360 Degree Story:
Exploring Our Intuitive Approach to Team Design
Traditional agency structures have bred a pervasive toxic culture in the public relations (PR) and marketing industries. It’s a widespread problem, which leads to sky-high turnover rates, a reputation for burnout, and a tendency for client churn.
And while many PR agency veterans, unfortunately, have a lifetime of anecdotal evidence to back that up, the limited research we have in this field tells the same story. In one survey of 1,000 PR, marketing and communications professionals, conducted by Coleman Parkes and covered in PR Week, about half of respondents reported experiencing “severe stress, anxiety or burnout” in 2022 — up to three times throughout the year, on average. And PR and strategic communications professions crop up regularly in rankings for the most stressful professions, like this one back in 2019 — before the pandemic introduced additional staffing and budget pressures to the mix.
At Trust Relations, our mission is to disrupt this harmful model and replace it with a 360-degree approach that considers team member and client experience to provide the best possible results for everyone. When teams are genuinely collaborative, better client services and career outcomes follow. In this special edition of Trust Weekly, we’re sitting down for an interview with our Chief Operations Officer, Lana Marshall, to discuss Trust Relations’ innovative approach to structuring account teams.
Hi, Lana! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today. Before we begin, let’s cover the basics: What is Intuitive Team Design?
Intuitive Team Design is the Trust Relations account staffing philosophy. I developed this approach with our CEO & Founder, April White, based on her decades of experience leading PR strategies for Fortune 100 brands, and my own media relations and operational expertise.
Have you ever seen a chef — maybe on TV, or in your kitchen at home — toss the recipe book aside in favor of an intuitive strategy? Maybe your mom’s pasta sauce wasn’t quite right, so you watched as she did a taste test and added sugar to cut the acidity. Or perhaps your favorite TV baker wanted to balance the sweetness of his chocolate ganache, so he added a dash of sea salt to bring the flavors together. That’s us, with our account teams.
Unlike the traditional structure, which prioritizes team members’ capacity over their expertise, our unique approach assigns account teams based on our commitment to considerate workplace culture and client fit. We won’t match a logistics client with a beauty brand manager, for example, or a wellness client with a SaaS expert. Instead, we consider each team member’s unique strengths and work styles, and then curate team structures that are designed for maximum cohesion. As a result, our teams are custom-built to run like clockwork — and to understand every client’s business better, from the jump.
Let’s unpack the “intuitive” approach — where did it come from?
When I took on the role of Chief Operations Officer, I worked closely with April to optimize our staffing model. We have always taken an expertise-first approach with our fully remote, hybrid team structure, and Intuitive Team Design is how we formalized that process.
Under the capacity-focused approach most agencies use, accounts are staffed based on the number of other accounts a random team member happens to have on the day a new contract is signed. And it’s outdated. April and I have both seen firsthand that it’s just not helpful for clients when their accounts are being serviced out of obligation, rather than genuine passion and interest in their unique industry. I work to ensure we have processes in place which match prospective clients with our extensive network of PR specialists in their niche.
I happen to be something of a chef myself, so the cooking parallels are a great way to conceptualize this approach. We have something like a head chef / sous chef relationship, where I spearhead the staffing decisions and April works closely with me to ensure everything gels. Trust Relations is the restaurant, and each client is like a respected food critic visiting us for the first time. We curate the account team and experience to meet their unique needs.
What does the process look like?
At a high level, when a new team member joins Trust Relations, we undertake an introductory process to identify their areas of particular passion and experience, as well as their strengths and long-term career goals. Then, we maintain that record and refer back to it when the time comes to staff a new client account. I also hold regular check-ins with individual team members, to stay up to date on their capacities, goals and areas of interest. Then, when a new client signs with our integrated marketing and PR agency, I refer to that information on file to create a team that: a) has the most expertise and interest in that client’s industry and b) will mesh well in terms of personalities, work styles and career development. This is what we mean when we say that we take a 360-degree approach to staffing. We build well-rounded teams that can meet each client’s individual brand needs, across the spectrum of integrated marketing capabilities we offer.
Let’s dig into that a bit more. What factors do you consider when you’re staffing a new account?
I consider a wide variety of factors when evaluating potential account team members. In terms of client fit, I consider items like prior experience, seniority, and personal interest in the client’s industry, and then weigh that against their current capacity.
In terms of team cohesion — and this is where I think we stand out, in particular — I consider how these team members have worked together in the past, their career growth ambitions, and opportunities for mentorship for our more junior staff.
The benefit on the client side is that they receive a team not only with enough time to lend to their account, but with actual experience and a personal stake in generating results in that vertical. The benefit for the team is maximum efficiency, growth opportunities, reduced turnover, and a happier work experience. And overall, it creates teams that are more genuinely dedicated to the success of an account, because each assignment aligns with their desired career trajectories and areas of personal interest.
What happens if the chemistry on an account isn’t right?
This is a rare occurrence, and I am proud to say we have developed a deep network with so many diverse personalities and experts that I can almost always find a good fit for everyone. But life changes, and part of being an effective leader is to have empathy and understanding when it does.
If we need to make a change — whether that is due to personal or health reasons, or issues with team chemistry on an account — we fall back on that intuitive philosophy to ensure any new faces on an account are the right fit to bring value to that client and team dynamic. When one team member needs to step away, a new team member transitions onto the account via a deep handoff period and careful transition process. That way, we can ensure nothing is missed, and the experience is seamless for both the client and the staff involved, and that all parties feel supported and informed.
What makes for the most successful, cohesive account teams?
Personality type is important. Internally, in terms of fostering a considerate workplace culture, this is arguably the most important piece. Some team members are more collaborative and expressive. Others are skilled at being the hard decision makers. Some people — and this can change with experience — are natural supporters, while others are very effective delegators.
In general, the chemistry of an account works well if:
- The senior strategic lead has the right experience to build a good rapport with the client, raise any issues swiftly and directly, and offer oversight as the main advisor.
- The secondary account lead is a driver, able to get things done, maintain accountability, and pivot quickly to execute on strategies.
- The remaining staff offer adaptable and reliable support to keep the account on track, take direction well, and rise to the challenge that is PR account work.
With the Intuitive Team Design approach, we aim to give every single team member the right internal support network to flourish, whether that is through mentorship opportunities to help our junior staff advance, or in providing enough support to help our senior account leads be ultra-effective in their strategies.
Thank you for your time, Lana! Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about the Intuitive Team Design approach?
I will say this: It’s not just me! This process works because there is a dedicated team at Trust Relations working to refine it constantly. I spearhead the process, April is also highly involved, and our operational and HR staff work tirelessly to ensure the onboarding process is as smooth and successful as it can be for our team members and clients. We really do operate like a Michelin-Star kitchen!
By considering factors beyond hourly rate and time allocation, we have seen improvements with team retention, career development, client satisfaction, internal relationships, and overall happiness. We believe that the best PR agencies are the ones building something better. Reinventing the old model is our ultimate goal. This careful approach facilitates the continuation of our considerate workplace culture. And that is thanks in no small part to the people on our team. We’re here to mentor the next generation, change the status quo, and ensure the communications career path is a rewarding one.
Interested in joining the TR team? Fill out our hiring form any time. For brands seeking strategic communications support, we have you covered! Request a consultation with us.
About Lana: As Trust Relations’ Chief Operations Officer, Lana Marshall is a strategic partner on the leadership team overseeing operations, finance, HR & recruiting, and our client service teams. With a background in PR managing a variety of brands and venture-backed startups spanning the wellness, culinary, hospitality, technology, and beauty spaces, Lana utilized her agency experience to inform her methods in developing the infrastructure of Trust Relations. At the center is the pivotal relationship between company culture, team productivity, and customer satisfaction. As a result, she strives to lead, develop, and mentor the account teams at Trust Relations with both compassion and a client-centered approach. She is skilled at identifying white spaces where methods that will improve quality, efficiency, and productivity can be implemented — and does so smoothly across multiple locations in the context of our fast-growing virtual firm. She develops impactful systems, processes, and controls to enhance the firm’s overall efficiency with the ultimate goal of unrivaled client service. Lana received her B.A. in Communication with an emphasis in Public Relations from the University of San Diego.
Trust Relations Team