Feature: Daunting December

A month of parties might sound fun, but many PROs view the season as a chore. Steve Hemsley investigates.

This Friday is the start of the season of goodwill. But for those PR executives worn out after a tough year's work, the countdown to Christmas can mark the advent of something far less cheerful: back-to-back client entertaining - and all the drinking and late nights that entails.

Indeed, according to a PRWeek-commissioned poll by comms consultancy The Aziz Corporation, many PROs have mixed feelings about December's obligatory socialising, complaining that it cuts into their working day and compromises the time allocated to friends and family.

Of the 200 PR professionals who responded, 76 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed that socialising in the run-up to Christmas was an additional pressure. More than half (53 per cent) said Christmas working and client
socialising have a negative effect on their home lives, while 43 per cent said December was one of the busiest times of the year.

It is not difficult to understand why ‘entertaining' can be less fun than it sounds. In the poll, 20 per cent of
respondents said they had to attend a client or journalist event every other day. And - although some might find the prospect alluring - 38 per cent of PROs predicted that they would consume at least half a bottle of wine at each event. A quarter expected to down at least one bottle of wine.

Such an onslaught must take its toll. Max Clifford - who receives more than  300 invites to press parties at this time of year - says the only way he can cope is to be very selective, not stay too long at those events he does attend, and abstain from alcohol. ‘The "must attend" events are those where I will see people I regard as professional friends. If I have a number of parties to attend on one night I will pop my head in for an hour or so at each one to show my face. The earlier the better works, too. Often, if you turn up after 9pm, people can be so drunk they will not even remember you were there.'

Clifford says he never drinks at such parties because he likes ‘to keep an eye on what is going on and stop a client or journalist from doing anything embarrassing'.

Icas PR recently compiled research for client the British Chiropractic Association, and discovered that nearly 25 per cent of the public had injured themselves while drunk. Icas MD Emma Wright says she reminds her staff of the statistic as they prepare for the party season.

‘The icas ladies are known for carrying spare pairs of shoes in their bags,' Wright reveals. ‘Killer heels are great until you have to swagger home. One night on and one night off is the advice I give my staff, so that they remain in fine form when they are at an event. Our office is also stocked up with plenty of fruit and water to keep everyone's vitamin C levels high and prevent dehydration.'

‘One journalist broke his arm'
Separate research by the British Liver Trust and Southampton University reveal some startling facts about
excessive drinking. The trust warns that work outings too easily escalate into binge-drinking sessions, especially at Christmas.

‘The secret is planning so that heavy workloads are covered,' says Good Relations director Christine Morgan. ‘We schedule so that teams are not all out of the office at the same time and staff get a breather between events.'

Penny deValk, strategy director at Ceridian, which advises companies on HR issues, says PROs can feel awkward asking their boss for permission to skip events. She believes consultancies have a duty of care not to make their staff do anything unreasonable. ‘It is important for PR people to sit down with their managers to work out a Christmas party schedule so there is give and take on both sides,' she says. ‘Those with young children could work more hours in January when everyone else is recovering, for example.'

Sophie Brown, senior account manager at Chocolate Communications, says she always tries to stay one drink behind everyone else at a party, and ensures there is plenty to eat. ‘At one Christmas party last year the client was offering free drink all night, but the food came out very late. People were so drunk they did not want to eat,' she says. ‘One journalist fell down the stairs and broke his arm.'

But health and safety is not the only concern. Eighty-one per cent of respondents to the PRWeek/Aziz survey said they felt under pressure to complete projects before Christmas because of the additional socialising. Of those respondents, half were directors of PR.

Adrian Brady, founder of Eulogy! PR, accepts additional workload is an issue, but claims PROs are too quick to complain and should remember the nature of their industry. ‘Work can be more intense in early December, especially with budgeting and planning meetings,' he says. ‘However, it is too easy to whinge about a few late nights and sore heads. We need to appreciate that we work in an industry that gives us an opportunity to have fun along the way.'

Element of surprise
Brady, like other PR bosses, says he trusts his staff to know when enough is enough on a night out. He sees Christmas parties as an important part of client handling, but also a reward for employees' hard work over the previous year. He says PROs should not dread festive socialising, and would be best off responsibly getting into the swing of things.

For the past few years, Eulogy! has invited favoured journalists to one of The Pogues' Christmas gigs. This year it is convening selected editors at the band's Brixton Academy show. ‘Some journalists are horrified at the thought of corporate entertainment comprising Shane MacGowan and politely decline, but we have a great time with journalists and clients,' says Brady.

At Blue Rubicon, PRWeek's Consultancy of the Year 2006, senior partner Fraser Hardie is also confident his staff will behave. ‘Blue Rubicon employs grown-ups and I am relaxed about people having a good time with clients. Everyone knows where the lines are drawn. I am confident people will not drink so excessively they cannot work the next day,' he says.

If people are sensible, December will be good fun as well as hard work - and you never know what might happen. Madeleine Meech, a consultant at Kaizo PR, remembers her surprise last Christmas when Johnny Depp and Ralph Fiennes app­eared at the agency's party. ‘We held it at the Jewel Bar in Piccadilly Circus - Johnny and Ralph just turned up and watched the band for a while,' she says. ‘Apparently, they knew the band's manager.'


THE SEASONAL DIARY OF ONE PR CONSULTANT,
Caroline Kinsey...

28 November
My busy schedule began on Tuesday with the Marketing/Stopgap ‘best agencies to work for' black-tie awards in London.

29 November 
The next day I attended Christmas dinner for chocolate maker Bendicks at a Chef's Table in Burnham Beeches.

30 November 
Drinks after work to celebrate one of our team member's fifth anniversary.

01 December
I have a lunch in London to formally meet Adam Leyland, the new editor of The Grocer.

04 December  
Next week begins with a Christmas lunch with Loyd Grossman on behalf of Premier Foods.

05 December  
Christmas dinner for battery brand Energizer at a Chef's Table in Burnham Beeches restaurant again.

06 December  
On Wednesday I'll have dinner with a client from growers' assoc­iation The Blackcurrant Foundation.

07 December  
A PRCA managing director networking Christmas lunch.

13 December  
After a bit of a breather I am due to have dinner with a potential client before our office closes on the 14th and 15th for our staff Christmas party.

19 December  
A festive lunch with PRCA director-general Patrick Barrow and James Davidson, manager of its referral service, PReview.

20 December
Dinner with a client from Mission Foods at a Revolution Vodka Bar in Beaconsfield.

31 December - 
During all this hectic socialising I must try and keep fit because I have a 10k run planned in Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, on New Year's Eve. My aim throughout December is to train in the gym every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 6.45am, every Wednesday at 7.15pm, and on Fridays at 5pm.

Caroline Kinsey is the founder and director of Cirkle Communications


SURVIVING THE PARTY SEASON...

01. Learn when to say ‘yes' and when to say ‘no' - pick your events.

02. Talk to your manager about problems you experience at work because of tiredness and do not hesitate to ask for help - or be afraid to delegate.

03. Never skip breakfast. A good balanced breakfast not only boosts your energy levels but will also raise your metabolism.

04. If you do end up drinking more than you should, be careful what you say to clients and journalists and be vigilant about divulging sensitive info.

05. Drink plenty of water during the day and after those long drinking sessions.

06. Do the most difficult tasks at the best time of your day, when you are most focused and have the most energy. 

07. To give yourself more energy, eat small, healthy meals throughout the day. Consuming large meals can cause drowsiness.

08. If you can find the time, exercise lightly for 30 minutes every day to strengthen your immune system.

09. When you are feeling tense and anxious, use deep breathing as a mini relaxation technique several times a day.

10. Make sure you have completed your personal Christmas shopping as early as possible in December to avoid added stress later in the month.

Source: HR consultancy Ceridian

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