Staffers will remember how employers treated them during COVID

As the first anniversary of the coronavirus lockdown looms, PRWeek’s Salary Survey provides a revealing insight into how the pandemic impacted the PR industry.

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

The Salary Survey is always one of the most-anticipated pieces of content PRWeek produces, this year more than ever after the unprecedented events of the past 12 months.

Released yesterday, the survey is well-timed in that it coincides with the significant milestone of almost a year in lockdown. A pandemic was declared last March by the World Health Organization and the first stay at home order in the U.S. was March 19, in California.

On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to free up billions of dollars in federal aid in anticipation of the soon-to-follow economic meltdown and mass unemployment.

The PRWeek Awards ceremony, set for March 19 at Cipriani Wall St., was postponed and eventually took place virtually on July 30.

But most PR pros and office-based employees, including PRWeek and our parent company Haymarket Media, were sent home from work around March 12, the day after the NBA suspended the basketball season.

In PR, after a couple of years of significant salary increases, 8.7% in 2019 and 6.7% in 2018, our survey showed compensation not surprisingly stalled in 2020, at 1.5%.

Job losses, furloughs and pay cuts were the order of the day in 2020 as companies and PR agencies pivoted to cope with the horrific impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic turmoil.

While initially we all thought this would be a two or three-week hiatus, it quickly became clear the situation was much more serious. The constant sound of ambulance sirens in New York City was just one stark indicator of the unfolding health crisis.

Employee engagement, safe and productive work-from-home environments, empathy and sensitivity were the order of the day, although this is difficult to achieve when difficult business decisions are also being taken involving layoffs and cutbacks.

But as Zeno Group’s CEO Barby Siegel noted: “How employers treated their people during COVID will have an effect long after the pandemic is in the rear-view window. It will become part of an employer’s story.”

If you think about it, workers have been heavily subsidizing their employers over the past year. They are donating their “office” space, furniture, cleaning, wear and tear, heating, lighting, electricity, internet access, upgraded audiovisual technology, food and drink and numerous other things typically provided by companies in their brick’n’mortar environments.

Very few workers miss the daily commute, especially in crowded urban environments where the experience was miserable enough before COVID. But that commute time is now typically spent working, extending already long days.

Commuting might have been miserable, but at least it was your own time for contemplation, reflection or just staring out of a subway or train window. The 10- to 14-hour days spent staring at a computer and conducting endless Zoom and Teams meetings really impact mental health and wellbeing after a while.

At the start of the pandemic, most workers were happy to still have a job and knuckled down, going beyond the call of duty to service clients or keep the in-house fires burning. One year on, it’s more difficult to rely on that goodwill, despite workers still being concerned about job security. This is not just a blip now, it’s the new reality of work.

And while businesses have had to deal with the expense of paying for offices that have lain empty for 12 whole months, they have also benefited from massive reductions in the costs of servicing those buildings when they are full of people, as well as much lower bills for items such as travel and expenses.

WPP CEO Mark Read told me his holding company flew 45 people to LA when it pitched a big studio in La La Land. When it retained the $600 million Walgreens Boots Alliance account last fall it only had one face-to-face meeting with the client – and that was in London.

Holding companies and other employers have all taken a hard look at their real estate portfolios over the past 12 months and are slimming down resource as and when leases allow. Hybrid models of working and partial working from home are clearly going to be a permanent part of the future.

I like what W2O Group did for its employees. The health and technology firm gave staffers virtual working kits, including webcams and speakers, and linked up with Amazon to provide employees with $500 to spend on home-office equipment. It partnered with an online learning company to offer staffers free tutoring for their children.

The agency’s Bryan Specht predicts progressive employers will create individualized working experiences with fully supported working environments, whether they are virtual or in-office – or both.

PRWeek’s Lockdown Life, Around the Home Office and Coffee Break series all demonstrated the resilience, agility and ingenuity of PR professionals. But our ongoing Femme Forward blog series also vividly describes the impact that 12 months of this lockdown have had on families, especially working moms.

PR is a people business and you have to look after your talent if your enterprise is going to prosper. Our Salary Survey showed 60% of PR pros would go the extra mile for their employer based on how it responded to the coronavirus pandemic, with fewer than 15% saying they wouldn’t.

That’s a tribute to the leadership in the PR industry, but it’s not universal acclamation. And the way businesses handle the transition back to the new hybrid world of work will be a deciding factor for many talented PR professionals as they ponder their next career move.  

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