The pros and cons of technology in PR: Finding a balance between being connected and being overwhelmed

Like many people I am addicted to my smartphone, and for those who work PR, is it possible or even wise to ever switch off? The problem is finding a balance with being connected and being overwhelmed. Here comms professionals discuss the pros and cons of technology and reveal how they manage to keep as much of a balance as possible.

The pros and cons of tech

It stops ‘proper’ conversations says Liz Gadd, co-founder of recruitment firm Moxie&Mettle: “For sure, technology seems to have taken over and most of the successful people I know in the sector have pretty much 24-hour access to social media, emails and online work scheduling/project management systems. In fact, it’s totally seen as the norm for all levels to have all their client accounts on their mobile phones and an expectation of an instant reaction to posts and news. Honestly, I don’t think it’s healthy; but realise that in many cases it’s part of the job and essential. However, my biggest concern is the lack of importance of face-to-face interaction, or at the very least phone conversations. It’s just so much easier to make yourself memorable when actually meeting and forming a human relationship, which makes the ensuing and inevitable tech comms all the more meaningful.”

It’s bad for your mental health adds Gadd: “I think it’s really sad that for many of the PR professionals I know (and others of course), the catch up on social media and emails happens within minutes of people waking up, and is the last thing that’s done at the end of the day; that in itself can’t be good for your mental health when the information received isn’t always positive!.”

It is a tyrant says Bob Geller, president of agency Fusion PR: “The sad truth is tech is a tyrant. Sure, it can and does help; and it is hard imagining a world without it.

“The danger is spending too much time immersed in tech and going down rabbit holes. We can be endlessly distracted by the software and devices that surround us. They sap our attention and focus”.

It also poses ethical questions Geller believes: “Many fall into the trap of spending too much time self-promoting and building personal brands with social media at the expense of the client or employer. And it can pose ethical dilemmas as social media gives ways to target, deceive and inflame audiences.” 

It helps us to be better people – Geller points out one of tech’s benefits: “It helps when tech augments our human qualities and helps us be better PR people; such as when it automates reporting, aids listening and reporter/influencer identification; and provides endless tools to help us be on top of our games with content and media engagement.”

It’s up to you to make it positive says Arthur Perkins, author at broadcast agency Shout!: “The rise of technology and the way it has impacted on our working life can be viewed as a positive and a negative, but the way in which you interpret it, is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s negative, tends to be someone else’s positive. It is just how you interpret the use of it, if it is a pro or a con for you.

“For example, in recent years we have seen the rise of flexi-working and remote working, with increased shared office space and more flexibility around conceived working hours. Some people like to work from one place and for a set number of hours, where others like to work on their own clock and some in their own space, people have had increased autonomy on their working life to dictate productivity, many find this effective, others don’t like change.

“People can now always be connected and have the ability to work anywhere, at any time. Some would argue that this means that we can never switch off from work, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Others would argue that this allows us to always be either contactable or in the loop when we have to be away from the office.

“Used correctly and not religiously, technology can be harnessed to increase overall productivity and awareness, but everyone needs to remember to take a break once in a while!”

Tips for switching off

Take a break says Elena Davidson, CEO of agency Liberty Comms: “As a working parent, my smartphone allows me the flexibility to be able to see my children as well as work. Yes it has its downsides of meaning I am always contactable, but the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives. I think it is a personal choice which also comes down to balance. As we often tell ourselves – it’s important to have everything in moderation – so if you feel your smartphone is dominating too much, take a step away and take a break. That way you’ll be able to reap the benefits without having to suffer the pitfalls.”

Set strict rules says Hannah Patel, director at PR agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry: “Although I hate to admit it, I definitely have a blurred line between what I ‘have’ to deal with and what I could leave until the next day. I now have two self-imposed rules – no phones at the dinner table and (unless it’s an emergency) no phones at all after 9pm if I am at home. I stick to both with varying degrees of success, but I have given my husband, family and friends full permission to shout at me when I don’t. 

“I only have one phone – combined work and personal, but this means that often work and personal time merge into one. 

“I think especially if you have multinational clients, or international offices (we have both), then you can’t religiously switch off entirely after traditional office hours. But the key is being able to determine whether you need to deal with something that crops up immediately or whether it can wait. Learning to hold back, can actually be much healthier for you, and for the person who has contacted you. I’ve seen clients and colleagues working across different time zones problem solve very effectively in instances when I haven’t replied instantaneously. So my 2019 new year’s resolution is to spend more time ‘in the moment’ and less time staring at a screen. I’m

typing this on my smartphone, at 9.30pm at night – so as you can see, I’m not doing very well so far!”

Make time for some proper conversation says Lee Bassin, executive producer at communications agency TVC Group: “As someone who creates video content, technology has allowed me to film things in a way I never thought possible 10 years ago. But when it comes to the other parts of my job, too much tech can be a bad thing.

“How many times have you sent an email when you could have picked up the phone and called someone, or sent an internal email instead of having a wander to your colleague's desk? The simple act of talking to someone can brighten your day and break up the monotony of staring at a screen.

“So my advice when it comes to technology is to take advantage of its many benefits, but try not to lose the art of conversation! “

First person

Rob Tomkinson, founder of agency Carrington Communications, and Firgas Esack, publicist at The Hoxby Collective, discuss their own personal relationships with technology.

Rob Tomkinson: “How I’d like my relationship with technology to be, and how it is actually is, are often poles apart. I crave tech-free time, but my smartphone is rarely out of my hand. The fact that you can keep all parts of an agency running from your phone when you’re out and about is just too handy to stop doing once you’ve started. For us, and probably other young agencies too, it’s all we’ve ever known.

“The good news is that everyone I speak to, at work or home, is struggling with the same thing. I take a few steps each day to keep my tech addiction under control; flight mode at night, no phones during dinner, lunchtime walks, reading physical books before bed, and screen-free time with my son. Nothing groundbreaking, but it works.“

“No PR agency can afford to ever disconnect completely anymore (perhaps they never could). Plus, instant messaging means we can easily slip back into ‘work mode’ at home – not to mention out-of-hours emails! Making sure everyone feels comfortable taking real downtime away from work when they need it is probably a good place to start.”

Firgas Esack: “I work in the PR division of The Hoxby Collective. We are a global community of freelancers, working together as a traditional agency might (in client teams, with project leads, etc) but remotely. Hoxby's workstyle means that its community can work from any geographical location, at each individual's preferred time. This makes the collective a lifeline for digital nomads, working parents, those with additional needs, carers – and more – but also creates a motivated talent pool, as everyone works the hours that they choose. 

“I personally very often call journalists whilst out walking my dogs – as being part of the Hoxby community doesn't involve working from an office. Actually, this morning I made a few calls whilst sitting in the supermarket carpark, with my son asleep in his seat – which is less inspiring, but you get the idea.”

Whilst writing this, I have been switching between three different devices, checking emails, texts and social media updates. So if my distraction means that this feature is not as it should be, it’s outside of my control, as I said at the start, I’m an addict!