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“Since March, my fee income has dropped by approximately 90%”: the real life impact of Covid-19 for many PR freelancers and SME directors

PR practitioners and freelancers, just like many other directors of limited companies who have taken much of their earnings as a dividend, are still ineligible for any government support.

Some practitioners report having lost every client contract and 100% of their income within a week and a half. One mother returning from maternity leave had her clients postpone all work until August.

The evidence the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) collected makes for a pretty harrowing read and we’ve shared this evidence in full below.

Worth noting that the CIPR has shared this evidence to HM Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Labour Party.

So far the government has refused to budge on this issue, but what can’t be denied is the real financial and personal pain that is being felt by law-abiding entrepreneurs across the UK.

The evidence from PR practitioners:

I have run a successful small consultancy specialising in Travel PR for the past 10 years. I am the director of a limited company and use other freelancers on a subcontractor basis, as well as having some stand-alone clients, and some which I share with other freelancers and we bill independently. On the advice on my accountants, I have paid myself using a combination of salary (around £700pcm) and dividends.

As has been well documented, the travel industry has been hit very hard and very quickly by the impact of Coronavirus and most of my clients have furloughed the majority of their staff.

Since March, my fee income has dropped by approximately 90% – with either no notice or a month’s notice in spite of contracts being in place. A proportion of the fees that I billed were paid to subcontractors – but from a personal perspective, my income has dropped from approx. £5,000pcm to £500 pcm.

Because I am the director of a limited company – my options are either to resign the clients on the small retainer that I have in order to furlough myself – but given that the furlough would only be on 80% of the £700 or so salary that I pay myself – this leaves me with a pretty stark choice.

I have been told that my biggest client is extending payment terms by an additional 90 days (taking payment terms to four months). I am a self-employed sole trader and to me this is devastating. They are already late in paying me [the money] that they owe me and have done since February. This basically means that I will have no income from them until July but am unable to claim anything as I am still employed by them.

  • I am a freelance digital PR consultant (sole trader)
  • Roughly 70-80% of my work has now dropped out
  • I don’t qualify for the government SEISS, as have only been self-employed since May 2019 so did not file a 2018/2019 self-assessment return
  • My 2019/2020 tax return is pretty much done and ready to file, but there has been no indication that the government will even consider this if I submit it ASAP, due to ‘fraud’ concerns
  • I also don’t qualify for UC as I have ‘too much’ in savings, but this money has been specifically saved for a deposit on a house (offer accepted in late December, not yet completed, and now on hold indefinitely due to coronavirus) so I am reluctant to dip into this too much, if at all
  • My pending January 2021 tax payment (which is based on 2019/20 tax year plus payment on account) is looking to be around £14,000, which I will not be able to afford if I don’t get more work ASAP / help from government to keep me financially stable during the pandemic

I have run my business for 25 years. Business is not easy to find in my neck of the woods and in mid-March I lost my last three clients. I have no idea whether they will even be in a position to rehire me when the current situation resolves itself, even if they want to.

Nevertheless, I still have an office to run with all the expenses that incurs: telephony, insurances, and memberships to be paid and so on… but some contracts cannot be cancelled without penalties, which is costly.

It is virtually impossible to find new clients as most companies are in the same boat – they have no income and have no idea how they are going to survive.

I have no idea what the future is going to look like and no idea what I can do to ensure I can at least keep my website up and running and cover the costs of the telephone bill, etc – just in case....

I am a sole trader. I did set up a limited company as I was told due to IR35 it was useful but have left it dormant. I began freelancing in December 2019, having previously been in an agency before then for three years. It took time to set up my business. I had a few small projects in December and January, but things were looking really great from mid-March onwards. I had a range of clients ready to start work with – a charity, a gallery, an education investment organisation based around events, and finally a developing nation, where I was going to be working to set up its media presence for the first time as well as take journalists to visit the country four times over the next eight months. This final contract by itself has cost me £55,000 before tax. I lost every contract within the space of a week and a half. I have managed to get one half a day of work since then, earning £180.

I live in London and have bills to pay. My universal credit application is painfully slow, and advisers keep cancelling confirmed appointments immediately after they’re made, despite me waiting for an hour over the phone.

It seems cruel to provide such support for others, and nothing for individuals like myself who have paid PAYE for years and years, have never claimed benefits, and have been encouraged by government to set up as an entrepreneur, only to be left to fend for myself.

As the director of a Limited Company, I have found myself in an extremely stressful position as I’m unable to run my face-to-face client sessions and training courses. I have a very high office rental bill to pay each month but have had a 90% reduction in my earning capacity. Due to the current situation I’m unable to use the office or run my business in the same way, particularly as I’m how home schooling my young family. Limited company directors have fallen through the cracks of government support and many entrepreneurs are having to make tough decisions to minimise the long-term impact on their families and business.

I am currently working as a freelance SAD and operate as a director of a limited company. I had a two-month break after Christmas and resumed my role in March with the view of a long-term contract to support the ongoing strategy. In this time, I also signed a new rental lease for my own flat, expecting the contract to extend further than March, based on conversations with the client and my manager. However shortly after the quarantine was implemented, the client understandably decided to put the international strategy on hold with the agency also letting go off all freelancers. I am now in a situation where I have to pay the rent of my new place by myself (I live alone) with little government support and unsure of when my next role will be as the communications industry continues to feel the impact of the virus. Universal credit and government support may not even cover half of my rent, let alone money for food and other bills.

While I understand that I am fortunate to work in an industry which pays freelancers well and continues to hire in some roles, I still feel like I have been left behind in the government's furlough scheme which doesn't consider the continuous and necessary support provided by freelancers. We do not know when we can expect to start working and, in the meantime, have little support/assurance which is very scary.

I'm an independent practitioner based in NE England and the sole director of my limited company, which leaves me out in the cold as far as government support goes.

With that in mind, I consider myself very lucky. Of my six retained clients (all of which are long-term relationships), one put all work with external suppliers on hold at the end of March – will be in stasis for the next three months, I think, and accounts for about 10% of my monthly billings, but should be back in time.

The biggest issue for me is the number of freelancers/independents posting about clients unilaterally extending payment terms and saying, for example, that they're not paying any outstanding invoices until July, which effectively means their one-man-band PR is giving them an interest free overdraft for the next quarter while having to face the consequences. I suspect that's not legal if there are contracts in place and it's definitely morally wrong.

I went out on my own eight years ago and was a sole trader initially. Work went well and I was consistently working with a charity client. They asked me to go Limited. It also gave me better protection as an individual, splitting work and home, and going limited felt like I was growing a business. A progression if you like. In the years since I have only been able to win certain work because I was a Ltd Co. Most English councils, charities and NGOs require it.

I am just entering my fifth year as a Ltd co of one. I use freelancers occasionally and business was good.

I work predominantly in food, environment, and events PR. I am proud of what I do but it isn’t spectacularly well paid. I do it because I am passionate about making change for good. But that does mean my reserves are not plentiful.

I lost 60% of my work before official shut down. Then a further 20+% in the week after. I have one retained client left and some ad-hoc work promised but 20% against forecast income. In my field of events the spring and summer is where I earn the most.

I want to keep my agency of one alive. I want to win new work, I want to hustle my way out of this, and I want to keep the one client I have but the maths doesn’t stack. If I furlough myself for £550 a month I cannot work ‘in’ my business and maintain relationships with clients or win work.

I am also saddened that this feels like a political swipe at solo limited companies by our government. When this is a time to put aside political tit-for-tat. What the chancellor said about balancing things up in years to come and all the issues around IR35 make me believe that the government doesn’t understand that there are “consultants” who perhaps do play the system, but are also genuinely hard-working people who pay taxes, NI and contribute to the economy without taking out, no state sick pay, redundancy pay or alike here.

I can accept that in a one-size-fits-all rush to do SOMETHING that dividends were too hard to calculate but I just want to be allowed to work.

The impact on my various income streams is enormous. Most clients are retail and those who have closed have suspended all work with me as they have ceased trading. I also run an online media outlet with the same challenges. Almost instantly income dried up. I would say 75% of my income has evaporated.

We are a small two-person Ltd company in Cardiff, trading for 20 years and who, like many, have been left out of the main government schemes as we pay ourselves by dividends, only getting 80% of our PAYE salary which equates to very little. Meanwhile our fellow ‘self-employed’ colleagues doing exactly the same job are getting their £2,500 per month, we are being punished for being a Ltd company.

So, we were hopeful when the Welsh economic resilience fund was announced only to now realise you have to be VAT registered to be eligible. Beyond angry and upset to be left out AGAIN and also to realise that the loans have run out and not available to apply for too. Not that we can afford to get ourselves in to debt but have no other choice with all work for 2020 cancelled or postponed until 2021. Feeling desperate for some support now.

My status is a sole trader so I probably will be covered by the government's self-employed grant, although it will be a close thing (I haven't done the sums yet, but my average income over last three years is around the £50k threshold).

I would estimate that my workload has dropped by around 70% due to the pandemic with all long-term projects suspended or cancelled. I do quite a lot of issues management/media relations work, which has held up well but everything project based has disappeared. The most lucrative service I offer – broadcast interview media training – has fallen off a cliff as group training in person is obviously not possible in the lockdown.

About five years ago my husband was advised to start up his own Ltd company, which he did as a lot of the agencies would only work with those with registered companies. He is the sole director and sole employee of his company.

Things have been going quite well, he has an accountant who makes sure everything is running correctly and he has always paid his personal tax, vat, corporation tax and dividend tax on time. Then the Coronavirus hit. Now work has been put on hold indefinitely and all the agency work has dried up. My husband's income is our only income. The money pot is virtually empty and with the job retention scheme it would mean that if my husband furloughed himself, we would get around £575 a month. Not only that, he would only be able to perform the very basic of legal duties that a director is obligated to do, he would not be allowed to be on the phone to the agencies asking for any work, etc.

As it stands dividends are not allowed to be included in the grant, only PAYE earnings, yet dividends are taxed as income and Universal Credit classes them as income as well.

All we're asking is to be treated fairly and to receive help on par with what is being offered to the self-employed/employed.

My husband is a one-man, limited company. I am excluded from any government help by virtue of earning slightly over 50% non-self-employed, due to dividend from my husband’s company and my PAYE (zero hours contract) role. I earned more than 50% of my income as a freelancer in the tax year that has just finished but this does not count.

Our household is supposed to survive on nothing. We don’t qualify for UC because we have dutifully saved our tax money. My husband might qualify for the minimal furlough of around £500 pcm but then would be unable to work at all. We now have to spend the tax money to survive. We don’t know what we are supposed to do when the tax is due. Deferring it to January 2021 really doesn’t help as by then we will have nothing.

Comparable income households are receiving £5,000.00 pcm, but we may get £500 if we are lucky. We will have to try to sell our only assets. Then it’s the house. We have two young children to support.

I am the sole income-generating director of a limited company. I am also the main earner in our household.

When I set up my business in 2011, I sought legal advice on structure and was told that limited company was the way to go in order to protect my family assets which are all in joint names with my husband. I am not a contractor running my finance through a limited company to avoid paying tax as an employee.

I didn’t want to set up an agency with an office and staff. I wanted to work flexibly around my young family and earn enough to cover my share of the bills. That led me to recruit a band of associates who work on my behalf, or with whom I collaborate on some projects. I have 10 trusted associates who all have similar or complementary skills, including a graphic designer and photographer who both now have now income at all. Usually I would send work to at least five of them every month. All but one also run their own limited companies.

My income – PAYE and dividends combined – has been just under £50k for the last couple of years, with turnover roughly double that. So, my business makes a decent economic contribution, much of it to other small businesses. I take no dividends from large investments.

My income is down around 70% compared to January 2020, with many projects that should have come through now on hold. Many of my clients also run their own limited companies, not because they are contractors, but because their clients demand it, or because it was the right structure to protect them too.

Work that has disappeared or been paused includes:

  • regular internal comms for a PLC international outsourcer, who now have a ban on external spend
  • award entries for a mobile phone network that we write every year – no external spend allowed
  • award entries for one of the UK’s largest construction companies, worth five figures to my business
  • blogs for a range of SME limited companies including a training company which delivers management development training to mainly retail clients, an independently owned serviced office building and a PAT testing company
  • branding, proposition and website projects for an international manufacturer with multiple brands which should have been four days a month for a year

I have four enquiries which could become decent projects or regular clients, but all are waiting until after the current crisis passes.

As I have no premises and I have been given no grant. I cannot furlough myself as the small amount of work I have left amounts to more than the c£600 I would receive, and I would be banned from doing any other work.

We can survive with limited outgoings for the next few months, but after that it will be tricky, and I’m concerned about how long it will take for things to get back to “normal”. I also now have two children at home who need some kind of education in addition to both myself and my husband trying to do some work.

I've been freelancing for four years – I'm a freelance PR senior account director – and I'm now without any income (so I've currently lost 100% of my income). All PR agencies always told me I needed to be a limited company (or contract) and therefore I'm not covered within the self-employment government help scheme. I may be covered on universal credit, but I've been waiting a month for them to call me. In the meantime, I'm doing some pro bono PR work for charities to keep busy and help others, but I have a mortgage and bills to pay so it's far from ideal.

I have lost 73% of my monthly retained income. The clients have paused their work with me because they’re having to cut back on spend or hibernate their business due to the crisis. I also usually earn on average £350 per month for ad-hoc/project work that has also dried up. This income is not enough for me to take my monthly salary and pay for business costs.

I have considered furloughing myself but the money I would get is just £575 per month; currently I have got slightly more than that through paid client work (which isn’t guaranteed to continue). Also, if I were to furlough, I wouldn’t be able to continue in activities that would help attract new business and build relationships for when the economy recovers. I would have to effectively hibernate the business.

I am a freelance copywriter and social media manager. I left my job to start as a sole trader in September of last year and so don’t qualify for the government self-employed help.

All of my work has dried up and I had to apply for universal credit at the end of March which is coming in a couple of weeks. It isn’t enough for my living costs and I’ve been feeling very nervous about the future. I am 24 years old and have a long-term health condition, if I could go and work in a supermarket to make up lost funds I would but it would be risking my health.

It’s a very stressful time, I wish they would consider a universal basic income instead of some of us missing out in a big (and scary) way.

My situation is much like many others in that because I am a director of my limited company which pays me a small income via PAYE with the rest as dividends. I do not qualify for the self-employed financial support package.

I do qualify for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme package for those fully employed, however, it only provides me with around £500 pm, and I would have to stop working to be able to claim it.

Alternatively, I can claim Universal Credit which would amount to around £800. This would cover my monthly mortgage repayment, but pretty much nothing else. This means I am left with a shortfall of around £1,200 per month to cover all other household bills and expenses.

Sadly, this has come at a bad time for me as I recently got divorced and the legal costs (recently paid) cleared out all of my savings, and thus left me with no buffer for times like these.

Last week when this all kicked off (Coronavirus lockdown), I had business worth £15,000 pulled by all my clients in the space of 48 hours. This means my income for next month and for the foreseeable future is £0.

The other government support packages are all repayable such as loans, deferred tax payments, and other options which I do not qualify for. Taking on debt through loans etc is of limited help as when some sense of normality returns, businesses like mine will face potentially crippling loan repayments at a time when things will remain extremely challenging.

I worked out I have paid around £300,000-£350,000 in tax and NI contributions since being of working age and have never claimed any benefits until now in a career spanning 20+ years so far.

Somewhat frustratingly, up until last tax year myself and my wife operated as a partnership and would have been entitled to up to £2,500 per month, I understand. For tax year 2019-20 we decided to incorporate and now will receive little assistance unless we furlough ourselves. Whilst we have not 'lost' all our clients there have been noticeable cutbacks. The act of furloughing ourselves would only seem to compound the situation.

I’m currently on maternity leave and had a freelancer contracted to cover my work on the one retained client I kept through my maternity leave. I operate as a limited company and am the sole director and employee. I am due back at work on 1 June, but my client has put all work on hold for April, May, June and probably July – I work exclusively in travel PR. I have had to end the contract with the freelancer (who operates as a sole trader but has only been working for six months) and I also won’t have any income for my business for the first months I’m back at work but my outgoings still need to be paid of course. I’m hoping to be able to furlough myself for these months but the money available is far less than I would normally make in a month due to dividends not being counted. After a short maternity leave of five months on SMP, a return to full salary in June was going to be very helpful before all this happened.

The personal impact of this is magnified for me. Like most prudent small business owners, I’ve always kept a cash reserve of three months, income in case of emergencies like this. Unfortunately, this is the third emergency in less than 12 months. First my wife unexpectedly lost her [job] last May which meant we lost about £[X]K from our annual household income with no notice. Then my Dad became ill, so I had to start turning lots of work down to spend time with him before he died. These two emergencies in a row meant that instead of our usual three-month cash reserve we were actually in the negative when this third crisis hit.

The primary reason for operating as a limited company is to maintain legal separation between my business and personal affairs. The issue of taxation has never been a consideration. My last role before starting on my own was as head of PR and public affairs for business advisers and it was a senior partner who advised me on the importance of limited liability and never making business decisions for tax reasons.

The impact of Covid-19 was rapid and devastating. Between 6-13 March I lost about 80-90% of my business. The majority of this was planned overseas trips to deliver training between March to July. A small amount of work remained and some other work for later in the year has yet to be formally cancelled, but I expect it to be. None of the work was under contract and even if it were it would be irrelevant as it’s impractical to enforce contracts for small sums (often under £5K) overseas because of the complexity and legal costs.

Since then a small amount of work has come back or new work appeared as some clients have started to move to remote delivery of training, but it isn’t the same volume or value. In fact, it’s just one client.

Like most limited company directors/owners we take professional advice from our chartered accountants on how to withdraw money from the business. It isn’t something I’ve ever questioned as that’s why we are paying for professional advice. This means we take a salary of approximately £10K a year each and the remainder in dividends.

Because we are a virtual business and don’t have premises, we aren’t eligible for the £10K grant. The only support the government is providing is to furlough the two owner/directors which would provide an income of about £700 each. However, the practical problem with this is then we couldn’t do any paid work. Sole traders are free to continue working while receiving a government grant of up to £2,500 per month.

Furloughing still means owner/directors are about £1,800 per month worse off than sole traders.

It also means that sole traders are allowed to work on your clients and projects while you can’t. It is unlikely that after several months of working with someone else that clients would move back to or change. Effectively furloughing means closing the business which might mean when things return to ‘normal’ liquidating it as if you can’t even do new business and marketing activity then there won’t be a sales pipeline to return to. For me, the practical impact is likely to be that existing relationships with some overseas clients will be lost and they will have the opportunity to work with new suppliers. A long-term loss of export income for the UK as about 60-70% of my sales are export of services.

It then gets more complicated because furloughed employees are allowed to find other work while furloughed so can operate as sole traders, take a job, or be employed via another limited company. In practice this means I can work for new clients or start new projects for existing clients but can’t complete existing projects.

I set up my freelance consultancy business in April last year. My business was in a strong position and healthy in terms of profitability. However, within the last two weeks, the work from my two retained clients has ceased with immediate effect. These two accounted for 12 days a month of time and equated to £3520 (including VAT) per calendar month.

With a couple of projects still proceeding currently, my income has literally decreased overnight by just over 80%.

Having no 18/19 trading history and it being pointless to submit my 19/20 return quickly on my accountant's advice, as these are unlikely to count as people ‘may manipulate the figures’, this is an incredibly challenging time.

My husband is currently continuing to work for his employer, and therefore our household income is likely to mean we are unlikely to be eligible for Universal Credit.

It is a challenge and I feel left behind and let down after working so hard throughout my career so and contributing through taxes etc. for nearly 20 years.

I have used freelancers on a regular basis over the last 10 months and provide regular income to them. So far, I have spoken to two of them about the impact of my clients cancelling their contracts and I have more to inform, sadly. The very stark reality is that so many are being affected by decisions by others (companies) who are better protected and supported by the government.

I do personally feel that the support measures offered by the chancellor are incredible and welcomed by so many, but for the few who are left behind and totally unsupported through no fault of our own, I very much hope for a solution in the not too distant further that will give some relief.

I launched my new business on 1 March, with two significant anchor clients signed up on initial six-month contracts. At the end of March, as a result of the pandemic, one of these clients put the work on hold with immediate effect, effectively halving my income.

As a director of a limited company and it being a new business, I don’t qualify for any of the government help offered so far. I am also a single parent with an 18-year-old and my income is the only one coming into our household (my daughter lost her part-time job because of the crisis).

I am proactively seeking new clients but it’s much harder at this time – and also not helped by so many furloughed comms people offering their services for free, which makes it even tougher for those of us trying to secure payment for our work. I have been approached by three organisations so far, looking for pro bono support.

I am the director of a small agency (limited company) specialising in healthcare comms. Most of our clients are NHS/similar, so since the coronavirus hit our clients have virtually completely stopped using us. We have several projects which are still ‘live’, but everything is on hold while the organisations focus on direct health care.

As a specific example, we have one client for whom we work on an hourly basis, just charging for however many hours they need each month. In the eight months Jul 2019 – Feb 2020 we invoiced them an average of 63 hours per month. In March 2020 that dropped to 24 and I’m expecting April to be about half that.

We are able to work on a small job for one client that’s not in the health sector, and I’m using this time to focus heavily on marketing so we will hopefully be able to pick up new work and catch up fairly quickly when things calm down, but of course nothing is certain.

The business has two employees and I have furloughed one. As a limited company director if I furlough myself I can’t work, which would mean not responding to any client emails or doing anything at all to keep things ticking over during this quiet time – so although I could then claim about £575 a month it would be counter-productive to risk missing a business opportunity because I couldn’t respond in time.

I don’t qualify for any government help. 1. Because last year I set myself up as a limited company, and 2. Even if I hadn’t, my self-employed profits were/would be greater than £55,000 a year.

I’m sure you have heard my story from many – especially trainers.

At the start of March, the earliest date I could offer clients looking for face to face training was the middle of July. I was booked to deliver two to three courses a week, giving me an income of around £6,000 a month. All of those have now been cancelled or postponed.

I am – like every other trainer I know – currently adapting my face to face workshops into online training. Obviously, I’m not being paid to adapt them. I have delivered one online workshop – but only because the attendees had already paid to attend the face to face workshop.

I’m having conversations with a couple of clients who are considering online workshops. But these would be short courses (so cheaper than full day or even half day workshops) and clients are looking to pay less because they are online – despite the fact that the preparation for an online workshop is actually longer than a face to face workshop.

From a copywriting point of view, while I now have the availability, few organisations have the budget. Everyone is reluctant to spend more than necessary at the moment and projects I might have been asked to get involved in simply aren’t happening.

As a director of a Limited Company and its sole employee, I am fortunate in that several of my clients are able to continue working throughout the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and therefore continue to remunerate me for PR and brand communications services.

That said, I have lost half of a contract for an event, scheduled to take place in May, that was worth £2,250 to me.

If the event is cancelled altogether as a result of ongoing restrictions, my annual turnover in the 2019/2020 financial year will be reduced by c. 80%.

I appreciate that I am in a better situation than many practitioners will be because my PR skills set is broad – incorporating reputation/issues management, crisis comms, media relations, integrated brand communications and public affairs, as well as events PR – but I feel for those in our industry who focus on hospitality/retail/consumer PR who are the hardest hit.

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