Trade rebound, recruitment 'hell', M&A mania, GCS overhaul – 11 trends that defined UK PR in 2021

PRWeek looks back at the biggest issues that have affected the UK comms industry over the past 12 months.

Trade rebound, recruitment 'hell', M&A mania, GCS overhaul – 11 trends that defined UK PR in 2021

1. Trade resurgence

In the words of the PRCA's Francis Ingham, comms has roared back in 2021 as services provided by the sector were more in demand than ever. The PRCA estimates the industry has grown 6.1 per cent since 2020. Big listed groups registered strong recovery; at WPP's PR business like-for-like growth accelerated across the year – up 12.9 per cent in Q2 and 16 per cent in Q3 – while PR firms in Interpublic Group's Dxtra network also registered double-digit growth in the third quarter, when revenue in FTI Consulting's Strategic Communications segment increased by almost one third.

Several agencies have spoken of headcounts doubling over the COVID-19 era and a number expect UK revenue for 2021 to be way ahead of an admittedly very challenging 2020.

What's heartening is that recovery has been reported across different specialisms – corporate, consumer, ESG, healthcare, tech, b2b etc – and different industries. Agencies have invested in new business areas and bolstered their top teams to handle demand and exploit new income streams. That's not to say everything has been plain sailing for every agency, but the overall trajectory has been positive. There's far too much to cover here: we'll examine the main trends in more detail in our Top 150 coverage next year.

Meanwhile, in-house teams have continued to grow and expand, with the importance of corporate affairs/comms leaders being recognised more and more by the C-suite (see PRWeek's In-house Elites project).

There can't be a downside to this strong recovery, can there?

2. Recruitment headache

Oh, right. Recruitment and retention in PR has always been a challenge, but the sector's resurgence in 2021 and the 'great resignation' has put the issue front and centre. PRWeek has heard countless stories from exasperated agency bosses of staff being 'poached' by rivals, or clients; something that has, anecdotally, been a far bigger problem in 2021. Others have knocked back work or even closed offices in a recruitment environment that one agency labelled "hellish".

Speaking to PRWeek editor-in-chief Danny Rogers in the summer, one agency head said 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 fulfill these comms briefs.” The problem has been exacerbated by a spate of 'lost days' as employees, very sadly, caught COVID-19 or needed to isolate.

Salary inflation has been inevitable. We've heard stories of junior account executives being offered £10k pay rises to switch – representing a pay hike of up to 40 per cent – although the PRCA has put the average salary rise at a more sober eight per cent. It's worth stressing that this followed a year in which salary growth generally narrowed, according to research into corporate comms salaries by specialist recruitment firm The Works Search.

3. The office question

We've been here before, but the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the spring and summer brought the issue of the return of the office back to the fore.

Challenges were, and are, multiple: should employers insist on mandatory attendance – and if so, how many and which days? What about staff who say they're afraid of the risks, particularly with new coronavirus variants? Is it practical or desirable to, like IPG, insist that only fully vaccinated staff, or with proof of negative tests, are allowed in the office? How should the space be physically adapted? Should the office be ditched entirely?

Suffice to say, it's been a massive operational and internal comms task for many agencies and in-house teams, who have been balancing the need for in-person collaboration with fear of losing staff by being too prescriptive (this is especially pertinent, given the recruitment pinch).

Again, this has left some bosses exasperated. One agency chief told us this year that a junior member of staff refused to go to the office because it was raining. Equally, many recognise that the world has changed, and traditional ideas about office attendance and the role of the communal workspace belong to history.

These issues have returned to prominence again this month after Boris Johnson announced Plan B measures to deal with the Omicron COVID-19 variant, with a new recommendation to work from home if possible (new research suggests almost two-thirds of PR leaders plan to keep the office open during over the period of Plan B, however).

4. M&A and expansion uplift

As the comms industry recovered from mid to late 2020, PR shops have become increasingly desirable for investors of different types. PRWeek wrote in May that the sector is seeing a return to familiar trends in mergers and acquisitions, but at an accelerated pace.

Well-funded agencies and holding companies have been making acquisitions to fill gaps in their current offerings and take advantage of new opportunities; take Publicis snapping up b2b shop Octopus and creative consumer agency Taylor Herring, or Finn Partners' acquisitions in digital marketing, healthcare and more. (Pictured, left to right: Publicis and Taylor Herring figures Cath Taylor, James Herring, Chris McCafferty, Annette King, Peter Mountstevens.)

Meanwhile, owner-managed businesses such as Brunswick and Headland have taken outside investment to help propel their growth.

Happily, fears of mass 'fire sales' proved to be pessimistic.

The year ended with 2021's biggest deal of all, as Finsbury Glover Herring completed its acquisition of Sard Verbinnen, creating a business with a 1,000-strong workforce across 25 offices and annual revenue of about $330m.

UK agencies have also been expanding their footprints overseas, with the US a particular target: W Communications, Smarts and Rise at Seven have all made steps into the market this year. Other agencies, such as Bacchus, have targeted the UAE.

Meanwhile, several agencies have opened new offices across the UK to take advantage of fresh opportunities, not least to fish in different regional talent pools. Agencies extending their domestic reach have included London shops PHA Group (which opened in Manchester) and Don't Cry Wolf (Cornwall), while others, such as Leeds' Umpf, stuck a flag in the ground in the capital.

Other firms, including PLMR, have expanded regionally via acquisitions.

Another sign of the strength of the UK comms market is that consultancies from overseas have been making their UK debuts – MSL affiliate MARCO and US agency NJI both opened up shop here in 2021, for example.

5. Environment focus

The most pressing crisis facing humanity became a higher priority for the comms industry this year, particularly in the build-up to, and during, the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in early November.

A light was shone on the ethics of working with 'polluter' clients. Edelman was in the spotlight for its work with ExxonMobil and Shell; last month more than 100 celebrities and influencers signed a letter urging the world's biggest PR agency to stop working with fossil fuel clients, in a campaign organised by the group Clean Creatives.

Edelman denied accusations of 'greenwashing' and defended its work with 'Big Oil'. "We believe it is important for us to have a seat at the table with our clients and that we have an obligation to do more – not less – work related to climate change," the firm stated.

Clean Creatives, which has also criticised some WPP PR agencies, launched in the UK in October, with nine PR shops from these shores signing a pledge not to work with fossil fuel companies. The group even held a protest outside the PRWeek UK Awards that month (pictured below).

PR and public affairs professionals were out in force at COP26, as the industry plays a key role in communicating the challenges and explaining the action taken by clients and employers to help the fight against climate change.

The rise of ESG, with the 'e' – environment – a crucial part, accelerated this year. Several agencies opened 'green' or sustainability divisions amid increased client demand in these areas. "I consider almost everything we do is ESG-related somehow in this environment," FTI Consulting chief executive of Strategic Communications Mark McCall told PRWeek in October. "It is only going to become a bigger and more important part of the world."

Meanwhile, a COP26-themed PRWeek investigation found PR agencies have been taking steps to be more sustainable businesses, from adapting their offices to seeking B-Corp accreditation.

6. Diversity actions

in 2020 there was much soul-searching and many pronouncements about lack of ethnic diversity in PR following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and in 2021 some plans have been turned into actions. The BME PR Pros Xec leadership scheme launched to address the lack of non-white professionals in senior roles. Last month also brought the launch of the OnePercent initiative, where firms can donate one per cent of net profit to help more people from minority ethnic backgrounds get into comms.

The CIPR and Taylor Bennett Foundation launched what is billed as the industry's first 'reverse mentoring' scheme to give PR leaders insights into being a professional from a minority ethnic group working in PR.

And PRWeek launched an investigation into ethnic and gender pay gaps in PR – click here to read about that project, and of some of the steps taken by individual employers this year.

More broadly on diversity, Socially Mobile, a course founded to support comms practitioners from lower socio-economic backgrounds, opened. And Women in PR has launched a search for the 45 female PR figures aged over 45 for a new project that highlights barriers experienced by women in that age bracket.

The industry will hope these and other schemes have positive results in making the sector more diverse. This year's PRCA annual census highlighted the current state of affairs, with PR's gender pay gap now 12.7 per cent and its ethnicity pay gap at 16 per cent.

7. Vaccines: perfect photo opp kicks off ‘once-in-a generation’ comms challenge

When 90-year-old Maggie Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 jab in the final days of 2020, the resulting image created a powerful comms opportunity for public sector and Government health officials (picture: Getty).

In comms terms, this was pure gold: an elderly person, in the demographic most at risk, being vaccinated and telling others it was safe and to do the same.

It was also a symbolic moment, heralding the next stage in the fight against the pandemic and a step on the road back to a world we recognise.

Described by industry professionals as a “once-in-a-generation comms challenge, the hard work of rolling out the vaccine to the general population now began, with NHS Confederation comms chief Daniel Reynolds calling for “clear, consistent and realistic communications to the public about how and when they will get the vaccine.

As the COVID-19 vaccine created by Oxford/AstraZeneca became available, a fresh comms challenge began to emerge in the form of reported safety concerns about a possible link between the jab and a higher risk of blood clots.

During the ensuing reputational challenge for AstraZeneca and public health professionals, several EU states, including France and Germany, suspended use of the vaccine, while others halted the administering of specific batches as a precaution.

Research is ongoing on whether there is a causal link between the 50 million Oxford/AZ vaccines administered in the UK alone and 73 deaths from blood clots, but the pharma firm estimates that its jab has saved about one million lives around the world so far.

However, genuine fears about safety have also played into the hands of anti-vaxxers, as well as those who spread disinformation on social media for different reasons.

In one example, a PR agency with reported links to Russia offered European influencers money to discredit the Pfizer vaccine to their followers on social media channels.

Comms professionals criticised constantly changing messages and unclear information from the Government for creating a potentially dangerous situation of a population that was “confused and vulnerable to fake news and cranky science”.

Luckily, YouGov polling earlier this year showed that Britons are the second-most willing of any nationality, after Thai people, to take or already have taken a vaccine. The public in Poland and France trailed at the bottom of the same table.

Media reports of anti-vax protesters congregating outside schools and handing out misinformation to children have been met with public disgust, and in a public rebuke this autumn, Health Secretary Sajid Javid branded them “idiots…spreading vicious lies”.

Now, as the Omnicron variant is poised to become the dominant COVID-19 strain, the Government has put its energy into a fresh campaign for every adult to receive a booster jab as quickly as the NHS can provide them, with ministers flooding the airwaves at every opportunity.

It is now a race against time between the vaccine and the variant, but once again vital public health messaging may have been hampered, and perhaps even undermined, by the actions of the Government, amid the ongoing scandal of ‘partygate’.

8. Employees strike back

A notable comms trend of the COVID-19 era has been the rising importance of internal communications, given the challenges of keeping staff informed about the switch to home working and the impact of the pandemic, among other crucial issues.

There's a big external comms imperative, too. It's striking how many corporate crises this year came from employees speaking out in public. Whether it was the letter from BrewDog staff about alleged historic poor treatment, protests by Netflix workers over content in a Dave Chappelle comedy special that they said was transphobic, or Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon talking about staff going "an extra mile" for clients amid a backlash about "inhumane" working conditions – the adage that 'everything internal is external' has never felt more true.

A particularly egregious example occurred this month when Vishal Garg, chief executive of online mortgage lender, fired more than 900 employees via a Zoom call. The backlash was swift and angry.

9. Crisis and change at No. 10 comms

Senior Downing Street comms figures found themselves in the unpalatable position of 'becoming the story' in recent weeks, as the colossal row erupted over Christmas parties in the heart of government during last December's lockdown.

The video of a tearful Allegra Stratton reading her resignation statement received widespread publicity and images of it hit the newspaper front pages. Stratton quit as an advisor to Boris Johnson after leaked footage emerged showing her joking with Downing Street staff about a party last December.

At the time of writing, Jack Doyle, No. 10 director of comms, has not followed suit, despite reports that he handed out awards at a festive staff party of up to 50 people on 18 December 2020.

Doyle moved to his current role this year after his predecessor, James Slack, moved back to journalism as deputy editor-in-chief of The Sun. Unlike Slack, Doyle – who was formerly Slack's deputy – holds the job as a special adviser, with a political element to the role, rather than as a civil servant. In addition, Max Blain, formerly of the Department of Health and Social Care, was appointed as Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson.

10. GCS overhaul

A new era at Government Communications Service began this year, with former Home Office comms chief Simon Baugh named as its new chief executive. Baugh's is a new role created as part of a major restructure under the Reshaping GCS programme, which aims to strengthen and unify government comms.

GCS veteran Alex Aiken's position as executive director for government comms was abolished under the restructure, although he is staying on in the GCS leadership team to focus on the Union, security and international issues. The GCS later appointed Lisa Hunter as deputy chief executive and Gemmaine Walsh as chief operating officer.

Baugh began his reign amid months of criticism over the Government’s comms response to the pandemic, and uncertainty over plans to downsize the GCS.

Writing on the GCS website on arrival in October, the new boss (pictured, below) gave an upbeat message: “I want this to be a moment to get our mojo back, bring people together and share ideas.

“It is a moment for us to be even more confident, ambitious, and innovative post-pandemic. A moment to work together as a network of people who deliver exceptional communications in service of the public and have fun and build a rewarding career while doing it.”

Big challenges are ahead, however. As PRWeek reported yesterday, attempts to impose a single employer model on the GCS have been quietly abandoned amid concern from government comms staff and trade unions.

11. Lobbying furore prompts call for tighter rules

In 2020, a small number of PR and public affairs agencies came under the spotlight for alleged breaches of ethical codes around lobbying for what some argued were conflicts of interest among senior employees.

This year the focus has switched to the actions of former and current politicians, not least  former Prime Minister David Cameron, whose lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital led senior lobbyists and the lobbying self-regulator to urge tighter rules. “This blatant cronyism highlights the failure of existing rules and regulations,” said DevoConnect chief executive Gill Morris.

More recently, the row over Owen Paterson's lobbying on behalf of Randox Laboratories, which has received more than £500m in COVID-19 government contracts, ended the MP's political career – the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found he had broken paid advocacy rules.

Last month, the Committee on Standards in Public Life released a report – welcomed by the industry – arguing that transparency around lobbying "is not fit for purpose” and major reforms are needed to restore trust. Among other things, the report called for the ban on individuals lobbying after leaving government to be increased from two to five years, and for the "loophole" to be closed that allows “informal” lobbying and communications via methods such as WhatsApp or Zoom to escape scrutiny.

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