Public relations is of course, the ultimate people business (the clue’s in that descriptor), so staff will always be high up the list of any business manager.
But presently they have very specific people concerns. And arguably the most pressing of those is staff safety and wellbeing.
Regardless of how experienced and adept a people manager you are, it is incredibly stressful to keep ensuring one’s colleagues are not getting ill during yet another wave of this awful pandemic – and that they’re not spreading infections to other staff.
As I write, Public Health England predicts that one in every 75 people in England is currently infected with COVID-19, with infection rates as high as they’ve ever been recorded among 20-somethings – a key demographic of the PR workforce.
In essence, the business world finds itself back where it was in January – but with the big difference that almost 90 per cent of UK adults have now had at least one jab and just over 70 per cent have had their second dose of the vaccine.
The news is a little better this week, with signs of this wave plateauing off, but PRWeek currently has (fully vaccinated) staff laid up with COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands more are self-isolating having been ‘pinged’ by the NHS COVID-19 app.
The chief executive of one large UK agency told me recently: “I feel I have massive responsibility, as I have all along, for the health of my staff.
“Our office has been very draconian in terms of safety. We have long been running a traffic-light system at HQ and we’ve been encouraging staff to test every time they come to the office.”
Indeed, many agencies have even decided to ignore the Government’s updated advice since ‘Freedom Day’ last week and continued to be draconian in the numbers of people they let into the office, social distancing etc.
David Fraser, the founder of the Ready10 agency, told PRWeek last week: “At the time of writing, a quarter of the agency has tested positive for COVID-19 in the past fortnight – all separately and independently from one another – and approaching half of us have been required to self-isolate.
“This is, without doubt, the hardest we have been hit in the pandemic so far. Thankfully, it looks like everyone should make a full recovery.”
The boss of a Manchester-based PR agency concurs with Fraser that “more people in the agency than ever have COVID-19 and/or are self-isolating”. But he disagrees that his business should be cautious about getting people back in the office.
“We need to reconnect and we should do it when we can, before potential restrictions may come into play later in the year. We’re now doing three days in the office and it appears to be working well with people reconnecting, lots of smiles and laughter.”
Indeed, beyond the very real worries about physical illness – and closely connected to it – is a growing concern about the long-term mental wellbeing of colleagues.
Bosses report “an epidemic” of mental health issues among their workforces, with young people, and particularly those who live alone, really struggling.
Many people have not coped well with being locked down for much of the past year and being denied access to their colleagues, their friends and the usual emotional outlets of holidays and social events.
The chief executive of the UK office of a large PR network tells me: “The thing that’s really keeping me awake at night is the mental health challenge of the return to the office and the fact that no one has had a break. It’s both a personal challenge and a company challenge. Everyone is shattered!
“Arguably this also makes everyone non-receptive to even positive messaging and motivation; perhaps no one can take anything in anymore.”
It’s a similar tale from the chief executive of a large, London-based independent: “We are concerned about our staff. I notice that clients are really concerned about their staff. And they’re right to be. People are battered from months of this pandemic. When it’s a step away from home, people naturally worry about their health and the health of their families.”
Another pressing staffing concern – again closely linked to the points above – is the dearth of talent available to hire. This is partly down to Brexit and partly down to the pandemic.
The co-founder of another mid-sized London PR consultancy tells me: “Business is very good at the moment and we could do even more if we could hire. But there aren’t the people coming in from outside the UK that there were.
“This is especially true of specialists in high-growth areas such as digital, tech, healthcare and sustainability. Serious wage inflation is on its way as a result of this, too.”
In fact, many business owners are deeply worried about the rising cost of staff over the next few years, with a sudden upswing in business but a reduced migratory workforce and an unwillingness by some talent, who moved outside of cities during the pandemic, to re-engage with the industry.
It seems a chunk of the PR workforce have reassessed their lifestyles and their careers during the pandemic. Some have come to the conclusion that they want both to be very different from before.
The boss of one agency told me he was having to pay “thousands of pounds” in “signing-on” fees to hire for certain roles: “The clients have been turning the taps back on, but it’s a real struggle to find the right workers quickly to fulfil these comms briefs.”
There’s a pervading feeling in the PR industry right now that the discipline has really proven its worth during the past 18 months and that work and revenues have held up better than could ever have been expected. All of which is very encouraging.
And maybe this current (Delta) wave of the pandemic will tail off, further boosting the economy and work for communicators.
There is, however, increasing concern that continued growth will be unsustainable unless solutions can be found to the looming crisis around the industry’s workforce – and its physical and mental wellbeing.