From the Editor-in-chief: 'We’re not playing second fiddle to marketing now' – optimism as PR proves its resilience

Week six of our brave new, socially restricted world and the PR industry at least is displaying welcome signs of optimism.

Once again one needs to be sensitive to the harsh reality that near one thousand good people continue to lose their lives each day in the UK as a result of Covid-19. And that health and care workers battle on heroically. Also, that many people feel isolated, lonely and afraid. My heart goes out to them.

Economically, the Government’s furlough scheme has been extended until the end of June, which seems symbolic of the fact that we’ll see little return to normality either socially, or in the business world for the whole of the second quarter.

Read more: To furlough or not to furlough

But talking to PR professionals around the world – and to be honest I do little else at the moment – one senses a slightly more upbeat mood of late.

A couple of surveys this week backed the feeling that confidence was returning a little.

Of course we are in a recession. Of course clients’ budgets are being cut. The business of professional comms however, is doing comparatively well, for a couple of important reasons.

First, most organisations today realise that however acute the crisis facing their business, they cannot stop communicating if they want to maintain the co-operation and trust of important stakeholders such as staff, customers, suppliers and government. Arguably, they need to communicate more to come out the other side of all this.

This is the reason why corporate comms, public affairs, internal comms, crisis management remain extremely busy.

Even in the travel sector – harder hit than almost any other – comms directors report that their role within their organisation has been enhanced of late, despite having to endure personal salary cuts and losing large proportions of their teams on furlough.

One travel comms chief, who has just been promoted to the organisation’s executive committee for the first time, says: “My cut-down team has been at the forefront of dealing with both the immediate crisis and stepping in to manage customer relations in many cases. Of course, social media becomes vital at this time and we are the experts on that.

Read More: ‘Airline comms directors have a real challenge’ – travel PR expert

Another says: “It’s been really tough, but one interesting thing is that we’re certainly not playing second fiddle to marketing now. I’m talking to the MD at all times of the day and making sure they are seen to be leading the business publicly.”

Frankly, any organisation that cuts too deep into its comms team at this time risks jeopardising its long-term relationships with many key stakeholders. And it really is a time when chief executives will need the counsel of experienced comms professionals as never before.

The second reason for cheer in the PR industry is the sheer adaptability of comms agencies. Consultants are able to apply their expertise across a number of sectors and disciplines according to demand, something one remembers clearly from the 2008/9 recession.

So unlike, say, advertising, where agencies tend to be exposed both to promotional paid media spend (undoubtedly facing a significant downturn), and to a handful of big brand clients, PR consultancies can adapt quickly their portfolio of work.

“The crisis backs my long-held view that chasing glory is great when things are booming but all agencies need underlying strength and diversity in their client base,” confides one generalist PR agency chief. “I’m pretty certain we’ll avoid needing to furlough any staff or make any people changes, which will put us in a stronger position during the recovery.”

Another founder of a (small) PR agency says: “We’ve always done a lot of brand comms work, which is very quiet, as well as behaviour change and corporate/issue management, which are both still in demand. Some sectors are just decimated – particularly travel and hospitality – but we are strong in the right sectors, like education, tech and healthcare. So we are working hard, taking the wins. We’ve not had to furlough anyone, they are all maxed out.”

A big advantage that most PR agencies have is that they tend to be independently owned, and therefore not exposed to the pressure on big marketing groups to immediately slash and burn in order to appease institutional shareholders.

One Singapore-based PR agency boss put it nicely: "Smaller leadership teams and no shareholders to answer to makes decision-making faster and more responsive. It encourages fiscal discipline and an emphasis on profitability, as independent businesses cannot ride out as many loss-making quarters as a larger network agency who can be buttressed by another profitable business unit."

All this could explain the most recent PRCA confidence tracker, which suggested a significant increase in optimism from PR agencies over the past week.

But before we all get carried away, it’s worth restating that we are in a serious recession. Thousands of people are furloughed in our world and consumer confidence is the lowest it has been for a decade. Even agency bosses who have not had to make significant cuts are predicting a drop in client spend of around 20 per cent for the current quarter (Q2).

The CEO of a large generalist agency says: “In some ways it’s worse now than a few weeks ago because there’s a real sense of long-term disruption, whereas a few weeks’ ago it felt more like there was going to be a visible end.”

But then a small agency boss, again this time in the hard-hit travel sector, tells me: “Well, we are still profitable. Maybe we just need to be a bit smaller for the next year or so. We can scale our own business accordingly.”

I think what we’re seeing is an uptick in optimism, not yet a recovery. We are probably a long way from that.

Above all, one gets a sense of the adaptability, the resilience of the PR business, whose practitioners do tend to be more optimistic than most.

I’m very sure this will stand the industry in good stead in the months to come, when society, business and brands will inevitably undergo something of a rebalance; something of a reset.

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