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Life on furlough in PR

PRmoment founder Ben Smith caught up with PR recruiter Julia Fenwick to talk about furloughing and which types of PR firms have been most impacted by the Covid-19 crisis so far.

Ben Smith: For employees who have been furloughed, what can they do? For example, can they take part in a training scheme that a company has paid for? Can they take a job in the local Tesco to supplement their income?

Julia Fenwick: Furloughed employees can NOT do any work for their employers for the entirety of the time they are furloughed but they can be learning new skills and be part of training programmes provided by their employers.

There's nothing in the furlough rules to stop employees from taking a job elsewhere if you're placed on furlough by an employer (doing so wouldn't affect your furlough pay either). But their employment contract may not allow it, so they would need to check.

There is a brilliant young PRO called Nicholas Young who was about to start a new PR role, which fell through due to Covid-19. Knowing that he wasn’t going to find another role until this had passed, he set up ‘Look After’ which is a comms consultancy providing pro-bono work, with the aim of using their creative comms skills to provide support and help to businesses and charities who are struggling as a direct result of the crisis.

His venture has been so successful that he is already inundated by offers from PROs who have been furloughed or made redundant. Another charity that PROs (and others) have been helping out at is Furloughed Foodies where you can cook meals for NHS.

BS: Which type of PR firms are being struck most severely by the impact Covid-19 outbreak in your opinion?

JF: From what I’ve witnessed, the PR firms that specialised in sectors such as travel and restaurants/hospitality have suffered the most as those industries are the ones that have been the most dramatically affected by Covid-19 and also the ones whose clients are unlikely to have the budget for PR and comms when the global lockdown is lifted. The restaurant/hospitality sector in particular, will take the longest to come back and sadly, some of that sector won’t make it back at all.

BS: There’s a fair bit of furloughing going on in PR firms isn’t there? It’s a scheme that has the potential to really help the sector out…

JF: There are a mix of companies furloughing staff both big networked agencies and small independent companies. Some agencies have furloughed a majority of staff and some, just a few. It makes sense for the smaller agencies to furlough, as it means they will be in a better position financially to bring staff back and pick up where they left off when we get back to some normality.

For larger networked agencies, it’s been more difficult to work out who to furlough and there doesn’t seem to be any particular strategy other than those who have furloughed teams working on specific clients who have stopped work altogether for the time being or projects with a shift in timeline like The Olympics.

There are a couple of companies that jumped the redundancy gun but there are also companies like Freuds and Edelman who have announced that they are going to hold on to their staff, which is very admirable.

It's up to your employer to decide and define who is furloughed. It could be because you've no work to do, but it can also be because you have to be home to look after children or you're self-isolating. The key to this is that the state is looking to support people, so this isn't about loopholes to catch people out, it's about a broad sweep to gather people in.

BS: Many people I speak to who have been furloughed are concerned about being made redundant when the furloughing scheme stops. That's a fair point isn't it?

JF: Unfortunately, it is a fair point. It is highly likely that when companies get back to their offices and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CRJS) finishes, which is currently at the end June 2020, they will have to consider their positions and what their staff numbers will look like going forward. There will definitely be some restructuring and redundancies. I think the corporate, crisis and public affairs sectors will come out of this the strongest. Consumer agencies will have a greater struggle as in some sectors their clients will have reduced budgets of disappeared altogether. Most sadly, some companies may not make it at all. It will take a while, but the PR industry WILL come back and be different, but I believe better and more resilient.

BS: If you have been made redundant recently, what support is out there for you?

JF: The first thing to remember which I always tell my candidates who have faced redundancy is that “It's your job that's been made redundant, not you.” So however personal it may sound it’s NOT your fault.

If your position is made redundant make sure you’ve been treated fairly by your employer as there are laws to protect you. If you think otherwise you can go to

BS: Presumably, it's going to be hard to get a job currently, one alternative is to set up your own firm, but presumably that’s equally tough?

JF: In the current climate, it is not going to be easy to get a new PR job right now and I don’t think anyone knows what the next six months will bring. When the lockdown is over, and companies can return to their offices they will take some time to regroup and reset, so I think the market will be stagnant for a while. I am confident that we will start to see the industry blooming again in Q4 of this year.

My only advice is to sit tight and believe in the industry. PR always bounces back…

I would say setting up and agency right now is probably not the best thing to do, unless you have a client ready to sign on the dotted line.

BS: What free/cheap training have you seen out there for PR people?

JF: There isn’t a huge amount of good free training as such, but there are plenty of good industry webinars and conferences, which should provide some good insight, experience and knowledge.

I know that you guys at PRmoment are providing some great inexpensive or free online ‘Lite’ events with subjects ranging from ‘The Influence or Influence’ to ‘The Impact of effective communications on sales’.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Global Alliance of Public Relations and Communications Management have partnered to provide some free webinars.

The PRCA is offering free membership for six months for any PR professional who has lost their job as a result of Covid-19.

BS. When things get back to something close to normal what are going to be the biggest challenges for PR employees do you think?

JF: A month ago, we were all hoping this would be a short shock and business would open up again fairly quickly and life would go back to normal. As this pandemic continues, it’s becoming apparent that life is going to be anything but normal for a while. This is affecting pretty much every industry in the world with some obvious exceptions like healthcare and food production.

I hope we will be pretty much back in our offices by September and business can start to adjust and adapt to a battered and different world.

Thankfully, unlike many industries the PR industry is still operational. There are some sectors that have taken a fairly big hit, but they will slowly make a return. Companies will always need PR and the industry will thrive again.

As Winston Churchill said “If you are going through hell, keep going”…

PR employees who have retained their jobs are going to be working harder than ever and for the time being going to be expected to take on a little bit more work for perhaps a little bit less. For those out of work it’s going to be a slow way back, but they have to stay positive.

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