Blog Culture/Agency Life

Listen and Learn: A Year of Lessons in Putting People First

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Phil NardonePresident & Chief Executive Officer
Phil holiday all staff

When 2020 turned into 2021, we could all feel a hope that change would come as easily as it does on a clock. If it ever was that easy, it was only because the challenges we collectively faced were not so stark, so divisive, so comprehensive as they are now. 

 As a leader, it’s second nature to look for silver linings. And from a business perspective, they weren’t hard to find — a testament to the strangeness of the year. As political and social divisions deepened outside the office, companies faced growing pressure to address and manage those conditions. Anxious for guidance, more of them turned to agencies like PAN. The PR & IM industry was on fire, and from a numbers perspective, business boomed. But emotionally – well that’s a different story all together. 

I’ve always said that PAN is nothing without the people who do the work. And with each new deal that came to the table, I thought about how it would impact our people. True success this year was not determined by dollars earned, but by how well our agency and leadership could navigate the intersections of society and business, and provide us with everything we needed to thrive — not just as employees but as humans. 

One of the privileges of leading this excellent team is the opportunity to learn every day. This year, maybe more than any other, was a lesson in the value of listening and learning. 

A Culture Built to Last 

When I started PAN more than 25 years ago, I never envisioned our agency as dispersed as it is today. But even so, I think we were always ahead of that curve. When we acquired two agencies to support our growth and expansion goals a few years back, we spoke of working along a “virtual hallway” — connecting employees across locations as seamlessly as if we shared a single office.  

As that capability has become essential during the pandemic, it followed how employees across industries would start to think about their options differently. Unconstrained by commutes, options for many people opened. PAN wasn’t immune to the phenomenon now regarded as the Great Resignation. We lost some valuable members of our team that we would have liked to see grow with us. But if there is one thing that has always set us apart, it’s that our people come first no matter what. Through 2021, as companies faced down pressure to “return to normal,” some of that flexibility introduced in the early days of the pandemic regained its former rigidity. 

I don’t believe that’s the future. It’s not the future of PAN at least. Committing and recommitting to the value of flexible, remote work is one way we show our people how important they are, and I’m proud to say that it’s helped us welcome back some of those team members who had moved on from our agency. It’s not just a win today, or even this year — it’s a reflection of the culture we’ve built for the long term. 

One of the privileges of leading this excellent team is the opportunity to learn every day. This year, maybe more than any other, was a lesson in the value of listening and learning. 

There will never be a shortage of great causes for PAN to support — big challenges require big commitments, and we are prepared to continue standing on the right side of them. At the same time, we’ll never lose sight of the day-to-day things that matter to our people. This year, I was proud to see us roll out a permanent HyFlex work model. Simply, if you are a PAN employee, you are empowered to choose the work environment that is best for you — no strings attached. Along with HyFlex, we officially opened our Virtual Office as the sixth PAN “location.” This special community is an important part of our fabric, and it was critical that we put in place the structure to ensure the people in it are connected and appreciated every day.  

PAN soci

Like any of our physical locations, our virtual team has a dedicated leader to guarantee ongoing support and communication. This group has become the fastest growing office this year — 29 employees were hired into fully virtual roles, while 17 employees were able to leverage the HyFlex model to go remote. 

We are 175 strong at PAN, and through our dedicated approach to employee mentoring, we were able to continue supporting career growth among our staff. In 2021, PAN saw 52 individual promotions and nearly a quarter of our employees celebrated five or more years with the agency — no new deal could ever make me prouder than those numbers!  

A Commitment to Growth and Wellness 

In March 2021 we hit the one-year mark of “temporary” fully remote employment for our entire staff. We had to rise above the challenges with employee-first values. 

Those values begin with listening. We listen to and learn from our people so that we can work together to provide the things that matter to them, — not just things we decide are important. 

A recommitment to mental health and expansion of our existing wellness offerings became our “Be Kind to Your Mind” program, which was ultimately recognized by Ragan’s Workplace Wellness Awards in the Mental Health Initiatives category. 

As we work to support our current employees, we’re also invested in making the company a better place for prospective employees and supporting the communities where we live and work. For the past two years we have prioritized improving BIPOC representation within our staff, and in early 2022 the company will announce our first ever dedicated head of DEI.  

Via our PAN Portal Network, we have continued our partnership with two HBCUs – North Carolina Central University and North Carolina A&T State University  to provide career and learning opportunities to their students. Next year we’ll continue working with our inaugural fellowship program to train and develop new PR and marketing professionals and support career advancement in our communities. 

In 2021 we also recommitted to our work with Code2040, a San Francisco-based nonprofit working to build racial equity within the technology space. I’m proud to say we will continue our work next year as we look to build more purpose behind this organization’s mission. That’s the kind of is progress that keeps me motivated every day! 

Our commitment to people extends to the services we provide, and I’ve been blown away by the ways our creative, resourceful teams have supported our clients this year. And because I can’t say it better than they can, here is what our healthcare tech client LeanTaaS had to say about our people: 

 “PAN has been a terrific partner to LeanTaaS and really helped us elevate the promotional efforts around our second hospital operations summit, Transform. They brought fresh ideas to the table…[and] with their help, we…built momentum around the event and shared important company news. They crafted a robust social media strategy…to engage with customers and promote Transform before, during, and after the event. I consider them a core part of my team and am grateful for their partnership!”  

Kate Soden, Director of Communications, LeanTaaS 

The Road Ahead 

A good business doesn’t just exist to make money. Our reputation as an excellent employer and a contributor to our communities means far more to me than business performance. Win or lose, our people come first. 

 It’s because of our fantastic employees that in a year inundated by news of lay-offs and closed businesses, all of our levers outperformed expectations. The numbers are not just numbers, and they’re not just money in the bank. Our success this year meant we were able to increase the value of our salary bands across the organization, offer a 50% 401(k) match as part of our benefits package for the first time in company history and distribute end-of-year bonuses reflective of business overperformance to every employee 30 days ahead of the holidays. I’m also happy to give our staff the extra week off to close out 2021 — time to spend with family and friends while we all recharge and prepare for the year ahead. 

 In 2022, PAN will begin to focus more on purposeful work within our existing client base while also seeking out opportunities to build meaningful programs with new brands we welcome to the family. As we spotlight technology and healthcare clients prioritizing environmental, societal and overall corporate governance initiatives, our hope is to find a better balance of business coming to PAN. That begins with partners that share our values and vision. These are not issues that will fade away if we simply ignore them — they impact our society, our communities and our employees. We have listened to our people and we owe it to them to provide these opportunities to engage with work that matters and moves them. 

 After nearly three decades leading a company, I’m immensely proud of so many of our accomplishments. But as I reflect on the past year and the changes in store, I think our greatest feat isn’t some number passed or some goal reached. Going on 27 years in business, PAN is still innovating like we’re a two-year-old startup fighting to make a name for ourselves. It would be easy to put our business in cruise control and never look up. But what’s the fun in that? 

 Change fuels me, and the team by my side inspires me every day. I can’t wait to see what we do together next year — until then, I wish everyone a joyful holiday season. 


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In our annual Brand Experience Report, we asked marketers and customers how they are using and experiencing AI to better understand how the technology is changing that relationship.