Maternity/Paternity: Parents in PR

With such a high percentage of women working in PR, how does the industry fare on maternity and flexible working issues, and is there room for improvement in light of new legislation proposals?

Long hours in the office, evenings out entertaining clients, and acting as the public face of an organisation are all working pressures familiar to PROs. These might be feasible elements of the job when you only have yourself to think about, but is it really a sustainable environment for parents?

Considering the increasing feminisation of the PR industry - last month's Salary Survey (PRWeek, 28 January) revealed 67 per cent of the respondents were female, while the latest figures from the IPR show that 83 per cent of PR students on approved courses are women - maternity issues and flexible working present a major challenge.

Yet former IPR president Anne Gregory believes the PR industry is still lagging behind others. 'On the whole, I think it's one of the less child friendly industries to work in,' she says. 'The consultancy world in particular is notorious for long working hours and the fact the client comes first, but for working mothers this can cause problems.'

Career progression

The career progression of working mothers is also a moot point for Gregory.

'People work hard at the start of their careers and by your late 20s promotion is rapid,' she says. 'But many women then have to make a decision to continue or to have children and take a career break. I've heard of many excellent women who do the latter, which is a loss to the industry.'

Following Chancellor Gordon Brown's announcement in his pre-Budget statement that he wants to raise paid maternity leave from six months to nine by 2007 and increase Government commitment to improving working conditions for parents, there is growing pressure for the industry to adjust accordingly.

Yet small and medium-sized consultancies could be forgiven for being concerned about how they might improve child friendly policies while ensuring their business is still a profitable one.

So a balance needs to be struck. Family friendly policies and offering maternity leave above statutory rates should be regarded as an opportunity rather than a burden, no matter the size of the agency, argues Z-PR managing director Zaria Pinchbeck. Pinchbeck left her role as Asda head of PR to found Z-PR three years ago, a small consultancy of eight staff. Having experienced family friendly working practices in-house, she argues that small firms can cope with maternity leave and requests for flexible working by having the right attitude. 'There's the view that you can't work part-time in PR but I believe there are ways you can make it work,' she explains.

'For example, we've introduced an open-plan office so everyone can work closely together as a team, and everyone always knows what's going on with each client.'

And should the proposed legislation take effect, Seal Communications deputy managing director Claire Deeley claims that the industry could witness a boost to the freelance market as a result. 'We have 30 staff and in the past three years we've had four team members on maternity leave, so we make good use of a number of freelances,' she adds.

Furthermore, having members of staff away on maternity or paternity leave can also bring benefits to a consultancy. It gives other team members, often junior to the PRO on leave, the opportunity to shine and show their employers what they are capable of doing. Ultimately, it means there is a far bigger pool of people for the client to call upon.

The onus remains on the agency, however, to keep clients happy and allay any concerns that their accounts might suffer in the absence of a lead account handler.

Those PROs who do work part-time want flexible working to be a success so they can continue doing so, and therefore work very hard at it, argues Louisa Jenkins, director of Fleishman-Hillard's consumer team. While she does concede that some clients may be slightly concerned about who will do the work, they are also more likely to accept their account handler on a four-day working week rather than a three-day one - Jenkins works four days a week.

'Pampers has been one of our biggest clients for five years, and understands about flexible working. As a result, we have worked out how to divide the workload between our team - the majority of whom are full-time - so there is cover across the whole week,' she says.

With new technology and professional organisation, flexible hours for working parents can become a feasible part of business. But, warns Weber Shandwick deputy CEO Sally Ward, it is imperative to consider the effect it will have on other staff. 'While it's important to become more enlightened, what we can't do is give such flexibility that it becomes a burden on other staff. So consider having two part-time directors rather than one to share that level's workload,' she advises.

Despite Gregory's concerns, Ward believes the profession has come some way on maternity policies since she had her first child 12 years ago, and says most big agencies have recently reviewed them, WS having done so 18 months ago. Employees on maternity leave who have worked at WS for more than two years, for instance, now receive 90 per cent of their salary for the first six weeks and then up to 50 per cent of their salary for a further 12 weeks. Paternity leave, by law, is two weeks with pay of £100 a week, but fathers also receive above statutory rates at the agency.

Reviewing maternity policies

The fact is that consultancies will need to continue reviewing their policies on flexible working and providing more than statutory rates if they are to keep up with in-house PR departments. In-house maternity rates are often dictated by company-wide policies. Insurance giant Norwich Union's press office, for example, is an advocate of flexible working to parents and offers maternity leave over and above statutory requirements.

However, GlaxoSmithKline vice-president of corporate internal comms Elaine MacFarlane points out that flexible working is not always the right option and that there are certain roles that lend themselves better to it than others.

'Flexible working in the press office can be a challenge as you're always dealing with journalists on tight deadlines, and corporate comms offices tend to be lean on staff, although we do our best to accommodate flexible working requests,' she says. 'Internal comms and the press office are often involved in out-of-hours work, and to help deal with that you need to come up with an on-call rota.'

Providing maternity and paternity leave levels that are over and above the statutory requirements, and recognising that the work/life balance has grown in importance, is crucial if the PR industry is not to lose staff to other professions. Indeed, it is an issue of such importance that the IPR has raised it on its diversity agenda and will be looking long-term at what the industry can do to improve these working policies across the board.

Encouragingly, there is already proof of consultancies reviewing their maternity and paternity rates, working to become more family friendly, and realising part-time or flexible working can result in a sustainable working environment.

The most recent Healthcare Communications Association Benchmarking Survey, for example, revealed that 25 per cent of healthcare agency respondents now offer above the statutory rate, 15 per cent more than the previous year.

RETURNING TO WORK AFTER THE BABY

Louisa Jenkins, director of Fleishman-Hillard 's consumer team, has two children, aged six and two 'Fleishman-Hillard is quite pro-flexible working and it's not just a one-size-fits-all approach.

'I had my first child six years ago and I came back to work three days a week in my role as an account director for six months. I also worked from home one extra day, although most of my work was done in the evenings because you can't really do it in the day with children around.

'In September 2002, I was promoted so I started to come into the office on the fourth day, which was easier as my child was then a bit older.

'I've now been with F-H for ten years as I enjoy working in a big company that is forward thinking. It has invested in us and wants to keep us.

But it's hard work having a job and children.'

PAUL CHARLES, EUROSTAR DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, HAS TWO CHILDREN

'My second child has just been born and I took two weeks' paid leave.

At Eurostar, you can take that up to 56 days after the birth of your child and you can split up the two weeks rather than take it all in one go.

I took mine about eight weeks after the birth.

'Flexible working probably becomes more of an issue when your children are four or five years old, because you want to spend more time with them because they understand more at that age.

'Eurostar has recently set up a working group to constantly review the changing legislation and wants to introduce some changes to our benefits that will encompass family friendly policies. This includes a points system where you can swap holiday leave for vouchers to travel with the family.'

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