Does PR have a drink problem?

The common perception of PR people is that they have to be party animals who love a drink (or 10). However, is this stereotype now outdated? Not according to Andy Turner, founder of agency Six Sigma PR who says that PR agencies help to normalise a drinking culture: “This is why we see agencies boasting about their in-house bar, free drinks on Friday nights and company jollies which usually revolve around bars and booze. I know of one instance where a junior female employee went missing in Berlin, causing a huge panic. She was found alone wandering the hard shoulder of a highway without her shoes at 3am. Fortunately, she was safe.

It is a PR crisis
“Have the agency principals learnt their lesson? Nope. It can only be a matter of time before something really bad happens, and an agency finds itself having to apply its own crisis management advice. I think, as a sector, we need to own this responsibility. Senior people should model moderate behaviour (without being party-poopers) and stop encouraging and egging people on to get pissed. It doesn’t fit well in an industry that aspires to lead on diversity and mental wellbeing. Maybe if employers stopped expecting people to routinely work 50- to 60-hour weeks, they wouldn’t need to provide access to all that free booze.” 

The pressure is on
As well as work stress, there is pressure to be a certain type of person in PR, and that includes being a drinker, says Jessica Pardoe, digital PR executive at digital marketing agency Tecmark: “I think there’s definitely pressure to be a certain type of person in PR. We have movie-based stereotypes to thank for that. There seems to be a kind of tone set that if you work in PR you need to be shouty, social and above all – a big drinker. Funnily enough, I’m neither the first or the latter thing. I’m not particularly shy, but I’m not loud either. And one thing I’m certainly not is a big drinker. I do enjoy a drink from time to time, but the London-based lifestyle of going out every night after work is not, and will never, be for me. I recently wrote a blog about how you ‘don’t have to be Samantha Jones to work in PR’ and the reception I got to it was awesome. So many agreed!   

“I think a lot of people are guilty on Instagram of cracking up the PR life to be a lot more whimsical than it sometimes is. Yes sometimes it involves cool events and little perks, but a lot of the time it’s hard, hard work. In fact, sometimes I think I’d love to spend my days drinking (as many think we do) but in reality I do not have the time.   

As a young person in this industry, the pressures to be a certain type of person can be stressful and make you feel as though you have to act a certain way. It can make you feel alienated if you don’t conform with that way of life. But I’m finding that I’m doing just fine living and working the way I do now – on the slightly quieter side of life and normally with a Diet Coke in hand as opposed to a glass of rosé.”   

Not everyone agrees that drink is a problem in PR, or that there is overt pressure on people to drink.  

Banking is worse
Answering the question about whether there is a drink problem in PR, Chris Owen, director, tech and innovation at agency M&C Saatchi PR. says: “It’s a difficult question, but my natural inclination is that there isn’t – really;  it isn’t any worse necessarily than a lot of other industries (*side-eye glance at banking*), but there are aspects of the sector which foster an archaic perception of it being a little too drink-and-drugs powered.  

“The question however, is perhaps not whether there are elements within the industry which cause problems – because there are, plain and simple (as with any other stressful industry); but how can agency leaders ensure an agency culture is fostered without it being fuelled by alcohol?

Healthier options
“There’s been a big shift in recent years simply through rewarding people for good work with vouchers, free lunch, wellness sessions, as opposed to the booze-fest previously where everything was awarded with wine, beer, prosecco or all of the above. Some of this has been a response to cultural demand as well as health, but it’s also been cognisant of how some in the sector have experienced struggles.

“As a nation we’re predisposed to unwinding with a few drinks – and with PR bringing the stresses it does, collectively we need to keep an eye out for friends and colleagues who seem to be edging towards risky, rather than free-spirited (pardon the pun) behaviour. “

Booze as a bribe
As well as being seen as a social lubricant, it is also used as bribes, sorry gifts, in the industry, but not as much as it used to be says Justin Roberts, PR lead for marketing agency Zage: “When I was playing handler to a guest on the American TV show The Colbert Report, the gift basket they gave us was mostly Vodka, but even wine as client gifts is much less popular than it was in previous decades when it used to be the go-to client and partner gift around the holidays, at least in small and mid-sized offices. “I think I've gotten wine once in the past 20 years from a vendor and I've never given it as a client gift, whilst the exchange of bottles in my father's small law office was a sort of mandatory tradition that produced many undrunk bottles of gin, etc. that stayed unopened in my house through my whole childhood.”

Times have changed  
The idea that there is pressure to drink is actually outdated these days, plus it makes sense to stay sober says Sarah Wolf, consultant at the Difference Collective: “I’ve worked in PR for over 20 years and organised, and attended, my fair share of product launches, events and press junkets. Is there ‘pressure’ to drink? I’d say no because as the person who is running the event I need to be clear-headed, professional and completely on the ball.

“I’ve never felt any pressure within the working environment to drink alcohol and have requested many times at events that my team doesn’t imbibe either until after the work is done. No one has ever suggested that to get ahead you need to drink or to be seen to be socialising with alcohol. That feels like an old-fashioned and outdated view.

“To get ahead you need to get the job done better than anyone else. When your responsibility is to speak to the press, announce a major investor or demonstrate the technological aspects of a multi-million pound product, it makes much more sense not to drink. And the wonderful thing about being a good PRO is the ability to build decent, lasting and symbiotic relationships with people – none of which you need alcohol to make happen.”

Maybe the question shouldn’t be whether PR as an industry has a drink problem, but whether the UK as a whole has a drink problem…