'There’s only so much you can do virtually' – starting a PR career during a pandemic

Sophie, Calum and Gemma were among thousands of university graduates wanting to get into PR – a task made virtually impossible due to the pandemic. PRWeek finds out how they got on.

Clockwise, from top left: Calum O’Keefe, Gemma Walsh and Sophie Stubbs
Clockwise, from top left: Calum O’Keefe, Gemma Walsh and Sophie Stubbs

Sophie Stubbs, account assistant, Cirkle

Sophie, from Grantham, graduated in 2019 with a communication and media studies degree from York St John University. She had been working in sales and ended up being furloughed when the pandemic struck. Her dream was to get into PR, but she applied for hundreds of jobs without success. “I was just not getting any luck and the only feedback I was getting was that I didn’t have enough experience, even for an entry-level job, which was infuriating.”

Her luck changed late last year when she applied for a job as a PR account assistant at Cirkle – an agency that uses blind recruitment so that no details are provided that could reveal the identity of applicants during the process.

“It was really great because the sort of questions they asked allowed you to big yourself up with your skills rather than your experience,” she says.

Sophie got the job and started in January this year, working on accounts for clients such as Britvic, Premier Foods and PepsiCo.

Starting a new job without setting foot in the office was “really strange”, she says, but she managed to “get face time with my entire team and the majority of the company, which was good".

She says: “I’ve been working remotely for nearly nine months now and have only been into the office three times. I didn’t go into the office until May, when restrictions started to ease. It was like my first day all over again, it was really strange.”

Sophie currently lives in Grantham but plans to move to London next year so that she can go into the office more often.

She thinks she will benefit from learning from colleagues in the office, something that is difficult to replicate online. “If you’ve got those little nagging questions you can’t just lean over to ask someone sitting next to you.”

Calum O’Keefe, PR assistant, Story Comms

Calum, from Rugby, graduated from the University of Reading last year with a first-class honours degree in English.

He admits: “I won’t lie, it’s been quite a struggle over the past year, but quite a good learning experience as well. I came out of uni and I had a PR internship lined up, but unfortunately that got cancelled because of the pandemic. Beyond that, I had another internship I did over the summer, but after that we were all going back into lockdown and work really dried up.

Calum spent the next few months “trying to hustle” and find a job in PR. Earlier this year his persistence paid off when he went for a job as a PR account assistant at Birmingham agency Story Comms. “At that point, no other companies were really seeking new graduates,” he says.

Although he had to do interviews online, he says “it was not as daunting as I’d expected it to be”.

Calum spent his first two months in the job working remotely. “It was definitely strange, especially on my onboarding day, meeting the whole team via Microsoft Teams, but they worked around that and made a lot of time to speak to me [over video call] and build those relationships.”

He went into the office for the first time at Easter this year. “It was very surreal, especially because seeing someone on a screen and seeing them in person is very different because you can’t really gauge their height and things like that.”

Calum, who works on accounts for clients such as the Midlands Engine Investment Fund and Anthony Collins Solicitors, now spends two or three days in the office each week.

“I find it very beneficial, especially from a training and development angle. There’s only so much that you can do virtually.”

Gemma Walsh, account assistant, Fever PR

Gemma, from Bromley, graduated with a first-class honours degree in marketing and media from Canterbury Christ Church University last year.

Plans to do work experience at Fever PR were derailed by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, and Gemma spent months jobhunting.“It has definitely been a challenge, coming out of education into the workplace,” she says.

“The job situation wasn’t looking any better and there was so much uncertainty. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get a job within the winter lockdown because I feared that I would be in a worse position a few months down the line.”

Earlier this year, Gemma heard that Fever PR had a job coming up and decided to go for it. She had to be interviewed over Teams.

“It’s hard, but it does help the nerves a little bit when you’re not there in person,” she says.

Gemma was taken on by Fever PR as an account assistant in April this year, and was introduced to her new colleagues on a Teams call. “Everyone was so welcoming and within a week I was part of the team, it was really nice.” she says.

Two months after starting her job, she was finally able to visit the agency’s Covent Garden office for the first time. “Doing my first commute to London was really strange, but really exciting. I try to come in as much as I can.”

Gemma, who works on accounts for clients such as Logitech, Toshiba and Red Bull, says: “I love coming into the office because I just feel like I’m in the right work mindset in the office.”

Her team has been a great help to her. “Everyone has been so supportive. Without that it would have been a lot different, I would have felt quite isolated.”

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