Steve Barrett on PR: 'Densification seems arcane overnight'

Small and medium PR firms are embracing WFH culture and forging new team bonds that will serve them well in the post-pandemic future.

Covet PR's Sara Brooks is running her boutique PR firm from home while raising a young family.
Covet PR's Sara Brooks is running her boutique PR firm from home while raising a young family.

There’s been a lot of talk of holding company agency layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts this week, but in many ways the bedrock of the PR industry is better illustrated by the hundreds of boutique, small and midsized firms doing great work all over the country.

This week I spoke to a few of the leaders of these agencies to find out how they are faring during the coronavirus hiatus and how they think the PR market will pan out in the future once a new normal emerges.

Sara Brooks normally runs her Covet PR firm from an office in San Diego and three satellite locations in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The food, beverage, beauty and lifestyle consumer specialist agency employs about 30 PR pros who are now all working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world.

Covet PR has always operated a WFH policy on Fridays – it was top of the want list in a company survey – and is set up for remote working, although Brooks admits leading the firm during a crisis with a young family has been challenging. Brooks has two children under the age of three, one of them a baby who is only eight weeks’ old.

She loves the energy and creativity in a PR office and has tried to replace that with Slack happy hours and all-agency meetings where work is not the only thing on the agenda. If anything the team feels closer than ever even though they haven’t seen each other for a month.

HQ-ed in Baltimore, with satellites in NYC, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Dave Imre’s firm has also had a WFH policy two days a week since November last year. This means it has also been well-placed to cope with the new reality of remote working, although having kids at home rather than at school has been challenging for some staffers and the agency is doing its best to help them out as much as possible.

Imre brought in the policy after surveying employees in a bid to become a workplace of choice, and one of the main suggestions was that they wanted the flexibility to WFH a couple of days a week.

Prior to the coronavirus hiatus, everyone came into the office on a Monday so teams were focused for the week ahead and knew what needed to be achieved. After that it is down to each individual to work with their line manager to phase in their WFH arrangements during the rest of the week.

Our podcast guest this week, professional services consultancy PwC’s MD of U.S. and Mexico external relations Megan DiSciullo, works for an organization that has long preached flexible working and her 40-strong team operates entirely virtually, so the transition to WFH during COVID-19 has been relatively smooth.

PwC has been doing that for years and DiSciullo’s team is dispersed across 10 U.S. cities and Mexico. She says it helps them being closer to the markets and businesses they consult with. But in this time the team is communicating even more and trying to connect on a human level as well as professional and have empathy for everyone’s different situations. A lot of friendships and new connections are being formed that DiSciullo hopes persist after the crisis.

MWWPR CEO Michael Kempner says his philosophy has always been to trust his people and if they needed to work from home they could. The infrastructure at the agency has thus already been in place and the transition to full WFH has been “surprisingly smooth.”

The firm has instigated a policy of over-communicating during the health pandemic via weekly company meetings and two or three get-togethers a week among different practice groups.

While he admits to missing the human interaction that is normally part of the day to day, he has found the new arrangements surprisingly productive. Ironically, MWW moved into its new physical space in Manhattan during the shutdown and Kempner admits he hasn’t actually seen the new setup yet.

He also says he’s never quite understood why PR firms have as much real estate as they do when even on a typical day pre-pandemic only 60% of people would be in the office while the rest are visiting clients, traveling or already working from home.

It is inevitable that, when everyone does go back to work, they’ll have to get used to a new reality, but as Kempner says we have done this before and incorporated new norms into our daily lives such that they soon become routine.

He notes that, prior to 9/11, who would have thought we’d be taking our shoes off in airports while going through checkpoints and imposing strict security measures on everyone before letting them into a building. But we adapted and got used to it.

Perhaps we’ll all have to get used to regular saliva tests and more social distancing in the workplace. And are people going to want to sit on airplanes like they used to?

Everyone is going to be much more aware of the potential for another pandemic and the anti-vaccination movement will have a challenge to make their argument that preventable diseases don't require immunization.

The transition to the new normal will also involve staged returns to work with different groups going back at different times, based on whether they’ve had the virus, whether they’ve been tested and what their health situation is.

PR professionals have stepped up to the plate in this crisis and proved their adaptability and commitment. Managers actually worry their people are working too hard and encourage them to take breaks and not let the job take over their lives completely.

As someone experienced in working virtually, PwC’s DiSciullo emphasizes the need to have a structure in your WFH life in the same way you do when you’re working in the office. Create the right balance between work and home life and make sure you switch off the laptop and spend time with your family or just relax.

Otherwise we are storing up a world of potential mental health strife down the line, as stress levels mount, exacerbated by isolation and quarantine, especially among young staffers who may be living on their own or operating in suboptimal and cramped living spaces.

All the PR leaders I spoke to insist their people still crave human contact and interaction and we all know PR is a people business.

Manhattan-based boutique comms shop Goodman Media International is keeping spirits up virtually during the pandemic by poking fun at PR’s new WFH culture.

In a bid to replace those daily water-cooler moments in the office, employees receive The Goodman Dispatch every week, chronicling the foibles and achievements of staffers as they service accounts from their homes and apartments. 

It’s an example that, if anything, this crisis has created a real bond between employees and employers as everyone bands together in a common cause. Covet PR’s Brooks says she would love to “bottle that feeling” and take it back into the office environment post-coronavirus.

But, ultimately, some things are going to change forever and everyone should prepare for that.

As MWW’s Kempner puts it: “Densification seems arcane overnight.”

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