Roughly three years ago, when much of the talk about “millennial preferences” in the workplace began to emerge as mainstream conversation - I thought it was all bullshit. At the time, I remember frequently asking myself, ‘other than sociology geeks, who really cares about generational characteristics?’ The only generational knowledge I could recall referenced the Greatest Generation; the remarkable era defined by survivors of the Great Depression who went on to serve in World War II and subsequently build the middle class of this country. And my familiarity with the Greatest Generation was almost exclusively driven by the fact that both of my grandfathers epitomized its attributes. Shameless plug: Check out my old blog post comparing millennials to the unions during the Greatest Generation.
As time passed though, my colleagues on ARPR’s leadership team continued to be intrigued by many of the articles and essays on millennials. The information, they’d argue, was particularly beneficial for us as PR agency leaders, since our industry has suffered from employee challenges long before millennials came into the picture.
So, in an act of humility, I decided to stop rejecting the millennial preference phenomenon and started reading up on it. And to my surprise: what I found was a lot of very smart, research-driven, analysis about what millennials want in a career and what they expect from their employers.
I began applying what I read to our employees and solicited feedback from friends and family. The more I put this research into management practice, the more I appreciated just how accurate a lot of the prognostications were. For example, the millennial workers I know do want their jobs to make an impact; they expect chances to utilize all of their skillsets and they are rewarded by their employers showing that they care.
The PR Industry’s Resistance to Change
Presently, millennial conversations continue to dominate. Rightly so, as the generation will constitute 75 percent of the workforce in the next two years. However, the average age of PR firm CEOs is 58.
Perhaps the age disparity explains some of why the PR industry has failed to sufficiently embrace millennial preferences. While other industries have updated policies and procedures spanning maternity leave and technology to vacation guidelines, professional development opportunities and community relations to keep millennials happy, motivated and of course, profitable; PR hasn’t followed suit.
The industry’s complacency and hesitancy for change is ironic though, as annual operating profits have consistently fallen since 2011; the average client-agency relationship has shrunk from 7.2 to 2.8 years and annual employee turnover is as high as 50 percent. Yet PR firms today only spend 1.9 percent of their annual revenue on technology and 14 percent of agencies provide ZERO professional development training. Not to mention PR consistently ranks as one of the top 10 most stressful professions.
Sociologists are turning their focus from millennials to Generation Z (those born after1996 and currently about to trickle into the workforce), meanwhile the overwhelming majority of the PR industry has yet to even adapt to millennial culture. Yes, this reality is thanks in large part to stubborn Boomer and Gen X leadership that can’t, or won’t, see beyond the status quo.
Tips for Explaining Millennial Culture’s Impact on the Future of PR
Time is running out for legacy PR agencies under elder leadership. The prospects of them hitting profit goals, growing margins and attracting acquisition are fading. In a last-ditch effort to save PR from itself, here are three tips to help agency stakeholders talk to Boomers and Gen X leadership about how a millennial centric culture is essential to the future of PR.
1. It’s About the Bottom Line Stupid - Many boomers and Gen X have a misconception about millennials and what drives their workplace preferences. Some even mistake such predilections for ‘spoiled’ tendencies and an insufficient work ethic. Trying to rationalize with Boomers and Gen X who share this worldview is a failed strategy. Instead, keep the conversations extremely bottom line driven. Showcase how much it costs to replace an employee versus enacting some of the accommodations to make their workplace experience better. Highlight how motivated employees satisfy customers, which ultimately drives bottom line growth and margin improvements. Approach conversations as if they were with the agency accountant, and put the burden on leadership to make the best financial decisions for the company. Don’t waste your time trying to get them to understand, or embrace, what makes millennials tick.
2. Scare by Competition - Studies vary about how much competition motivates employees, but if you’ve ever sat with a CEO or in on a Board meeting, then you know that competition is not just a primary fear, but ultimately a motivator. Sharing competitive analysis with Boomers and Gen X may ultimately propel them to take transformative action. Think about how your boss might react if every PR pro in town wanted to work for one specific agency, even though that agency lacked a sexy client roster and didn’t have as much revenue. When he or she finds out that the demand is environment and culture driven, it is likely to cause them to think twice.
3. Remove the Emotion - Much of the pushback that Boomers and Gen X have towards millennial culture is based on emotion, and not facts. So, to truly breakthrough to the most stubborn of Boomer and Gen X agency leaders, you have to find a way to remove all of the emotion from the equation and drive home the key messages using facts, and only facts. For example, think about how much more likely someone would be to take an action if they were presented with a ‘this is happening’ or ‘when this happens’ than subjective statements like “this might happen’ or ‘our projections show.’
Not every Boomer and Gen X agency leader is bad, and not all of them have failed to embrace millennial preferences as imperative to the future of PR. But far too many have taken the route of denial and stubborn behavior, not just impacting their business but the entire industry. So, from one former skeptic to those who remain critical, the time to change is now.
At ARPR, we’ve partnered with our friends at Gould+Partners to further understand how millennial employees are driving the #futureofpr. Click here to take this survey, which dives deep into generational issues affecting agencies today.
Evan Goldberg serves as director of ARPR, the Southeast’s fastest growing technology PR firm and 2014 Small Agency of the Year. Throughout his career, he has led integrated communications campaigns for startups, mid-sized enterprises and Fortune 500 companies that have resulted in measurable increases in awareness, adoption, sales and venture capital funding. Today, he leads ARPR’s cybersecurity and SaaS practice groups, where his clients have been seen in Venture Beat, Fast Company, The Guardian and MIT Technology Review.