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So after two weeks of unemployment, I am coming to terms with the fact that economic conditions are encouraging me to reconsider life in an agency. However, should I go back, I know that I must choose my next PR agency with the utmost care and caution. My life and well-being are dependent on it.

Good agencies are out there. You just need to spend the time and effort to find them. Part of the process is screening each agency that you consider. Agencies should be put to the test by potential employees. It is hazardous to treat the application and interview process like a one way street.

To help PR agency hopefuls with their agency selection process, I have decided to write down my mental list of screening techniques and and agency red flags. Kindly note that this list is purely based on my own personal observations having been on the PR job market one too many times.

Screening Suggestions

  • Ask Around – PR agency executives and Web sites will only give you the official message about their reputation. This reputation will undoubtedly be exceptional and outstanding. The best way to get around this is if you have friends who are already working in PR agencies. If so, then I highly recommend that you ask them for their most candid thoughts about the agencies that they have worked for, interviewed with or encountered vicariously though their other PR friends and colleagues. This will give you a more honest idea about an agency’s reputation. Are they sweatshops? Are the employees “happy employees” or are they clamouring to get out? If more than one person gives you the same answer about any one agency, then heed their words and avoid that agency.
  • Internet Scan – PR agencies are very meticulous and careful about their online reputations as it effects their business and employee prospects. However, if an agency is a bad apple, then it just might be possible that their true colors will be revealed online. You just have to do a thorough search for dirty laundry being aired by extremely disgruntle employees and clients. As such, its worth taking a look to see what Google might pull up along with specific blog search engines like Google Blog Search, Technorati and Ice Rocket. But agencies being agencies, know that there is no guarantee that you’ll find anything.

Red Flags

  • Fatigue – Does your interviewer show any indication that they are exhausted after a long day or are they still in high spirits and enthusiastic at 3:30pm? While it might be understandable that people will be tired at the end of the day….you may become that fatigued person one day. Besides, if you are making the effort to be up beat, then why shouldn’t they also do the same.
  • Time Management – Are you interviewing with the people that you are scheduled to meet? Or are people so busy that they rearrange the interview schedule on you on the spot. Or worse, they scramble to find someone for you to talk to? Not only is this rude, but its also a bad indication that this group is way too overworked. If they treat you poorly during the interview, it makes you wonder how they’ll treat you when you are a paid employee.
  • Office Energy – Is there a buzz and magnetic vibe in the office? Or is it dead silent because people are too busy and stressed with their own work? Also, look and see if there is actual life – empty cubicles are an indication that this office might be short-staffed and desperate to hire. Don’t be fooled by offices with a lot of toys (i.e. Wii, a Rock Band set, Pool table). Just because its there doesn’t mean that people are actually able to enjoy them.
  • Team Work – Are you interviewing with a cross-sectional representation of the team? (i.e. are you meeting with both senior and junior level people). If you are, then that’s a good sign that that agency values everyone’s opinion in the hiring process. It also means that that agency wants to hire people that click with their employees. If you don’t meet with everyone, then that’s a possible sign that that office has a very top-down structure and culture. Also, it could be a sign that the junior people are way too over worked/billable that they can not spare even a few minutes to say hello. Careful, that may be you one day.
  • Specifics – Is your interviewer (i.e. the person who would be your direct supervisor) able to tell you specifically what type of clients, number of clients, team size, hours will be, if you are hired? It is perfectly legitimate to know what are the interviewer’s expectations and why they are hiring for that position. If they are replacing, then there could be high turnover. If its a new position, then they are growing. If they can’t give you a straight answer on they number and type of clients that you’ll be working on, then take it as a bad sign. It means that if hired, you will be assigned ad-hoc to any number of clients. It also means that this agency works on a lot of projects as opposed to retainer work, hence they really don’t know. If you don’t know already, projects suck—its a rush job with high expectations. Also, the average number of clients per person is also very important piece of information. A good number is 3. Remember that!
  • Quality of Life – The only way to really determine an agency employee’s quality of life is to ask someone already in the position that you are applying for. This is difficult however because you may not have a chance to meet with such a person and you cannot ask this question directly. Just know that anyone senior will not know what they are talking about or they may be inadvertently leading you astray.
  • Receptionist – Do they have one? If not, it means that they also do not have an on-site office manager/administrative assistant to take care of the office. This means that you or another account person needs to fill that role in addition to client work. Don’t be fooled by the account person sitting in what looks like a receptionist’s position. This is easy to determine if they are on the phone pitching journalists or working on a media list/pitch in plain site on their computers.

That’s all I have right now and I hope it helps you sort your thoughts about an agency after the interview. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment to offer any additional thoughts or insights.