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Is PR a better employer than it used to be?

When I first started writing about PR 20 years ago, the industry was not considered to be particularly parent-friendly as long hours were expected and “flexible working” was more of a concept than a reality. Now, admittedly encouraged by the pandemic, working from home is no longer frowned upon and a better work-life balance is encouraged. Below, industry leaders describe how PR is changing, and what more needs to be done.

The good news

Most agencies actually care about their employees!

Vicky Stoakes, communications director at brand design PR specialist Red Setter: “PR has always been an exciting career to be in. But the 2022 version of myself shivers when I look back at the relentless environment I worked in in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The nature of work and the hours expected only suited young hungry execs. Rarely did I see new mothers return to their careers at top agencies and unless they were running an agency, people over the age of 30 seemed to disappear.

“It was normal to see colleagues burn out. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen now, but with PR you have options to find agencies that put their employees first, that will be flexible and understanding and create roles that provide a healthier balance. Some agencies make that focus as core to its values as client delivery. It just took me a while to work that one out - not all agencies are the same!”

Flexible working makes all the difference

David Lawrence, managing director at agency Platform Communications: “The PR industry is definitely a more flexible employer than it used to be, but the truth is that it was starting from a very low base. Looking back 20 years ago, flexible working was viewed as being highly unusual and certainly wasn’t something that was encouraged or particularly common. Even now, you do sometimes still hear horror stories about people working in other places having to get formal approvals to do basic things like going to the dentist. 

“In a modern agency like ours, work-life balance applies to everyone. Everyone has personal priorities that they need to blend with work demands. Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s important that employers engage in conversations about what works for individuals, including supporting flexibility around where and when people work. The best working relationships are always built around dialogue and trust.”

There is more compassion

Rose Allerston, head of sales and marketing at PR agency Smoking Gun: “I would certainly agree that PR has become a better employer in recent years. It’s a legacy of the shared experience of living through the pandemic, when we saw ‘people as people’ like never before. We asked clients how they were feeling, we got to know our team’s personal circumstances, and all of that has led to a kinder, more compassionate workplace.

“Working yourself into the ground is thankfully no longer worn as a badge of honour! As a new parent, I’ve really appreciated more flexible working so I can nail a working day and still collect my toddler from nursery. I’m glad that’s now part of the norm and I’m not an exception.

“The shift has presented some challenges too - because media never stops and PR is 24/7. Those that understand this and willingly rise to the occasion, whilst also knowing their own boundaries, will make the most successful PRs of today.”

Case study

We have a menstrual and menopausal policy

Riannon Palmer, managing director and founder of PR agency Lem-uhn: "PR agencies traditionally have a poor reputation with 90% of PR professionals reporting poor mental health in 2021. However, companies are waking up to this and wanting to work with more ethical and positive agencies. Since launching in 2021, we've found that our positive ethos has been a huge pull for clients wanting to work with us.

“At Lem-uhn, employees work their set hours only and we also have wellness initiatives such as two wellness days provided per year for employees to take a last-minute day off when needed. We also recently introduced a menstrual policy to make life easier for our employees and normalise a natural part of life for half of the world. With this employees can request to work from wherever is most comfortable for them when suffering from menstrual or menopausal symptoms. Lem-uhn employees now also accrue 10 days per year to be used for menstrual or menopausal symptoms or in the case of a miscarriage or pregnancy loss."

There is still room for improvement

Longs hours are demanded

Astrid Cooper, creative account director at PR agency 72Point: “The PR industry can be a real drain on parents. Although many employers are adapting and offering flexible working, deadlines mean you almost need to work out of hours - even when you push yourself to stick to your nine to five.

“I’m a part-time mum, and although I’m fortunate enough to have supportive employer, there is a sense across the industry that almost makes you feel embarrassed for having to clock off on time to pick up your child. I think the industry is paying more attention to its staff and retention than it used to, offering flexible working and benefits, but it’s definitely an industry that doesn’t lend itself well to the ideal work-life balance - where you can completely switch off out of hours. But I think it’s what you sign up for, and you get a huge amount of job satisfaction from completing a project.”

The good news about mobile devices is that you can work anywhere these days. The bad news about mobile devices is that you are almost expected to work everywhere! This is not just a problem unique to the PR industry, but until we have all learnt to switch off, and are encouraged to do so, burning out is a risk. At least it is a risk that is recognised and in this feature we suggest top tips for supporting the mental wellbeing of everyone in PR.

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