings on a need-to-know basis.
For example, it’s great to share information about cool new projects when they’re ready for prime time, but we avoid approval chains that can push the project into the next quarter. As your firm grows, make an effort to remove the red tape in the more flexible areas of your organization.
The first thing that has to go is the steady stream of all-staff meetings. As fun as it is to get everybody in one place, too many meetings become counterproductive. The staff needs to connect periodically to learn from company leaders about the health of the business and promote a certain esprit de corps. But not weekly.
We’ve found that we get more done by holding fewer, smaller meetings. Dedicated VPs hold regular sessions over glasses of rosé to tell team members about new reporting practices or company updates. Departments meet to finalize project plans. For everything else, we tap an increasingly versatile set of communication tools for one-on-one and team-driven sessions.
Support modern work methods.
When PR businesses start out, the whole staff tends to work in one location. As the business evolves, it grows geographically, either through acquisition or the establishment of satellite offices. Employees’ life situations change. They need to work from home or move to a new region. You need to equip every location to help the staff feel like it’s operating under one roof. Provide up-to-date communication tools and technology that supports the modern workforce we’re seeing today.
We’ve created what I like to call a “virtual hallway,” where staff in four offices and in-home locations can connect quickly and casually with each other. We have a flexible work-at-home program and we embrace new work practices because it makes business sense and attracts the best talent.
Keep communicating — your way.
Just because you evolve your communications practices doesn’t mean you have to give up all of your old tricks. Let your personality and leadership style shine through your communication methods.
I still jump into conversations over email when a team member lands the Wall Street Journal or an employee has a baby. I stop people in the hallway and chat them up. I write personal notes to every employee on work anniversaries. I attend every summer and winter outing at every office. I hold semiannual “Breakfast with the President” gatherings with employee groups at every level. We talk openly, and I bring feedback to my executive meetings to complete the loop.
Change is hard. It’s easy to keep going as you are. But to grow as a firm, sometimes you need to evolve as a leader — to step back and pick your spots.