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The COVID effect: The number of PR freelancers increased by 23% from 2019-2020, according to IPSE report

Has the pandemic been a good or bad time for freelancers? Well, there is good news and bad news, with the good news being that the PR sector seems to be faring better than many others. 

Inna Yordanova, senior researcher at IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed), describes the current freelance situation across all sectors: “Whereas usually self-employed numbers increase in economic downturns (as businesses turn to flexible expertise instead of permanent employees), during the pandemic, the self-employed sector has actually slumped by over 250,000. This is in particular because of the major gaps in government support for the self-employed.”

PR freelancers

For the PR sector, the picture is more positive says Yordanova: “The slump in self-employment is very uneven, however, because while some industries have declined drastically, others have grown. 

PR and media is a remarkable outlier since the number of freelancers working in this field grew by 23% between 2019 and 2020.

“Growth in the number of self-employed PR professionals does not, however, necessarily mean an improvement for individual freelancers. Research we did at the end of March showed 82% of media freelancers expected their income to decrease over the coming months because of the pandemic. Three-quarters also said they were seeing a decrease in demand. This is likely to have worsened as more people have moved into PR and media, driving up competition for what work there is.

The future

“Overall, it’s a mixed picture for PR freelancers at the moment: essentially more people competing for less money. The growth in numbers does, however, at least speak to a sector that is still functioning and where there is a steady supply of work. We may also hope that when the process of economic recovery begins, freelancers across the industries, will be in the vanguard, working more and reaping the rewards.”

Polls from the PR talent business the PR Cavalry shows that the freelance market is picking up as Nigel Sarbutts, founder explains: “Freelance PROs were battered early on – our poll in March showed 60% of those surveyed had lost 75% of their income. This was compounded by most freelancers being excluded from government measures which have kept so many households afloat.

“But things have improved rapidly.

“We run a Facebook group of 3,500 freelance PROs. Our poll in July revealed 51% of the 150 who responded had seen work recover to levels at or beyond where they were at lockdown while 31% said that some work had replaced their losses but they were not fully back to where they were. Only 11% reported that work hadn’t returned at all. Our platform has just done its best month for client searches.

“The long-term trend towards the industry going freelance has been interrupted, not halted, and the flexibility and resourcefulness of freelancers is going to be in high demand in an economy feeling its way back to strength.”

Flexibility is a selling point
Sarah Paterson, founder of consultancy CommsPeople agrees that the PR freelance market is now looking healthy after faltering at the start of the pandemic: "With the onset of the pandemic, businesses across the globe were suddenly forced to look closely at their brand communications strategies – both from a messaging point of view and because of budget constraints. “Freelancers were perhaps hit the hardest initially, suddenly finding themselves with no work pipeline and little-to-no government support. Some organisations have also been wary of how to proceed whilst managing massively reduced incomes and adapting to more sensitive messaging, making it much harder to secure freelance work. “However, we are now finding that certain industries, such as tech, health, and start-ups for example, have held strong despite the recent economic downturn. “Separately, businesses in other sectors are starting to see that PR and comms is a tool that can add a huge amount of ongoing value, and have been successfully adapting their communications strategies to reflect the recent changes. These organisations are now looking to a more flexible workforce to support them in a new way of working.”

Case studies  

Freelance PROs tell all

A good time to go freelance
Chloe Walden: “This year has undoubtedly been hard for everyone, but for me the silver lining is it has given me the opportunity to take the leap into freelancing, something I’ve wanted to do for a while.

“Working in an agency which specialised in restaurants meant my summer was very quiet. Whilst for the first few weeks I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, it eventually gave me time to reflect and evaluate my career to date, and also where I want to be in the future and how I want to get there. Freelancing seemed like the perfect option.

“From my experience to date, right now is a great time to be a freelancer. I think people want to kick start business and get life back to normal, but perhaps are concerned about another lockdown so don’t want to commit to a full-time member of staff, or companies don’t want to pay full agencies fees for PR support. This is definitely working in my favour, and I’m now booked up with work until the end of the year. Whilst I don’t want to jump the gun, I’m confident that making the move to being a freelancer during the middle of a pandemic, whilst scary, was right for me. “ 

Business as usual  
Sam Burne James: "I was a home-based freelancer for a year prior to lockdown, so to an extent this year has been business as usual for me. I’ve only lost one client as a result of the pandemic – a charity with significant supported and sheltered housing, which understandably needed to plough all its resources into keeping residents safe.  

"I’ve always made sure that no single client – whether direct, or one I work for through an agency – represents too big a slice of my income. I’d definitely advise anyone who wants or is forced to become freelance to consider spreading their risk in this way.  

"You might expect me to be worried that upcoming redundancies will flood the market with freelancers and increase competition. Actually, I’m not. A lesson of the pandemic has been the virtue of flexibility – agencies and clients are rapidly becoming far more open to the virtues of using freelance resources."  

November looks good  
Joanna Drake: “I started freelancing at the start of 2020 after deciding agency life wasn’t right for me any more. The first couple of months of this year were really buoyant, but April to July were tough and I’m fortunate to have some very loyal clients who saw me through. Things have started picking up since August and I’m now looking at my busiest ever month for November. I’m finding that lots of businesses have parted ways with agencies as they sought to cut costs during lockdown. Now, they're looking for a different way of approaching PR, which freelancers can offer. There are also more and more agencies seeking freelance support as they’ve either got staff on furlough or have had to shrink their teams, and they need an extra pair of hands. Whilst freelancing doesn’t offer the financial security of employment, I wouldn’t change where I am.” 

There is no question that this has been a tough year, but at least, for PR freelancers, the future looks more hopeful.

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