We are very lucky that our head of tech content Sandra Vogel is also a working journalist, as it helps keep all us PRs on our toes. Here she shares some journalist pet hates – forewarned is forearmed.
PRs try their hardest to achieve success with every pitch. Journalists spend significant parts of their day reading pitches, and working out what is and is not useful to follow up.
For both parties it can be a bit of a battlefield. For the journalist there’s never enough time to triage an inbox. For the PR there are never enough successful placements of a pitch.
There are ways PRs can up their pitching game – and perhaps the first place to look for clues on strategy is identifying things that annoy journalists so that these can be avoided.
Here are six things that can annoy a journalist – and obviously enough, they are six things a PR might want to avoid.
One email is enough. If you’re going to send a follow-up, wait a while. Wait a couple of days. Sending a follow-up within hours is not going to win you brownie points. If several PRs are working on an account, make sure only one of them sends email to a particular journalist. Journalists don’t want or need to receive multiple copies of the same email from different people.
As for follow-up calls, tread carefully. “Did you get our email about….” is not a good way to go. If you sent it, the journalist got it. If you are going to follow up do so with more information, a new snippet of interest. Don’t give the task to a junior who may know neither the journalist not the subject matter. Follow-up calls are part of your journalist relationship building. Use them rarely, use them wisely.
2) Inappropriate addressing
I don’t want to receive emails that start “Hi, Vogel”, “Hi [name]”, “Hi Andrew”, or anything else that’s not, “Hi Sandra”. But I do receive them. Even though I know this isn’t personal, it annoys. For some journalists it will result in immediate hitting of the Delete key, before the main point of the email has been reached.
3) Media database errors
If you’re taking the personal approach and set aside time to check a journalist out and reference their work, then make sure you get it right. I’ve had emails that start something like “I really enjoy your work at [website], and I wanted to run an idea by you”. OK. But if I’ve never worked at [website] alarm bells ring.
This can cause a journalist to decide in a split second that whatever comes next it’s not relevant to them, and spark another quick reach for the Delete key before any further words are read.
4) Spelling mistooks and word-related offences
Journalists are writers. I know, talk about stating the obvious. But the point is that they are therefore highly attuned to spelling, grammar, and other word-related matters. Emails and pitches that have not been through a spell checker, or those where the grammar and syntax is poor, won’t get much traction. Not everyone is a super-wordsmith. But nobody that can’t write a proper sentence or pay attention to a spellchecker should be let loose on journalist emails.
5) Errors in accompanying documents
Accompanying documents include things like press releases and report summaries. In late February I received a 2021 press releases dated 2020. Seven weeks into the new year. Oh how the PR and I laughed. I’ve also had press releases and report summaries with tracked changes left in them. These can be amusing and informative, but sometimes the tracked changes can be a bit near the knuckle and embarrassing for the PR and their client. The PRs don’t laugh quite as much then. I am afraid an email request to “please delete without reading” is sent more in hope than expectation.
6) Jargon and weasel words
Any pitch that claims what’s on offer is “unique”, “groundbreaking” or “game-changing” gives itself a lot to live up to. Usually it can’t meet the highfalutin claims, and a journalist will not need long to confirm that. Tread carefully about what you claim in a pitch. The watchword here is to show not tell.
Related to this point is the overuse of a range of words that just set journalists’ teeth on edge. Here are a few: showcase, synergy, disruptive, next-generation, revolutionary, innovative, DNA, passionate.
It might be hard to avoid using words like these, but many journalists just find them lazy ways of expressing your ideas. Avoid.
It’s not too difficult to find out what irks journalists. Just ask a few of those your own agency values and respects the most and you’ll get a good strong list of annoyances. That’s step one. Step two is doing something with what you’ve learned. Onwards!
Tech PR lead Debbie Smith looks to balance the more subtle benefits of earned media against the instant gratification of the click through…
So you’ve just achieved two great pieces of coverage for your client. You send them the links and pat yourself on the back. Then you get a reply from their SEO expert: “But one piece doesn’t link to the website at all, and the other only has a link at the bottom.”
They go on to explain that for SEO purposes it’s good to get links, but ideally these links would be towards the top of articles to increase click-throughs.
Resisting the temptation to throw your coffee at your screen in exasperation, you take a deep breath and explain PR 101: the difference between earned, owned and paid media.
This is not the only time I’ve had to explain earned media in recent weeks. So I’ve been thinking about why the question is being asked. Although it may seem glaringly obvious to those of us who’ve spent our careers in B2B PR, perhaps the convergence of different channels has muddied the waters for some marketeers?
It’s not that PRs don’t understand the value of SEO and the value of obtaining links back to the client’s site, it’s simply that earned media is first and foremost the tool to build credibility, increase brand trust and manage reputation.
First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about.
- Paid media: you pay for visibility or reach through advertising, advertorial, PPC or affiliate marketing. So you have complete control, but it’s the least credible. Ultimately you are paying to get your audience’s attention.
- Owned media: includes your website, your blogs, your newsletters and your social media channels, where you control both channel and content. This is ideal for education and demonstrating thought leadership. So no money is changing hands but it’s still you explaining to the world why you are so great.
- Earned media: third party objective endorsement, i.e. someone else is talking about you as an expert, and no money has changed hands. This includes media coverage obtained through PR, where a journalist has covered the story because in their view it’s newsworthy, not because you’ve paid for the coverage. To obtain this you need strong content, whether it’s a product that’s truly innovative, an opinion which provides new and informed views or a piece of thought leadership – which is where owned thought leadership content is valuable, as it can be repurposed for PR.
The great benefit of earned media is the credibility it brings which the other two routes can’t provide.
However, the downside of this is that you don’t get to dictate to the journalists where to put a link back to your client’s site, or indeed if one is there at all, depending on their editorial policy. You certainly don’t go back to a publication and ask for a link to be added or you’ll be promptly referred – with a few choice words – to their advertising department, and they’ll be unlikely to feel inclined to write about your clients again.
Where it gets blurry is when earned media becomes ‘online word of mouth’, including shares and reposts, content picked up by third party sites and media developed through partners and influencers.
Say you post on your company’s LinkedIn page about your new blog (owned) or latest piece of press coverage (earned) – when these are shared, they are both ‘online conversations’, even though the content has originated in different ways. Are posts from partners truly earned, or based on a mutually beneficial relationship i.e. owned? And while tech and fintech analysts (i.e. influencers) review products and provide editorial independence, the ASA has taken many so-called consumer influencers to task for not making clear when content has been paid for.
There’s a tendency to class all click-throughs as equal. Perhaps that’s true for buying trainers. It also makes reporting more straightforward! But in the world of B2B, the clicks driven by third party objective endorsements are surely the most likely to generate real interest and preference.
The journalists we work with pride themselves on their editorial integrity. A discussion on a journalist and PR social media group this week made that abundantly clear. So they’ll only cover material that in their view has earned its place on their websites. And we’ll continue to focus on obtaining that earned media, and other third party objective endorsement, as well as on generating the strong owned content that drives it. We’ll celebrate when journalists write about our clients because we know there is more to building credibility, increasing brand trust and managing reputation than including a back link.
Where we sit in the digital marketing mix
FinTech PR lead Chanda Shingadia recalls the days of the editorial calendar when features where spoon fed and compares that to how our skills have evolved in order to still be part of the conversation today.
Pitching has evolved in different ways since I started working in PR over 17 years ago. Back when I was a sprightly and eager account executive we spent hours calling and emailing publications at the end of the year to get their upcoming editorial calendars. These editorial calendars were an integral part of our PR programmes and many of us would trawl through these to see which features would be relevant for our clients and ensure we pitched for them in advance of the publication date.
How times have changed. Only a handful of publications now create these editorial calendars and those that still have them chop and change the features around. A lot of this has to do with many print publications moving to online platforms. They are therefore not tied to advertising and can be more flexible with their themes and topics which are more relevant to current market activity and world events.
So if the mountain isn’t coming to the prophet… then we have to get proactive with our pitching.
Reading around the subject, working out where the sweet spot is, where our clients can add value to the debate of the day and then distilling this down to a succinct and compelling pitch – that’s where a decent PR demonstrates their worth.
Proactive pitching and good relationships with journalists are more important now than they have ever been to ensure clients are still getting their spokespeople in upcoming features and articles that the journalists are writing. Relying on forward features lists simply won’t do and speaking to key journalists that are relevant for your clients on a regular basis is imperative. We like to check in with our journalists to see what’s their focus and suggest a proactive topic that might make a good feature or contributed article idea that fits in with their thinking.
As the industry and media landscape evolves, our job as PRs doesn’t get any easier for sure, but being a more intrinsic part of the editorial process is a reward in itself.
Asah Adolphe joined us for the month of July 2020 as an intern, and many of the team were involved in giving her some experience of different aspects of our work. Debbie Smith, head of tech PR, volunteered to guide Asah through exploring how different media report a story. Below you can read the result, which reminds us that we all need to read the media with a healthy dose of cynicism.
“I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.” The Duke of Sussex discloses that his wife has been a target in the UK media.
When Meghan Markle became the Duchess of Sussex on the 19th May 2018, she resembled a progressive, fresh addition to the royal family. However, despite the Duke and Duchess of Sussex choosing to step out of the limelight since, the media has definitely not passed on the opportunity to keep tabs on the couple, especially the duchess. But why has the majority of the British press chosen to take an opposing stance against her?
Meghan has unfortunately faced significant media invasion ever since Kensington Palace released a public statement back in 2016 where Megan was referred to as ‘Harry’s girlfriend’ for the first time. This is where the international press had a field day and the negative media attention began.
To explain the scrutiny that she was experiencing in an ITV documentary interview screened in October 2019, she admitted that “it’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes…” During this interview it was clear from Megan’s facial expression that she was struggling under the constant media attention and her actual words clarified this to the public. Evidently the attention had been a strain on the couple. Prince Harry expressed that this has been a familiar situation for him as he had watched his late mother experience the same pressure from the media. He claims: “Every time I hear a flash it takes me straight back – it’s the worst reminder.”
Different sources have taken sides on how to sell their viewpoint of the couple, but this has been considered more than just harassment. The couple have taken legal action in the past to sue the Mail on Sunday newspaper as they stressed that ‘This behaviour destroys lives.’ The treatment towards Meghan was and still remains malicious and they would go as far as to describe it as ‘bullying’.
Newspapers like The Sun seem to have chosen to focus on negative aspects of the couple’s lives ever since they stepped back from their royal duties; almost as though they are trying to create the narrative that since they are no longer ‘a part’ of the royal family everything has gone downhill for them. This is prevalent as they construct headlines like ‘Amazon slashes the price of Meghan and Harry’s book before it’s even released’. They have even accumulated the phrase ‘Megxit’ as a reaction to the pair choosing to leave the royal family for financial and personal independence. Even the words that they implement in their articles and headlines imply that Meghan is the dominant partner in their marriage by using harsh, negative language when writing about her.
In comparison, newspapers such as The Guardian publish a variety of articles that depict them in an impartial way and tend to stick to the facts of the event that occurred. Different news outlets seem to report the same story but lean towards one side or another in order to sell their narrative. After all, controversial topics and sarcastic phrases do sell.
Evidently the UK news sources have chosen their viewpoint on the couple, but it makes me wonder: if she were white, would they continue to portray her in a controversial way? If she were less opinionated, would they persist in treating her like this?
In the past it has been inferred that the press does not appreciate opinionated women. A prime example would be Gina Miller, as she stood up for parliamentary democracy by fighting against the government. Despite twice leading legal challenges against the government and winning she has had to pay the price with constant media attention and even suffered online abuse and death threats against her and her family. As we can see, there seems to be a pattern of behaviour in terms of how the media treats opinionated women.
As the couple have left their royal duties, are their lives still newsworthy?
Recently, articles are being circulated about Meghan as it seems that most of the British tabloids aim to keep up with the Sussexes, especially their little bundle of joy Archie. The pair made their own lifestyle choice to have independence from royal obligations with the approval from the Queen, but there seems to be a continuous cycle of pointless headlines. For example, The Mirror published a piece with the headline ‘Meghan Markle left beloved dog in Canada as he didn’t like Prince Harry’. In my view this is not a significant topic that the public needs to know about. It is more of a personal experience that is not required to be shared publicly.
Therefore, I believe that it is imperative to remember that news sources are very influential and possess the power to manipulate the public into thinking in particular ways, whether implicitly or consciously. It can affect an individual’s life both positively and negatively, but in Meghan’s case negatively.
Tech PR Katrin Naefe suggests taking a step back before embarking on a thought leadership comms programme.
So you’ve got news …
Yes, which PR consultant hasn’t heard this one before: “Our new [insert latest product name here] is the best/biggest/most efficient/etc. …” If it really is: congratulations. You will be able to leave your mark on your industry and be remembered for this innovation. If it isn’t: you will still be able to contribute to the market with a product or service that your customers will appreciate and which will, in all likelihood, enhance and complement your and the market’s existing product offering.
Now the new product is finally ready, you’ll want to give it all the support possible to get sales off the ground quickly. You have done your research and know exactly which products you are competing with and who your target audience is. Now all you need to do is advertise your product and issue a press release. Can it really be that simple? It rarely is.
New technology products and services are being launched every day. Marketing messages promising all kinds of benefits flood your target audience on all channels. How can you make sure that your message is heard and noticed over and above the general chatter? By leveraging your position as an industry expert and thought leader.
Thought leadership is not created overnight. Take some of the most eminent experts in your field of specialism. What are they known for? How long have you been aware of them as industry experts? Where have you heard about them? Do you know them in connection with one specific product? Probably not.
True thought leadership is based on industry expertise, not just product knowledge. You know your market and how your product range fits. You are probably very aware of a number of vertical sectors in which your product is being specified and their particular issues. Take advantage of this knowledge and you take the first step on the road to thought leadership.
It is extremely important to be honest with yourself and your communications team about whether your product is a true first and really unique in the market or not. It will harm your thought leadership standing if advertised as such when it really isn’t. If it isn’t unique, concentrate your messaging on other important features and how it fits with existing technology and improves it.
Take a mental step back from your product and the sales target figures it is supposed to achieve soon after launch. Consider the wider industry and the impact your technology can make on this environment. Perhaps there are solutions in development that will make a difference in a few months or years? Are you aware of the latest relevant scientific research?
Preparing the ground by establishing thought leadership takes time and effort. But, once a reputation is established, it is much easier to maintain it with regular communication and information and will benefit you and your team in the long run.
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.
We look at how podcasts are rapidly becoming the favourite child in the B2B marketing 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.
Our 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! We give our 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 we pointed out in our 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.