How agencies are helping employees go to the polls

In a year marked by uncertainty, PR firms are making Election Day slightly less stressful.

Early voting lines in Nevada. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

You can say one thing for sure about this presidential election: it’s so 2020.

The politicization of mail-in ballots and COVID-19’s impact on in-person voting is making the procedural part of picking a president unprecedentedly stressful.

Many PR firms are stepping up and giving staff Election Day off, and in some cases even closing for the day to make it easier for employees to vote or volunteer at the polls.

“It was earlier this year in late summer that we decided to do it,” says DKC president Sean Cassidy. “We had become concerned about a couple of things, but one issue associated with this election is that there has been a lot of discussion about exactly where to go and how to vote.”

Of course, it's not unheard of for businesses to give staffers time to get to the polls. More recently, formal initiatives like Time to Vote have sprung up, asking employers to formally pledge to adopt flexible scheduling policies on Election Day.

Launched in 2018, Time to Vote was intended to raise participation in that year’s midterm elections, when more than half of eligible voters in the U.S. cast a ballot, the highest turnout rate for a midterm election in recent history, according to the initiative.

A glance at the group’s 1,500-plus members shows more than a few PR and marketing firms. The list includes AxiCom, 360 PR+, Edelman and Edelman Intelligence, APCO Worldwide, Zeno Group, Allison+Partners, Allyson Conklin Public Relations, IPG Mediabrands, WPP, MSL, MWWPR and SSPR.

“The reason we joined Time to Vote was because we feel very strongly about voter turnout in the U.S.,” said Margaret-Ann Cole, Porter Novelli’s EVP of global talent and chief people officer. “We have some of the lowest turnout in the developed world.”

This year, some agencies decided that being flexible with scheduling isn’t enough, giving staffers an entire day off with pay to participate. Others are going further and closing for the day and telling staffers not to work.

“We announced in August that we will be closed on Election Day,” said MWW director of marketing Grace Donahue. Because the voting process is different by geography, she added, the agency is also allowing employees to “take whatever time off they need between now and November 3 to complete their vote.”

Healthcare-focused firm W2O will also shut down on Election Day, and the network is “strongly encouraging people to take the day off,” says president Bryan Specht, who acknowledges that the firm can’t drop the ball on client work, but adds that shutting down will be worth it because civic engagement aligns with the company’s values.

“If you look at W2O’s purpose, it’s to make the world a healthier place through marketing and communications,” Specht says. “We really believe that through engagement and voting, the healthier the community will be.”

Other agencies are committed to flexible employee attendance on Election Day. MSL isn’t closing, for example, but staff can show up late, leave early or take off whatever time they need. November 3 will also be a meeting-free day at the Publicis Groupe agency.

Weber Shandwick is not planning to close but is “giving its teams flexible time off to vote this year, in recognition of the unique challenges of 2020,” says Joy Farber Kolo, the agency’s North America president, via email. If employees need an entire day, they can take it.

Of course, it’s easier for some businesses to shut down than others — smaller PR shops versus holding company behemoths, for example — a fact that the organizers of a more recent employer voting initiative called A Day for Democracy recognizes.

Day for Democracy asks CEOs to personally promise to give their employees the time and freedom they need to vote. Although an entire day off is strongly implied by the program’s name, the initiative only asks business leaders to promise to “give employees time off to vote or to help employees register and access their right to vote in local, state and national elections.”

“There are some companies that just can't do it,” says Erik Smith, founding partner of Washington, DC-based Seven Letter. “But still, it really feels like we’ve hit a point where corporate citizenship is changing and this is the beginning.”

Smith was recruited to help organize an effort by the initiative’s founder, Peter Palandjian, CEO of Intercontinental Real Estate. Ten PR and marketing companies have signed on, including Seven Letter, along with four media businesses, including the Boston Globe.

Yet whether companies offer an entire day off or are flexible with scheduling, Smith said it’s important that company policies support civic engagement.

“[Seven Letter] always prioritized people voting on Election Day, though we didn’t have a policy,” he said. “People would simply go vote and email or text to stay in touch while waiting in line, but I do think codifying it as a policy is important because it ensures there are no strings attached and no reason not to do it.” 

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