WEDNESDAY 3 MAY 2017 11:45 AM

OPINION: PR INDUSTRY ON BREXIT

Despite the challenges imposed by Brexit, the UK’s PR and communications industry is still thriving, says the PRCA’s Francis Ingham

For almost a year now, one issue has obsessed our industry: Brexit. In literally every single meeting I have – whether with practitioners here in the UK or overseas; with in-house members, agency members, or freelance members – Brexit is discussed. And it’s the single biggest issue in the forthcoming General Election.

And with the occasional exception, the messages I hear are pretty consistent. There is concern about the final deal, and what that means for the industry. Budgets are still growing. Organisations are still hiring. The industry’s key challenge remains constant – the need to recruit and retain the best people is our perennial talent challenge.

I’m not underestimating the change that is coming. And I’m not saying that most people are happy about it.

Ahead of the referendum, our polling said 80% of the industry backed remain. Our survey after the vote found nine out of 10 respondents unhappy with the outcome. And in October 2016, when we asked senior practitioners what kind of Brexit they wanted, 86% of respondents said a soft one.

By and large, the industry isn’t happy with where we are going. And yet in the two weeks following the trigger of Article 50, we conducted our regular quarterly industry barometer. We polled agency leaders on client budgets, levels of new business, and overall optimism about their consultancy, industry and the UK economy. All of these indicators were overwhelmingly positive.

When asked about budgets, agency leaders told us that 32% of clients had marginally or significantly increased their budgets, with 52% of client budgets remaining the same. No clients had significantly decreased budgets last quarter.
The industry was also experiencing high levels of new business in the last quarter, with 48% of consultancies describing it as busy, and 22% as very busy. In contrast, no consultancy described the last quarter as very quiet.

Agency leaders were overwhelmingly positive as well: 46% of PR and communications leaders said the quarter had made them more optimistic about their own consultancy. Similarly, 36% of PR and communications consultancy leaders reported that the last quarter had made them feel more optimistic about the industry, while 50% reported no change to their overall outlook.

The industry is booming. And in a way, that’s shouldn’t be surprising, PR exists for times like these. Organisations across the board are making a proper investment in their reputation. And anyone who thinks reputation doesn’t matter should take a moment to look at United Airlines.

But here’s the reality check. The same industry barometer revealed that 52% of consultancies expected the UK economy to worsen over the next 12 months. Brexit and the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing negotiations is still a concern for many. What does the PR industry want? It wants a deal that allows the UK to retain its position as Europe’s most advanced and sophisticated PR and communications market. This means low – if any – barriers to the trading of services, alongside access to the best talent, regardless of which passport a person holds.

The most recent PRCA PR Census showed that five percent of practitioners here are from an EU country, and not in possession of a UK passport. If the UK is to retain and continue to attract talented employees, then the status of non-UK citizens must be resolved as a matter of urgency. That’s a message I hear pretty much every time I speak with agency heads.

The thing we ought to bear in mind though as we think about the future, is that in every year over the past decade, the industry has grown by close to 10%. That is a simply phenomenal achievement. When we talk of difficulties ahead, we do so from a position of strength. And we are secure in the knowledge that ours is an industry whose best days are yet to come.

Francis Ingham is director general of the PRCA

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