How Covid-19 has seen the PR jobs market effectively close

Covid-19 has seen the PR jobs market effectively close, with some agencies already making redundancies. Ben Smith, founder of PRmoment, and Julia Fenwick, founder and director at Boldmove, discuss the impact of the current pandemic.

BS: What has the effect of the coronavirus been on the PR recruitment scene? I assume it hasn't been a positive one...

JF: PR recruitment and public affairs recruitment has pretty much ground to a halt in the last two weeks with a majority of roles being put on hold.

The few interviews are still going ahead are obviously being conducted on Skype or other video engagement platforms, but it’s difficult to say what the next stages will be.

Many job interviews that were at final stages before the “UK shut-down” have had next steps and final decisions delayed indefinitely. In many cases clients haven’t responded to emails, but that is understandable. We are not going to chase companies for outcomes, instead we are going to offer advice and support, to clients and candidates, wherever we can. We have to remain positive and optimistic.

BS: I guess if anyone wants to hire anyone over the next 12 weeks (maybe more) they are going to have to do it virtually?

JF: Most companies seem to be entirely working from home now which makes it fairly difficult to co-ordinate interviews, but not impossible. However, I think it’s unlikely that senior hiring decisions will be made virtually, and we haven’t seen it so far, but given these highly unusual circumstances and as time goes on, this could absolutely be the case.

From the other side, with so much market uncertainty, I think candidates (who were looking to move but are in secure roles) are now very cautious about handing in their notice – so much can change during a three-month notice period.

BS. What comms skills are businesses prioritising at the moment?

JF: Other than the obvious crisis comms, it’s been extremely quiet for the last week, but up until the “UK shut-down” it was the same as ever. On the PR side it’s still account managers and account directors with particular sector experience.

On the public affairs side, it’s similar, but also particular political allegiance at a senior level is in demand. Special advisors are still prized, but people continue to hire them with caution, depending on longevity of post and relevance of policy area. There may be a need shortly for experienced freelancers who can take on a brief remotely and hit the ground running.

BS: In the absence of being able to meet anyone – what might the recruitment process look like for the next 12 weeks (maybe more)?

JF: There are so many fantastic interview and video engagement platforms now that to some extent it’s almost like having candidates in the room with you. Presentations and writing tests can all be done remotely.

Companies have been able to pitch remotely with great success recently and I think it can work just as well with hiring. Whether both parties would have the confidence to move forward in this way for the entirety of a process remains to be seen, but there may be little choice for a while.

BS: We've seen a number of redundancies at some big PR firms in the last months or so and I know some smaller operators have already started the process of winding up their businesses.

JF: Redundancies in larger PR agencies are not unusual and are often down to employees working on one client only. When that client leaves an agency, instead of deploying this talent elsewhere it tends to let them go.

Some agencies have been known to on occasion make ‘voluntary’ redundancies for no obvious good reason, but this is kept under the radar.

For the smaller agencies just losing one main client and being financially squeezed by others can mean that redundancies are inevitable. I’ve seen a couple of very long-established small agencies close in the last two years. In the current situation, sadly, it will not be a surprise if some small agencies, in specific sectors, are unable to continue.

BS: If people do lose their jobs what support is out there?

JF: Hopefully, the government measures that were announced on Friday (20 March), for anyone who was in employment from the beginning of March should at least provide some short-term financial assistance for those who have lost their jobs. The best that we at Boldmove can currently offer is our time and we will be here to talk and help where we can both for companies and candidates.

Although some clients are still holding video interviews, on the whole there aren’t many roles actively or urgently being recruited for in either PR or public affairs. Companies have other things to worry about and prioritise right now, but they will let us know when the time is right for them to resume hiring and we will be ready to share the best candidates available. We remain optimistic for the future.

BS. If people are made redundant, what's a good offer and what's a bad offer?

JF: There are laws around redundancy and processes which companies should comply with.

The general rule is that your employer has to follow a fair redundancy process if you have worked for them for at least two years by the time your job ends. I’ve heard that some of the larger agencies who have let those working under two years go, have just paid full notice periods (generally three months) and allowed people to seek employment elsewhere immediately.

It’s hard to know what companies will offer and to whom, but they need to comply with employment law. The recent government measures announced on 20 March should financially help those who were laid off recently or have been ‘Furloughed’ but I’m not sure even the best accountants have been able to work out exactly what that means yet. It’s something we are looking into further and hope to have an answer to ASAP. Everything is up in the air right now.

BS: You talk to a lot of agencies – how well would you say UK PR is set up for remote working?

JF: I think most people in both public relations and public affairs have had the ability to work from home for some time, but probably haven’t done so very often, particularly at mid or junior level. I’m keeping my ear to the ground and from the intel I have been receiving, companies haven’t ever tested an entire agency all working from home at the same time.

I think there was quite a lot of breath holding and keeping fingers crossed. From what I’ve heard, most companies are holding up pretty well. One of my clients successfully onboarded a new hire entirely remotely last week. One had their weekly staff meeting online with multiple attendees, which apparently went without a hitch. Not forgetting an agency which held remote Friday drinks…

It will be interesting to see what impact Coronavirus has on companies and remote working in the long term, particularly if it works well.

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