Debbie Smith looks back on nine years as a freelance, including five years as a member of the Comms Crowd.
It seems like only yesterday that I was weighing up what felt like a massive decision. Should I swap my senior role in a national PR agency, with too much travel and time away from home but a guaranteed salary at the end of every month, for the life of a freelance? As I swam lengths in the hotel pool in Turkey on our autumn break, I calculated the sums in my head. If I charged £x per hour, how much work did I need every month to pay the mortgage and bills?
With the encouragement of my partner and my friends I decided to go for it! Nine years on, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I work with interesting clients and encouraging colleagues (who knew that being freelance didn’t mean working alone?) and have discovered a wonderful and supportive small business community in Cheltenham that I never knew existed when I was commuting around the UK.
Here are three unexpected things I’ve learned which have been key to going from zero business to happy freelancer.
1. I really enjoy networking!!
Everyone talks about networking as though it’s incredibly daunting – and sometimes it can be. But when you work from home, it’s important for your mental well-being to get out and about regularly. You also need to keep improving your skills and knowledge, and what could be better than a networking meeting with a speaker on a topic that interests you? If you treat networking as an opportunity to meet like-minded people and learn something new, rather than a hard sell, it immediately becomes something to look forward to. Of course networking groups vary massively; it’s important to be selective and pick the ones that are right for you, but there are plenty to choose from.
I also discovered Local ‘Laptop Friday’ co-working sessions. These continue to provide a weekly opportunity to chat to other freelancers and small business people and bounce ideas around, all for the price of a good coffee.
2. Be bold and reach out to strangers – many of them will help you
When I first started freelancing, I took a deep breath and contacted everyone I thought might be able to help me. One former client put me in touch with two freelancers he used, as he thought they were part of a network I could join. The one I knew wished me luck; the one I’d never met referred me to someone who ran a communications consultancy. Before long I was meeting her for an informal chat, which swiftly led to a fascinating and lucrative project for an international bank.
My work with The Comms Crowd began in a similar way. After reading an interview with Sam, I cheekily emailed her suggesting a coffee. She politely replied to this stranger saying “not yet”, but a year later decided the time was right to meet. As I hobbled into London recovering from a broken toe, I wondered what on earth I was doing, but we immediately hit it off and the rest, as they say, is history!
3. To enjoy media relations, you just need the right clients
Media relations has never been my favourite aspect of PR. It’s partly based on being forced to do the dreaded ‘ring-round’ when I first started and didn’t know any better. And if you’ve worked for an international agency, you’ll know the stomach-churning moment when you’re told that a US executive from a client is coming to the UK in three days’ time and wants you to arrange for him/her to meet key journalists, including national press, even though s/he has no news whatsoever.
However, it’s a completely different situation when you’re pitching thought leadership for clients who are experts in their field and have something interesting to say. You also have the freedom to decide which organisations to work with. If it’s not your area of expertise, or they want the impossible, you can politely say No (and ideally suggest a better approach).
So as I move into year ten, I’m still enjoying media relations and still reaching out to strangers, including those I’ve met when networking – most recently the IP expert I sat next to at a cyber event in early March who turned out to be the ideal person to help a new client in April.
Of course I’m looking forward to when I can actually meet people for coffee again, even though no doubt it will be at a 2m distance!
Marc Duke, head of Influencer Engagement, takes an in-depth look at why even in B2B circles peer review sites matter.
Influencer Marketing, as the name suggests, is about influencing the various people, groups and organisations that are trusted by the buyer or decision maker when making a decision to purchase products or services. One such group are Peer Review websites, where customers leave reviews of recent purchases, and their importance is growing all of the time.
A couple of statistics to back this up:
- Nearly 95% of shoppers read online reviews before making a purchase (Spiegel Research Center, 2017)
- 92% of B2B buyers are more likely to purchase after reading a trusted review (G2 and Heinz Marketing, 2017).
While you may have read a tale or two about fake Amazon reviews and getting friends and family to write about a holiday chalet on TripAdvisor, when it comes to B2B peer review sites things are much more regulated and the process of working with influencer sites is a lot clearer.
To give some context here, peer review sites are most relevant to software providers that are targeting businesses. For example, the adoption of cloud software has increased beyond all recognition in last decade. The Software as Service (or SaaS) market has become mainstream and with it the importance of reading and relying upon peer reviews to inform purchasing decisions has also risen. The reason for this is simple; it’s great to get a free trial of a piece of software but even better if you can read about the experiences (positive and negative) of your peers.
So what peer reviews sites are we actually talking about? Four major sites are:
Before you start to target peer review sites, you need to ask yourself a few questions:
- What categories do they cover?
- Are my competitors listed?
- Are my markets covered?
- Do the sites just generate traffic or also provide leads?
- Do I have the resources to create accurate product and company profiles?
- Do I have the resources to handle negative reviews?
- Does my marketing process enable me to maximise positive reviews/endorsements?
Assuming you can answer all of these questions, you are then in a position to look at working with Peer Review sites. The first thing that needs to be done is create a profile of your company and product/s, which doesn’t cost a penny. Once you have a company and product profile the next step is sourcing customer reviews. If you have happy customers it’s a case of asking them to provide a review of your product in much the same way you would ask a connection to endorse you on LinkedIn. If you don’t have a large bank of customers, you might find that some users will discover your profile.
You also have the option of contacting the account management staff at these sites who will be happy to discuss how to run a reviews programme (how to get reviews on your product page) and ways in which to generate branded collateral with reviews left by your customers to help with your sales process. You will need budget for this, so you have to weigh up the benefits compared to the costs. Just remember that all of these sites want to cover every vendor in the market. so Getting set up will just cost you some time and information so even a start-up should consider peer review sites.
The main benefits of working with peer review sites include:
- Traffic – people can click from the review page to your site or landing page
- Endorsement – some reviewers are happy to be referenced and to be used in customer reference programmes
- Leads – some sites offer ‘click to trial’ so a prospect reading a review can request a demo
- Insight – there is a lot you can learn about your competition.
One thing is for certain – businesses can’t ignore peer review sites as they are increasingly becoming a decision making tool of choice for some customers, and a positive review can help move a prospect from the top of funnel to the bottom. However you look to engage with peer review sites, they are certainly worth considering as part of your marketing strategy.
Sam Howard looks back on the ninth year of The Crowd
So when I first drafted this blog it was along the lines: last 12 months have seen our clients weathering a second year of political faffing, and we saw a fair amount of short-termism and turmoil. But on the upside it did give us the opportunity to assess our strengths and tap into them while developing new services designed to deliver hard returns to the client’s bottom line in such uncertain times. And round about December I was thinking, everything is looking calmer now, we’re in great shape and all set for a steady 2020!
Er yeah about that…
For sure, our remote business model means we are no strangers to the joys of self-isolation and virtual collaboration is not a novely for us but a way of life. But for the industry as a whole, with global travel cancelled and social distancing restrictions wreaking havoc with every family, every community, and every business, let alone the marketing plan… I’m already looking back on those halcyon Brexit days with nothing but a warm nostalgia.
Here’s our year in numbers as more words fail me.
Founder Sam Howard reflects on how it’s easy to forget to talk the talk when you’re so busy walking that walk.
Simply put, our role at The Comms Crowd is to help companies best articulate what they do, how they help their customers, and why they do it better than their competitors. Once we have that position defined, that’s what we roll out in varying engaging formats across the most appropriate comms channels for their target audiences: website, content, PR, social media, etc. We have all built our careers focused on this and only this, so we have become really rather good at it, and as a result we have enjoyed eight years of strong and steady growth.
But then we made the CLASSIC MISTAKE:
We were so busy looking after our clients we fell behind on our own positioning and comms – fairly embarrassing for a comms agency!
Just like the firms we work with, our strengths have evolved over the years, which means our competitive advantage has shifted, and as a result, the type of clients we work with.
In the early days we sported the start-up vibe of, ‘we are small, agile and affordable’ and of course we were, and still are. However, over time we attracted and retained some of the best independent talent in the industry and developed a deep pool of sector knowledge, as well as a wider skill set. And, as a consequence, we have enjoyed working with a much wider range of companies, so alongside our first loves, the start ups, we find ourselves increasingly working with larger firms too.
Yet our website did not reflect this evolution at all… nor our blog content… nor our social feeds.
Having identified the problem, there have been a few long weeks at the keyboard as we overhauled everything from the ground up. Now, our website and all our social content clearly articulate our core value and how we are best able to help our clients. We have created the space to demonstrate our fintech and tech/cyber experience and our comms expertise, and made sure we have lots of lovely client stories to go with.
So now we are all set! Bring it on 2020, we’re ready for ya!
So you’re a B2B Tech firm and your marketing team has agreed that a blog is the way forward (and indeed it is). This is the blog you need to read next. Sandra Vogel, who heads up tech content for The Crowd and ghost blogs for a range of firms, passes on her advice.
So what does a great blog look like? The answer depends on what you want to get out of a blog, so for the sake of argument let’s say you run a business that sells goods or services. There’s a lot of competition for whatever it is you do, and you need to remind people you exist. You use a range of different methods to do this – a blog on your web site is part of the mix.
To meet the requirements of your business, your blog needs to keep people coming back. It’s a tool for you to deliver useful information to existing and potential customers or clients. It’s a way of showing off your organisational personality. And it’s a way of helping people understand more about your products, new launches, upgrades, exciting ideas and plans you have for the business.
That’s a lot for a blog to do. Here are some guidelines for better blogging:
- Keep it short. In general try for no more than 600 to 700 words. People will get bored if they have to read more than that, and you might easily stray off the topic at hand.
- Keep it simple. Don’t try to cram all your wisdom into a single blog. Have a point to make, make it, expand a little, maybe give some examples. Develop your point of course, but be careful not to make things too complex.
- Do you need a call to action? I see some blogs that include a call to action every single time. As a reader I know how the blog will end – it’ll be ‘now go and look at our great product’. If that happens every time readers know a blog is a glorified advertisement. They’ll get bored, go away, and maybe never come back. Calls to action are important. But you probably don’t need one in every blog.
- Connect well with the rest of the site. Do you publish white papers, news releases, new product updates? Of course you do. Tie blogs in so that there is continuity, and so you can link to other resources where possible. Don’t leave the blog out on a limb.
- It’s a good idea to have a forward plan so that you don’t get to ‘blog day’ and sit staring at a blank screen wondering what to write. If you work with an agency – and that’s a really sensible idea – then they’ll help with this.
- Be regular. It’s a good idea to have a schedule. Perhaps you want to put a new post online every two weeks. If that’s what you want to do, stick to it. When you make your plan (above), make your schedule too. Both plan and schedule can change in the light of events, but if they’re not in place a blog is the kind of thing that an organisation can let slip if it is busy. A blog that’s not up to date is arguably worse than no blog at all.
- Look from the outside in. Visitors might not use your product or service, might not know your business at all, might just be passing by. Think about it from their point of view. This can be hard to do in-house. It’s another area where an agency can be really helpful.
There’s another guideline that’s overarching on all of the above. It’s about the writing quality. The tone, writing style, grammatical accuracy and readability of your blog speaks volumes – it’s probably more important than the content. Really. You might have the most fantastic point to make, but if the message is garbled, nobody is going to get to the bottom of the screen.
If a blog is going to work for you, you need to put energy, effort and expertise into it. Writing a blog is hard work, and it is a skill people learn and hone through years of experience. Ensuring that the blog plan and schedule are well managed and that topics are spot-on can also be tricky in a busy business. There is no shame in lacking the skills or the time that’s needed in-house. Bringing them in from outside can take your business blog to the next level.
Lauren Bowden, who looks after FinTech Content Marketing here at The Crowd, draws on her in-house experience to outline the foundations of a solid content marketing plan.
I moved into a content marketing role around six years ago after a decade as a PR practitioner, and while certain aspects of the two disciplines were very similar – story crafting, messaging, creativity, etc. – my eyes were fully opened to the commercial side of the business and how the various parts of an organisation fit together. Earlier this year I was asked to be one of 11 content marketing experts to participate in an eBook on ‘using the content lifecycle to maximise content ROI’. Below is a summary of my contribution, with some additional insight I have gathered recently.
1. Pool your knowledge
The FinTech sales cycle can easily take around 18 months and usually involves a plethora of decision-makers that marketeers need to know all about in order to best target their content marketing campaigns. It requires serious teamwork and buy-in from all key stakeholders, not just the sales team who often are positioned as the only conduit to the client and therefore the main go-to for marketing. Professional services team members have invaluable on-the-ground insight into the daily dealings at client sites, while product management ideally has a macro view of the industry and can point to future trends, so tapping into their knowledge is crucial when devising a content marketing plan.
2. Do your research
It is rare that only one product or solution will need to be pushed to the market through the course of the year and so content marketing plans should be drawn up for each area of focus. Some plans will be more detailed than others to reflect the organisation’s priorities, but at the very least they should cover information on market drivers, solution description, key messages, target market, buyers’ journey mapping, key competitors, challenges, localisation plans and a content calendar. This will take time but always pays dividends when it comes to managing workloads and budget effectively, and ultimately measuring effectiveness over the year.
3. Plan well – but leave some room to wiggle
Budgeting requires you to have a clear idea of the goals you need to achieve in each campaign—goals that have been communicated to and accepted by stakeholders. This does not mean planning and budgeting for every detail of every content piece with no wiggle room over the year. Even the most robust plan and organised team will have unexpected opportunities that are too good to pass up over the year. That’s why it’s always important to have at least a 10 percent contingency built into the budget.
Another benefit of a strong content plan is that it helps you manage supplier costs. With a well-thought-out plan, many items can be budgeted for upfront, suppliers notified in advance about what work you have planned over the year, and packages negotiated accordingly, giving you a bigger bang for your buck.
It is also crucial to keep up to date with your existing suppliers’ new offerings, and to explore the marketplace for other suppliers who can help you execute new tactics. This kind of market scanning is particularly important for in-house marketing teams so they can keep abreast of the latest techniques and methods.
4. Embrace the data
Making sure you’re hitting the right audiences with your content can be a challenge, especially when you are targeting multiple stakeholders who make decisions as a group. When you look back on this kind of win, it’s difficult to pinpoint the influence specific content pieces had on that sale. You’re not going to turn around to a salesperson after an 18-month-long sales process and tell her the real reason she got that deal was because of a video or white paper – unless you want to be laughed out of the sales meeting.
Marketing Technology (aka MarTech) can be your best friend here. Whether it’s CRM, marketing automation or content management systems, they can be crucial in making sure content is getting into the hands of key audiences. With CRM data, for example, you can build up a picture of what is happened during a sales cycle. Retrospective analyses can reveal how many people in an organisation engaged with which content pieces. When it turns out that 12 different people from the same firm have all clicked on multiple pieces of content, or if the person clicked on multiple pieces of content, you have a much stronger case to prove your campaign’s effectiveness.
If the content is not hitting the mark – messages are either not reaching their targets or they are simply not resonating – it’s essential that tweaks are made on the fly. This shouldn’t happen too much with campaigns that are well thought out at the planning stage. However, sometimes you must adjust, try different things and then stay in constant communication with campaign stakeholders to ensure you remain on the right path.
5. Stay curious
Another useful tool to help you dive deeper into campaign effectiveness was shared by Raconteur Media recently. They applied the well-known BCG Matrix to the business of content creation:
Figure 1 Content Creation Matrix from Raconteur Media
The general guidance with this is that you milk the cows to feed the stars. That is, dedicate around 70 per cent of your resources to creating more of your best performing content types, positioning them prominently in the customer journey and optimising the process as much as possible.
The remaining 30 percent of resource budget should be set aside for experimentation. Depending on your appetite for risk, you might split this allocation further between moderate‐ and high‐risk activities.
At The Comms Crowd we can not only help you create winning content pieces but can also work with you to plot those pieces along your customer journeys and find out the best way to resonate with the right decision-makers at the right time. Email us to find out more.
Marc Duke explains the science of influencer marketing:
I am a sports fan, so any sporting metaphor works for me. When I thought about Influencer Marketing this classic baseball reference sums it up and here’s why:
Influencer marketing is about making sure the people who influence your target customer know about your offering. The idea of covering all your bases means you have ‘influenced’ all those stakeholders who influence the purchasing decision, and can endorse or advise in favour of your company over the competition. When you communicate directly with your customer or prospect, you are then pushing on an open door as they have already been positively influenced and are already open to dialogue.
Which bases do we cover?
1) Identifying your influencers
So that’s the theory, but who are the people influencing your customers? Much will depend on whether your business sells direct to the customer or through the channel. Either way, the first job is to map out a set of discrete groups that influence the purchasing decision. Let’s take the example of a company that produces environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient office lighting.
Influencers that make the cut will include:
- Journalists – who write about office environments.
- Industry analysts/consultants – who write about the market and provide ‘behind closed doors’ advice to decision makers
- Academics – who teach about ergonomics and design and need to be aware of the latest trends
- Industry associations – who represent the trade and bring together people who work in in the industry
- Industry gurus – who blog, write and speak about the latest trends
- Existing customers – who use the product/service and can endorse its use
- Competition – who’d rather your target customer used their solution!
- Partners – who you work with to your mutual benefit
- Investors – who have invested in your business
- Charities – supporting greener initiatives
I could go on but by now you should have noticed a couple of things. Firstly, this is a long list (one client I worked with identified SIXTEEN separate influencer groups) and secondly, other parts of your marketing activity already address some of these groups e.g. journalists will be handled by PR and industry analysts will be looked after by the Analyst Relations team.
2) Scoring your influencers
For this example let’s just focus our influencer efforts on the industry gurus. How do we identify them and how do we work out the weight of their influence? Not as simple as you might think, and there is a need for some smart metrics that can evaluate the following:
- Reach – how big a following does this guru have on twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram etc? Does this person have blogs or articles in local publications or globally?
- Relevance – how engaged is this influencer socially e.g. how popular is the content that this person has shared?
- Expertise – from their public activity how is this influencer perceived? For example, have you noticed that they are giving keynotes at major industry events?
Each influencer will need a numeric score from 1 – 10 for each category. Ultimately, we will come up with a final influence score. The idea here is that there must be some measure of influence, even if arbitrary, that enables us to track and decide who indeed is an influencer of our target customer base.
3) Engaging your influencers
Assuming we have done our homework, we will probably have anything between 20 to 50 gurus that we have scored and ranked. But how will we work with them? This is where you need to be totally clear that working with an influencer is about education – NOT selling. It’s about informing – NOT persuading and it’s also about recognising that this influencer is rightly lauded because they might have a better understanding of the market than you, they have more experience than you or they just might be really, really smart!
The sorts of questions you need to think about:
- Is there information you can share that they will value and find of interest such as a white paper on an issue they care about?
- Are there things they can actually help with e.g. taking part in a podcast, speaking at one of your events?
- Do you have people in your company credible enough to establish and maintain proper relationships with your halloed influencers rather than just sell at them?
If you have big ticks to all the above then you are ready to go out there and influence those influencers.
PR pro Alicia Broadest looks at how podcasts are rapidly becoming the favourite child in the B2B maketing class of 2019.
Podcasts are thriving in the UK, nearly 6 million people now tune in each week, according to a survey from Ofcom (September 2018) – with the number of weekly podcast listeners having almost doubled in five years – from 3.2 million in 2013 to 5.9 million in 2018.
While podcasts were traditionally created with consumers in mind, now thanks to the tech evolution, brands large and small are getting in on the action.
They may not quite be the new op-ed, but their soaring popularity has seen many B2B publications introduce podcasts to their websites. Be it paid for ops, interview placements or the opportunity to submit pre-recorded material, the rise of the podcast is certainly opening new avenues to B2B PR professionals like us looking to get clients seen, or in this case, heard.
So should your client be hopping on the podcasting bandwagon?
While podcasts are relatively easy to make, producing and managing a regular branded podcast is a big commitment, and not something I would recommend to any client taking their first steps into the realm of podcasting. Clients need to think realistically about how much time they can dedicate to recording, and the frequency with which they can publish content. The key to podcasts is consistency – if you want to be effective, you should offer something that listeners can tune into regularly.
My recommendation is to make podcasts part of your existing PR and marketing and strategy, complementing other activity. As PRs, we should familiarise ourselves with existing podcasts in our client’s sector, in our case, technology. We should then be engaging with these, and the editors producing them, to establish the opportunities available, such as guest speaker slots, or themes of the month with which clients may be able to get involved. You should then monitor these, and invest time in pitching for slots, or establishing if there are ongoing opps to submit client speakers, or even submit pre-recorded material on a regular basis.
The great thing about podcasts, other than ease of production, is that you don’t necessarily need to duplicate on content as you can utilise written articles as topics for discussion and kill two birds with one stone. In addition, is the advantage of longevity since content can be listened to time and time again.
As PR consultants, we should certainly be looking for opportunities for clients to contribute to podcast conversations (as we do with all other forms of media). It allows the speaker to convey information in a manner much more interactive and engaging than simply words on a page. We should be encouraging clients to augment their PR strategies with podcasts and start honing their broadcast skills in preparation.
Yes you can be in TechCrunch! PR pro Lianne Robinson gives her top tips for making sure your funding announcement gets the attention it deserves…
For any start-up, attracting investment is a significant milestone. It’s not just the credibility of knowing that you’re on to something special, but a signal to the rest of your industry that your business is a serious player in the market with a prosperous future ahead.
At this stage of early growth and investment, being able to PR the news is key and you want to get the best out of the opportunity to get the exciting news out and spread the word far and wide. It’s an opportunity to explain who you are, what your business does and why it’s different from everyone else.
Announcing your new funding not only increases your visibility, but it can also help with recruitment drives, attracting top talent, inviting new investors and driving new business. But with the start-up scene moving at pace right now, how do you cut through the noise and ensure your voice gets listened to? Here are my top tips to securing coverage in top tier publications:
1) Numbers talk – journalists want the news and facts: Its near enough impossible to get any coverage for a funding announcement that isn’t able to include the amount raised. If you can, use the numbers in the press release to illustrate the growth behind your start-up and how you plan to use the funds. Afterall, this is the ‘news’ you’re promoting.
2) Include as much information as possible: Who are the investors? Are they private, institutional, private equity? If funding was secured in earlier rounds, be sure to mention this too. It shows a continued confidence in your business and tells the story so far.
3) Company background: Clearly articulate what your company does and the problem you are providing a solution for. Who are the founders, what is their background and how big is the company? Explain what the money will be used for – it could be new hires, further technology developments or product development.
4) Validation: There is no greater endorsement than being able to quote one of your investors. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the lead investor but having an investor voice in your press release will add an enormous amount of credibility. They should talk about their reasons behind the investment. It might be the management team’s capabilities or a desire to be part of a growing market. You should also include a quote from your company founder or CEO alongside this.
5) Get all your ducks in a row: Once the press release has been written and signed off by all necessary parties, it is important to come up with a game plan for announcing the news to the market. It is far more effective to spend time getting all the materials and content in a good place rather than rush to get the news out there too quickly. Slow and steady really does win this race.
6) Where do you want to be: It’s likely to be vertical trade press that will be the most interested, but you might also find that technology press, investor magazines and start-up publications are where you need to be. Ask your PR agency to make a list of the titles they think you should be targeting to check you’re all on the same page. Between you, agree which titles should be targeted as a priority and which ones can follow. It’s important to use the announcement as an opportunity to build existing relationships with the press and establish new ones.
7) Consider your outreach strategy: Will it be far more effective to reach out to one key publication with an ‘exclusive’, or should it be sent far and wide to lots of different publications? Pitching the story exclusively to one key publication in the first instance does risk alienating others who might have otherwise covered the story, reducing the likelihood of widespread coverage. But it does normally mean that in return you will get a more thoughtful and comprehensive article.
A recent funding announcement from our client Urban Jungle resulted in us securing an exclusive article in TechCrunch who broke the news first. As a top tier title for the disruptive InsureTech, Urban Jungle were thrilled to be covered so extensively in such a key title and we still managed to generate 24 other pieces of coverage on the same day by sending the release far and wide once TechCrunch had published their story.
8) Timing is key: Simple things to consider – will your key spokespeople be around when the announcement is made? If not, consider holding off until they are back from holiday or more available as any interviews will need to be done that day. Does your company have any other news that it is likely to come out around the same time? A drip feed effect is far more effective than an avalanche of news in a short timeframe. Space the news out where possible and go with the most time sensitive first. Finally, keep your ear to the ground – if you catch word of a competitor announcing news around the same time, consider jumping in before them or waiting until their time has passed.
9) Shout from the rooftops: Well, social media will suffice. Use your social media platforms and networks to spread the news and share links to any articles through Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Encourage your teams to do the same. They should be proud of the company they work for and want to share the exciting news.
10) Keep the momentum going: Securing funding is a huge accomplishment and once it’s been announced everyone will be keen to get on with the job at hand. But don’t forget to keep the market updated on your progress. Announce any new senior and significant hires that have come on board. If you have enhanced your technology platform or are now offering new products, tell people! Use the captured interest in your company as a platform to keep going. Once you have established a voice, don’t be afraid to use it. Ultimately you want to position the senior leaders of your company as leading authorities in the market so you need to optimise every opportunity to do this.
PR pro Debbie Smith looks at the evidence as she considers whether the four day working week is a realistic goal. Could it give regional agencies an edge when it comes to recruitment?
We’re currently seeing conflicting reports about optimum working hours hit the headlines. On one side of the divide are companies who’ve successfully introduced a four day working week, and those who are trying (and in some cases failing) to implement unlimited holiday. On the other is the head of Chinese internet giant Alibaba advocating 12 hour days, six days a week for those who want to be successful. It’s apparently a well-known trend in China, where it’s known as 996 (i.e. working 9am-9pm, six days a week) and is common in the country’s rapidly growing tech industry.
Why is this relevant to PRs? Because our sector is at the forefront of the struggle to find the right balance between work and personal time – and that’s not the just the always-on culture where we check our work messages all the time, but actual working hours at our desk/laptop.
In November 2018 PR Week reported research showing that 27% of PRs are working overtime on a daily basis, more than double the proportion (12%) of the average British worker. Apparently the average UK PR practitioner will work two full days (15 hours) every month on top of their scheduled hours – 24 days’ unpaid work a year. And that includes freelancers – we’re joint second in the overtime stakes, alongside agency group account directors but not quite as bad as agency CEOs and owners. This is having a serious impact on staff well-being.
Fortunately, alternatives are now emerging in the agency world. I recently went to a talk by the head of a Gloucester PR agency who has introduced a four day working week without reducing pay. He says that as a result margins haven’t changed, while sick days have reduced (down 75% in the first six months) and staff are happier. He pointed out that Fridays were largely spent collating results and reports, and technology means this takes less time, so the day wasn’t very productive. As I remember the days when preparing a coverage book really did mean ‘cut and paste’ with scissors and glue instead of using apps like Coverage Book, and we had to look journalists up on paper lists such as PR Planner, I agree he makes a good point!
Dig a little deeper though and it’s not as clear cut. PR means deadlines, last minute journalist requests and the occasional client crisis. What if these happen on a Friday? The Gloucester agency uses WhatsApp groups for each client, which have enabled them to handle anything urgent, and the MD admits that he ‘feels the benefits less’ than his team. This of course means that, although you are free to do other things on a Friday, you can’t be far from your phone. And the MD is putting in extra hours – which no doubt the head of Alibaba would say was perfectly natural! The agency has also reduced actual holiday time by 20%, lunch hours to 45 minutes, and staff will work on the Friday in a week where there’s a bank holiday Monday. To use a cliché, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
However, while this initiative has its pros and cons, I think it’s a welcome change and shows an agency prepared to move away from the culture of presenteeism which has been a big part of PR for many years. I’ve seen it in both London and regional agencies. There were the husband and wife owners who phoned the office from their holiday late on a Friday afternoon to make sure we were all still there – and we were, but the lack of trust didn’t exactly create strong loyalty. So when they got the time difference wrong and phoned at 4.15 rather than 5.15, we took the call and then promptly all went home! And the big London agency where you were expected to be at your desk well into the evening, when the head of department would then open a bottle of wine as a kind of reward, and where an application from an Orthodox Jewish candidate was rejected in part because they would need to be at home for Shabbat dinner by sundown on Friday, which in winter would be mid-afternoon (this would now be illegal).
As a freelancer, I’ve chose to step away from traditional working hours and inflexible holidays to achieve a work-life balance that suits me. This doesn’t mean I automatically work shorter hours, but I can aim for a balance that meets my financial, professional and personal needs. As Lianne pointed out in a previous post, good relationships with like-minded clients helps. For them, the benefits of working with an experienced freelancer outweigh the occasional absences and the emails sent late at night (although my tip is to draft them and save them, then press ‘go’ first thing in the morning!) And working as part of the Comms Crowd freelance collective means I can take holidays to remote places knowing that our clients will be well looked after. For example, a recent fracture meant I couldn’t make an overseas trip for a client, but a colleague stepped in and delivered great results.
We can’t all be freelancers, but I hope that discussions of four days weeks and the importance of a good work-life balance to mental health will make traditional agencies think hard about their inflexible approach. Perhaps it’s most applicable to regional agencies – as the Gloucester agency head points out, his margins are higher than those of a London agency, which no doubt was a factor in making his initiative work. This could be a smart move for other regional agencies, who often struggle to recruit staff, and the catalyst that finally moves PR from its stubbornly London-centric base. After all, the days when you needed to be in London to meet journalists face to face are long gone.
Most of all, I hope this empowers PRs to challenge traditional working practices. We’re a creative industry, so we need time to step back and recharge our batteries if we’re to deliver the best results.