Productivity planning is crucial to business resilience finds the latest #FuturePRoof survey

Organisations need to plan for dips in productivity as the human impact of the Coronavirus pandemic takes hold.

This is the headline finding of a #FuturePRoof survey of the public relations industry to understand the effect COVID-19 has had on practitioners both personally and professionally.

The results report an industry dealing with significant structural changes, managing the health impact of COVID-19 on practitioners, and bracing for the outcome of Brexit trade negotiations.

The human impact of the crisis dominates the responses. Industry talent is in a state of upheaval. 30.8% of organisations are hiring. 29.8% of practitioners have decided to change roles. 23.1% of respondents continue to manage furlough and redundancies. 3.8% of practitioners are looking for work.

The #FuturePRoof data is consistent with analysis published by the PRCA three months into the crisis that suggests a significant impact on talent and an overall decline in sector size will occur by 2021.

The impact of COVID-19 on the health of public relations practitioners is underreported by trade media. 20.2% of respondents report that at least one team member has contracted COVID-19 and recovered. A further 4.8% say they have employees experiencing long-COVID. Sadly 2.9% have lost a member of staff or have a member of staff who has lost someone in their family.

While public relations practitioners appear to be well equipped to deal with the mental health impact of the pandemic, ongoing issues continue to be reported. 63.5% of practitioners have drawn on existing organisational support. 36.5% have sought help from industry bodies or other third parties.

“Public relations, like other management functions, has been impacted by COVID-19. Practitioners have proved resilient, stepping up and asserting greater value to the organisations that they serve. The reputation and role of the communication function in many organisations has been elevated,” said Sarah Waddington, founder and editor, #FuturePRoof.

But the human stories within this survey have been hard to read and the pandemic is far from over yet. Practitioners have been working flat out and must prioritise their personal health and wellbeing with further potential lockdowns and the outcome of Brexit negotiations to come.

“We are still early in the curve of this crisis and practitioners need to reframe their approach to it. Recognising this and acknowledging that everyone in the team will have good days and bad days is crucial to effective planning and sustainability.”

The strategic role of communications has generally received greater recognition during the crisis. Practitioners have proved resilient and innovative, finding new ways to work and making a significant contribution to their organisation.

The majority of practitioners who responded to the survey believe that Brexit is expected to bring further economic and structural pain to the public relations industry and the UK economy. While issues such as the movement of people and standards have been determined, trade tariffs remain up in the air and are unlikely to be agreed until mid-November.

Francis Ingham, Director General of the PRCA, said: “All around the world, our industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. But thankfully, our worst fears at the beginning of this crisis have proved to be groundless. I stand by the prediction I made some months ago, that by the end of 2020, the industry will be 20% smaller in cash terms, and 10% smaller in terms of headcount. If that’s roughly right, then it could have been a lot worse frankly.

“I also believe that in the medium term our recovery will be strong. This pandemic has massively accelerated the pre-existing trends that play to our strengths, and will therefore make it easier for us to grow relative to other creative industries.

“Having said that, we have major issues to confront: the need to broaden access to our industry at a rapid pace; the need for many agencies to return to stability and profitability; the challenge of mental health, made all the more difficult by what we have all endured and indeed continue to endure; and of course finding our way forward on what working practices will look like when this is behind us. All tough topics.

“These #FuturePRoof survey results are a fantastically valuable piece of work at a time like this. Thought provoking. Challenging. Candid. Exactly the qualities we need right now.”

The #FuturePRoof team has engaged the community and the broader PR industry since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis to understand its ongoing impact on practitioners and their work. The latest research explores the impact of COVID-19 on practitioners in terms of their personal and professional life. It was conducted during September 2020 and led by #FuturePRoof chair Stephen Waddington.

104 practitioners responded to the survey from across the UK. These included in-house (37.5%), agency (29.8%), freelance (28.8%) and unemployed practitioners (3.8%). Respondents were predominantly director (55.8%) and manager (26.9%) level.

Anecdotal comments provide further insight into the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on practice.

Home and office: blurring of home and work life

Practitioners adapted to home working but missed social interaction and learning opportunities that are a feature of office life. The lack of boundaries between home and office was also a challenge, leading to longer working hours.

“Happy to be back in the office [following the release of lockdown] and have some structure, seeing colleagues, and having the extra physical activity of going into the office.”

“Have struggled with the lack of face-to-face time and no travel to punctuate remote working.”

“I miss travelling, meeting clients and colleagues, and networking.”

“I manage a large team and working virtually for me is fine, others miss the social interaction and softer learning opportunities of working with others in a physical space.”

“I worked from early morning to late in the evening every day and into the weekends.”

Family: overseeing children and extended family challenging

Practitioners generally welcomed increased time with partners, children, and other family members although it led to additional challenges, notably home schooling.

“[We] had my partner’s student family member staying with us. That was tough mentally.”

“It has helped me - and us as a family - distinguish between needs and wants, and to value our unit more than ever before.”

“It has been a case of doing what you can around young children, a shrinking client base, virtual networking and picking up projects I can squeeze in […], often early and late in the day.”

“Long working days, no time off, balancing family and work life, and dealing with the mental impact of adjustments in life and worry about elderly loved ones led to burn out.”

“Managing childcare, work and the stress and worry relating to health has been a nightmare.”

“Juggling home schooling and work was exhausting.”

Health and wellbeing: illness and mental health

There has been a significant focus on mental health in the public relations profession over the past five years. Illness from COVID-19 and mental health have been the biggest health and wellbeing issues during the crisis.

“Losing a partner to COVID-19 has been tough.”

“I’ve lost family members […] and that was hard as I sat through days of them dying and [arranging] long distant funerals.”

“Working for a care provider has been hard. Long hours and often distressing news and updates at our management group which I sit on is impacting me.”

“I have experienced a lot more anxiety. I've always had it, but this is the worst it's been in a long time. Comes and goes. It’s mostly fine.”

“I’ve been lucky in that little has changed, however, I’ve struggled to remain productive while working remotely and my mental health is suffering.”

“Have felt very flat and tired at times. I'm exhausted.”

“I got made redundant during lockdown, it’s been the most mentally challenging period of my life.”

Business: freelancers left behind

Government support in the form of business interruption loans and the furlough scheme have been welcomed by the industry as a measure of protection against the financial impact of the crisis, however freelancers and small agencies that pay directors via dividends have been left behind.

“No government help for limited companies that pay dividends. Worst time but survived.”

“High debt caused by office space fees has caused high stress levels. The money from bank loans will run out. Many small businesses are facing the same situation, we’re tied into leases with no respite.”

“I’m a new business entitled to no government support and as primary carer for two young children I have been able to work or earn little in the last six months.”

“COVID-19 saw all my work drop away for three months. Savings were used. No government benefits applied to me unfortunately.”

Resilience: collaboration and innovation in work

Although COVID-19 has been disruptive to many aspects of life, many practitioners recognised the opportunity for communications and innovation in practice. These include collaboration, new ways of working and learning.

“Long term, I feel optimistic that COVID-19 has provided opportunities for innovation - new ways of working, connecting, engaging, and communicating.”

“Professionally, it has been liberating and exciting, providing endless scope for collaboration, experimentation, community building and generosity.”

“Invested in the business in the team, equipment and marketing. Now reaping the benefits having recorded record months for invoicing and new business.

“Have also been accepted on the CIM Level 6 professional marketing certificate - sole aim being to widen my skill set further.”

Role of communications

The strategic role of communication has been recognised during the COVID-19 crisis, however it remains a tactical function in many organisations. There is still work to do to ensure management teams value it appropriately.

“Work in the public sector has been incredibly busy, my organisation was already trying to manage significant change and a financial crisis.”

“Feel undervalued by employer during the crisis. Very hierarchical organisation and opportunities to advise and engage with executive minimal. Communications still seen as one-way, top down.”

“Communication has been key throughout. It is great that it is getting the profile [it deserves] but it's relentless.”

“My workload tripled. This has led to me recognising how little management value or appreciate the [communication function].”

“Our hours have been long, but the team has galvanised around a clear and common goal, which has been energising.”

“Frustrated by my organisation leaving communications out of key discussions around staff communications.”

“It’s been super tough in the NHS but when you compare what we’ve had to do with our frontline colleagues, we have nothing to complain about.”

Sarah Waddington, Managing Director at Astute.Work, is an experienced PR and management consultant helping organisations to articulate their purpose and optimise performance. She is the founder and editor of #FuturePRoof, a series of books and community aimed at reasserting the role of public relations as a management function. Follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Wadds.


Astute-logo Astute.Work is management consultancy that helps organisations articulate their purpose, manage change, build capacity and more. Our PR and marketing division offers strategic insight and tactical support to ensure your organisation achieves its objectives.


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