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How to tackle the long-hours culture in PR

PR has always been a 24-7 job as a reputation crisis can strike at any time. But this does not mean you have to be working ridiculous hours. PRs discuss how to make sure that a work culture is healthy and does not drain people dry.

Agencies must take team health seriously

Jenny Mowat, managing director of PR agency Babel: “I’m under no illusion that working long hours is a problem in the PR industry - but I believe this is only in agencies where capacity isn’t realistically planned and tracked, and where time vs deliverables isn't openly discussed with both teams and clients.

“Many PRs are stressed and feel obligated to work long hours which can lead to mental health issues and burnout.

“Agencies need to start at the root and ensure everyone has the support they need to have a healthy work-life balance, ensure they are encouraging open communication and quickly address any workload issues. We put our team at the centre of everything that we do and ensure they feel consistently supported. We have team members working part-time alongside studying, to coach football or simply to do school runs. Agencies need to treat team health as a priority rather than a box-ticking exercise to truly make a difference."

Work smarter, not longer

Matthew Robinson, senior PR and digital strategist at agency Definition: “PR is a time-sensitive profession. So, of course, sometimes you do need to work odd or extra hours in order to capitalise on an opportunity. But the key is to be flexible and work in a way that yields the best outcomes, without compromising your mental health and wellbeing. As the Pareto Principle states: 80% of the results comes from 20% of the work - and I think this is often true in PR. However, if you work in an agency, it's important to be available during certain core hours to support clients. This makes moving to a four-day work week difficult for agencies, but that shouldn’t mean discouraging flexible working and it certainly shouldn’t justify overworking. We’re also fortunate that there are now myriad tools available to automate routine PR tasks, such as media monitoring and reporting. Using these tools frees up time so that you can not only focus on more strategic, high value (and ultimately, rewarding) work, but also avoid working too much!”

PR leaders must drive change

Amy Stone, senior communications consultant at marketing and communications consultancy Hard Numbers: “Presenteeism and long hours in PR has been a problem for a while and the resulting burnout caused has cost the industry some great talent. Happily though, I think it’s improving thanks to the introduction of hybrid working. New, more flexible ways of working like this will help eliminate the problem altogether.

“However presenteeism is deeply ingrained and learnt behaviour, so PR leaders must drive this change from the front. We actively discourage anyone working later than their contracted hours and I am careful to practice what we preach. Sure, I occasionally work later or through lunch but it’s my choice - not an expectation of my agency. And that’s the important difference. You don’t need to force people to sit at a desk 9 until 6 to get the best out of them - in fact showing respect for their time will likely see a far better return.”

Flexibility is key

Lou Hoffman, CEO of tech agency The Hoffman Agency: “Years ago, two consecutive intern classes completely washed out. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening, so I attended the interviews for our next intern class. After a handful of interviews, the culprit surfaced. Our new leader for internships had decided that the overarching message to sell candidates should be work-life balance. No, no and no. The comms consultancy biz is tough. There’s no getting around that work ethic has a say in success.

“In my opinion, the F word trumps work-life balance. Flexibility puts people back in control of their lives. Need to take off to pick up your mum at the airport. No problem. Want to get an early jump on a three-day weekend, that’s fine. And on those periodic occasions when someone goes above and beyond, we’ve experimented in the U.S. with what’s called “going the extra kilometer,” a mechanism that allows the person to enter time as additional PTO. Each staffer makes this call, no managerial approval. Flexibility empowers. That’s how to cultivate a healthy workplace. Of course, this assumes the workload is demanding - hey clients are demanding - but not excessive.”

We need more caring attitudes

Richard Knowles content creation manager at Napthens Solicitors: “I’ve worked (up to 2021) in a renewable energy company that viewed presenteeism as mandatory and working from home as ‘slacking’, which helped drive a revolving door policy among employees.

“Refreshingly, people and companies are now seeing the benefits of allowing flexible working and creating teams that work in synergy to help reduce stress and workloads.

“Workload in PR is just one part of stress, with presenteeism and dictatorial line managers two more.

“Sharing workloads, ensuring empathy is a positive emotion managers and bosses can display, and making work plans work around your employees, will actually be better long term.

“Four-day weeks are part of the solution offering, but not the only thing. Caring attitudes, encouraging the sharing of work concerns and financial rewards all need including too.”

Consider a four-day week

Michelle Ivins, managing partner at content agency Tribera: “We’ve been a four-day working week agency for a year now and have seen some major benefits across the business. Naturally, it has given our tribe a real opportunity to give their personal life the love it deserves, providing them with the freedom to manage their weeks like adults.

“Gone are the days where employees should be bending over backwards in an attempt to make a dentist or doctor appointment. This is something we have stood by since launching our agency back in 2019, and it’s something we continue to implement, even today - we want our team to feel comfortable to work when suits them best. However, one thing we didn’t expect to see benefit so dramatically was client results - a direct effect of happier, more motivated employees. So, whilst it’s safe to say the change hasn’t come without its teething issues, it has certainly been a move worth taking.”

Jessica Morgan, business owner of agency Carnsight Communications: “Having started off working long hours in advertising, I honestly found moving to a PR agency a breath of fresh air. There were none of the late-night pitch meetings or the occasional weekend work. I took the best bits of this when I set up on my own and introduced a four-day week for everyone (or three days for some) and I’ve made this a central part of the business model. Being independent and working with the clients we do means keeping to strict work hours and, although I keep an eye on emails on the fifth day, we rarely work outside of this, which definitely keeps us all sharper, happier and more productive.”

Case study

How many hours I work

Isabel Ludick, marketing director at pet specialist company “As marketing director, spend about four to six hours a day on PR for three pet care brands which includes managing eight email inboxes, communications, partnerships, planning, and brand management. Then about one to three hours a day on team leadership and communications and about two to three hours on YouTube-related tasks (research, filming, production, channel management, etc).

“The hours vary depending on workload, current projects, and external factors, but I'd say it's manageable. Some days I have a lot on my plate then it can feel overwhelming and anxious. But then there are days I feel super on top of everything and productive. It's about balance.”

As well as refusing to work in an organisation that expects too much from its people, it is also important to communicate how you operate best. Ideally, the culture you work in should encourage this, but if it doesn’t, make sure your voice is heard. Next week, we continue to look at the importance of creating healthy working environments, by finding out the triggers that lead PR people to leave their jobs.

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