Building a Culture of Radical Transparency

*Previously published on O'Dwyer's on Oct. 15, 2020 here.

For 30 years, I've worked exclusively on the agency side of high tech-focused public relations. During this time I’ve worked for, competed against, or personally built just about every type of agency you can imagine, from the small, scrappy media relations “boot camps” capable of getting results and taking abuse from clients with equal aplomb, to the ivory tower “brand snob” shops projecting an air of extreme selectivity and unattainability to the average tech company.

Regardless of the type of agency, there is one unifying factor without which none of these firms would ever get off the ground—the people who staff them. Most of these people are young, impressionable, eager to do a great job and completely clueless about the agency business model and its nuances.

This is a topic I’ve been fascinated by for years, and many of my colleagues and confidantes will know that I conduct a yearly survey of salaries and financial practices for tech PR agencies. While this survey has become an invaluable resource for agency owners to see how their salary and benefit packages stack up against competitors, it still doesn’t solve a fundamental issue: without financial transparency, there will always be a degree of suspicion as to where all the profits go every year and resentment from the staff for the strict code of secrecy about agency finances in general.

No Better Time for Transparency

It’s time for a reckoning in our industry. Agency owners are intimately familiar with the games being played and the stories being told to young, talented employees. “Our firm is renowned for its culture. We love and care about our work, and we treat our team members with compassion.” Meanwhile, horror stories are shared about those other agencies, where account executives are worked to death and left to cry quietly at their desks.

Moreover, the PR agency model with its hierarchical structure—beginning with the entry-level Account Coordinator and usually containing at least 8-10 different titles to climb, e.g., Assistant Account Executive, Account Executive, Senior Account Executive, Account Manager, Senior Account Manager, Account Director—puts staffers on a hamster wheel of sorts, constantly dangling the carrot of the next promotion in order to extract the highest possible performance over the greatest length of time. After ten years, those willing to stick it out might have the chance to become a VP and finally get a sense of the financials underlying the agency.

The broader business community has already been facing this reckoning over the past few years, as a lack of transparency has revealed that companies and organizations systematically underpay women and people of color. Most famously, this summer saw Condé Nast’s red-hot Bon Appetit YouTube channel implode when it was revealed that several BIPOC staffers were not compensated for their work. Meanwhile, their white colleagues had signed five-figure contracts.

A Culture of Radical Transparency

Having thought about this issue now for decades, I was finally presented with the opportunity to try something different with the founding of Bateman Agency. Though the agency is still in its early days, we are building our organization on a foundation of transparency and fairness, with the principle that equal work merits equal pay. Salary bands for full-time employees and hourly rates for contractors will be shared with all Bateman Agency staffers regardless of W-9 or W-2 classification, and we are ensuring that each employee has a clear understanding of how the agency uses its profits and why.

Transparency at Bateman Agency is a matter of trust. While I hope that our team has faith in my leadership and my interest in fairness, the legacy of high-tech PR gives them no reason to take an agency founder at their word. By lifting the veil on our salary structures and ensuring that every employee knows the score, we’re creating an environment free from jealousy, competition and the feeling of being undervalued.

In every aspect of our work, transparency can only serve to solve problems. An agency that doesn’t keep secrets from its employees is one that communicates more effectively, works more efficiently, and maintains a truly positive company culture. If introducing new degrees of transparency would cause problems for your agency, take the time to ask why. If knowing how much your coworker makes would lead to resentment, what kind of decisions have been made? It’s time for PR to open up about its payment policies; I hope Bateman Agency will only be the first of many.