Comms recruitment 'cut off at the knees' as businesses fight to retain and motivate staff

Agencies and businesses are holding on to comms staff and honouring many new-starter contracts, although the recruitment market has taken a dramatic dip, recruitment agents confirm.

Businesses are trying to hold onto their staff, including those on probation, during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite warnings that the coronavirus-driven economic downturn could be deeper and more painful than the recession that followed the global financial crisis in 2007-2008.

That’s the positive message from recruitment agents who specialise in the communications industry.

Although freelance budgets have been decimated, causing half of freelance comms workers to lose at least 60 per cent of their income in a matter of weeks, businesses in the industry are desperate to hold onto talent, having learned hard lessons from previous downturns.

“We had a lot of starters who were in their probationary period between January and March. None of our clients let go of anyone who are in their three-month probationary period… I wasn’t expecting that,” f1 Recruitment founder and chief executive Amanda Fone said.

“Companies are incredibly mindful of not losing good staff. In every downturn we all know that [they] cut their marketing spend, comms spend and people. I think [they] have learned their lessons from last time and are desperately trying to hold onto people.

“The one thing concerning CEOs the most is keeping their staff motivated, especially people who are not used to working at home.”

Fone said it is younger talent, from recent graduates to associate director level, who tend to struggle most with working from home – and particularly those who work for agencies with office-based cultures.

“A lot of these under-35-year-olds are working in flats in cities, and often [in] their bedrooms,” she said. “I heard one situation where someone was working on their ironing board in a bedroom because they aren’t set up with a desk.”

Employers tell recruitment agents they are concerned how their employees will cope with working from home on an ongoing basis.

Indeed, Fone has been heartened by the duty of care shown by clients: “I think in the past, finance departments got involved and it's suddenly a hatchet job. CEOs have really been working with their finance team to make sure whoever is furloughed is being looked after.”

‘Market cut off at the knees’

The recruitment market for PR and communications roles has taken a massive hit from the economic impact of the pandemic.

Fone's agency is handling one-fifth the volume of roles it usually has on its books, with clients pursuing only highly specialised roles or ‘investment hires’ for the future.

“If you are a business and furloughing people and making redundancies, you cannot be seen to be hiring unless it's a very skills-specific role,” she said.

“For PR, marketing and sports marketing, the actual live roles have been cut off at the knees.”

She advises agencies to think about nurturing their employer brand at this time to capitalise on finding good talent when the market eventually picks up.

Colette Brown, MD and founder of Prospect Resourcing, confirmed there had been a “huge slowdown” in PR and comms recruitment, and that looking after employee welfare is top of mind for business leaders.

She said freelance assignments is an “obvious” way for businesses to cut costs, and has noticed this more with consumer clients than corporate.

“We have been really buoyed by the fact that many of the offers that have been given are being honoured,” she said. 

“So those people with job offers and currently serving notice are still due to start new roles over the coming months, although with the assumption that day one will be from home,” she said.

Brown said there is still some recruitment taking place, although the process is much slower and goes as far as it can with video conferencing technology.

“Final decisions against hiring are unlikely to be made until they are able to meet in person, but many are happy to go as far as they are able in this current situation,” she said.

“In-house teams are continuing with recruitment perhaps a little more than those in agency land as they see some roles as critical hires; but of course, in these very strange times, nothing is certain.”

Read next: Coronavirus impact: half of freelancers consider quitting and have lost at least 60 per cent of income

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