ITL #182 Leaders in waiting: what millennials value in the public relations workplace

3 years, 1 month ago

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Sometimes maligned, often misunderstood, the Millennial Generation cannot be ignored. They are the leaders of tomorrow, and increasingly of today. By Bryan Reber.



The Millennial Generation.  In the workplace the mention of “millennials” may draw cheers for their ability to manage social media and other emerging technologies.  Or it may draw eye rolls and whispers about their feeling entitled and trying to climb the organizational ladder far quicker than their superiors did.

 

There is some truth to each of these views and many more.  University of Georgia colleagues Dr. Juan Meng and Dr. Holley Reeves joined me to conduct a series of studies for the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations located at the University of Alabama.  We talked to both millennial public relations practitioners and PR executives who hire and manage millennials to try to come up with some insights about what millennial workers most value in the public relations workplace and what are some current best practices in recruitment and retention.

 

Millennials are projected to make up about half the global workforce by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025.  One of the challenges that leaders in public relations agencies and departments are citing today is the ability to successfully recruit, and even more challenging, retain young employees.  

 

Members of the Millennial Generation were born between 1982 to 2004 – the oldest members are 34 years old.  Some have labeled them the “look at me” generation for their perceived narcissism. Or “Generation Why” due to their constant search for information and desire to understand the context in which they operate.

 

Though data suggests that most millennials stay in jobs for only 18 months, there is other evidence that shows top talent will stay in the same job long-term if the work is interesting and varied. Like most other professionals, top millennial employees are attracted by compensation; however, particularly for younger millennials, flexibility is nearly as important as salary. While understanding the importance of deadlines and client needs, these young professionals want some influence in where and when they work.

 

Enigmatic generation

Millennials are an enigmatic generation. They are seen as altruistic and narcissistic, preferring job stability but quickly moving to greener pastures, and desiring independence and flexibility but also wanting safety nets and clear expectations.

 

These unique generational characteristics challenge managers to effectively engage, incorporate, and guide new leaders. These generational differences have and will likely continue to significantly change the workforce as millennials accept leadership roles within the organizations.

 

To try to bring some clarity to this situation and to identify some solutions we talked to 39 millennial public relations practitioners and 36 public relations managers who hire and supervise millennials.

 

According to their managers, millennial professionals want to have a positive impact on the organization, besides finishing the job that has been assigned to them. They want their contribution to be recognized and rewarded in the workplace and they appreciate transparency in communication.

 

In addition, our millennial respondents indicated a strong desire for self-improvement, leadership development, and the flexibility in balancing work and life. The executives and managers we interviewed recognized these desires and are working to address them.

 

Freedom and safety

Millennials said they desire freedom to take a leadership position, but with a safety net in place to soften failure:

 

“Millennials want to grow quickly and rapidly within a company. Promotion promises retention. They have high expectations in the workplace and want recognition, praise and congratulations for their hard work. Millennials are more interested in companies who are involved in meaningful work—one who has social responsibility contributing to a greater good.” (Female millennial practitioner, agency)

 

“The best way for a company to recruit talented PR professionals is to optimize its online presence. Organizations should take advantage of online platforms such email, social media and LinkedIn in order to grab the attention of millennials.” (Female millennial practitioner, agency)

 

“Millennials are looking for a company that offers perks, not necessarily ‘the company with the reputation for bringing in X amount of dollars each month.’” (Female millennial practitioner, corporate communication)

 

  • High connectivity with their colleagues and superiors both socially and through opportunities to collaborate
  • A flexible work environment
  • Increased diversity among co-workers – not only by race and ethnicity, but across the diversity spectrum, including but not limited to socioeconomic background, sexual preference and ideology

 

Executives and managers are responding to these desires by:

 

  • Encouraging communication, transparency and frequent feedback between themselves and their millennial subordinates
  • Developing cross-functional work opportunities and individualized career paths for young employees
  • Involving millennials in project strategizing and planning as well as tactical implementation
  • Providing leadership development opportunities as a way to be noticed by and favorably impress senior management

 

Several similar themes and areas of change emerged in millennial and executive comments that could contribute to creation of a workplace conducive to successfully incorporating and keeping the next generation of employees:

 

  • Relationships – To identify prospective employees and retain existing ones, talent managers are taking advantage of millennials’ high connectivity, through the power of digital and interpersonal networking. Millennial-supervisor mentorship programs develop millennials’ skills and channel their energy to best serve the organization, while providing the personal relationships that millennials crave. Honest and transparent relationships or opportunities to set clear expectations, provide feedback, and teach millennials.

 

  • Diversity – Millennials desire diversity in the ethnicity of colleagues, in daily work, and in the organization’s culture. Developing an adaptable culture that fosters diversity in ideas attracts top millennial talent and encourages retention within the company. They also crave diversity in tasks. Executives can engage millennials by offering cross-functional learning opportunities and encouraging entrepreneurial behaviors.

 

  • Development – Leadership development programs attract and promote top talent within the organization. Millennials are ambitious anddesire quick promotion. Executives suggest acknowledging millennials’ successes, offering educational and development opportunities, and clearly explaining promotion processes to engage millennials.

 

  • Technology – Millennials are, in part, defined by their proficiency and reliance on technology, a feature also incorporated into their job search and careers. As organizations turn to digital communication to connect with consumers, executives identify success in similar techniques to recruit, retain, and engage talent. Talent managers will continue to recruit via social media channels and communicate with new employees through dedicated internal social channels. But digital recruiting tactics should be additive to old-fashioned person-to-person recruiting through events such as college job fairs. This area is also a source of significant millennial leadership within the industry as these digital natives bring their skills into public relations.

 

  • Social responsibility – Growing up in an era of social responsibility, millennials seek a higher purpose in their work and look to give back to society. Opportunities to serve the community will attract millennials and encourage engagement with the organization.

 

  • Workplace benefits – Beyond the normal expected benefits such as insurance and retirement investment programs, talent managers are looking at how to increase the work-life balance within their workplaces. Respondents in this study said that the millennial workforce is changing the very structures and cultures of their organizations. Increased collaboration and worksite flexibility are examples of structural change.

 

Millennials are impacting the public relations workplace:

 

  • They are bringing a vibrant energy and new ideas.
  • They are forcing adjustment of organizational structure and culture.
  • They are increasing collaboration and the social environment at work.
  • They are encouraging job flexibility and a work-life balance.

 

Opportunity to engage

Public relations offers an uncommon opportunity to engage millennials when it comes to technology. Social media are a part of every PR campaign toolbox now.

 

So the expertise that PR professionals engage for their organizations or clients needs to be leveraged to recruit and retain millennials. Including social media in organizational communication will address another issue of importance to millennials – breaking down hierarchies. Social media put everyone in the organization on equal communication footing and can temper an organization’s hierarchy.


Public relations, especially on the agency front, can offer another plus for millennials.  Rapid promotion is not uncommon for quality work. With millennials’ desire to contribute immediately and be leaders-in-waiting, the existing advancement structure of public relations can be used to an advantage.   


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The Author

Bryan H. Reber

Bryan H. Reber is C. Richard Yarbrough Professor of Crisis Communication Leadership and Assistant Department Head in the Department of Advertising & Public Relations in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. His research focuses on public relations theory, practice and pedagogy especially as it relates to crisis and health communication. Prior to joining the Grady College, Dr. Reber worked in public relations at Bethel College, Kansas.

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