FRIDAY 12 MAR 2021 2:14 PM


The PRCA’s director-general, Francis Ingham, talks to Communicate magazine about post-lockdown boat parties, plans for a US network and how the PRCA supported the industry through the past year.

What support and resources did the PRCA give to PR professionals during the pandemic?

We realised there was a need for a sense of community within the industry and people actively wanted to help one another get through this. We put together our Covid-19 Communications Taskforce, led by Tony Langham of Lansons. From seven founding practitioners, we soon had a group of 100+ committed people. To ensure the Taskforce wasn’t a talking shop, we set up a free consultation service so any PR leader, anywhere, could get advice on how to get their agency through the downturn. In November 2020, the Taskforce published an 18,000-word crowd sourced report, ‘How To Recover Fast From The Pandemic’, with insights from 70 industry leaders from 24 countries. Over 40 communications leaders asked for advice and were matched with an adviser and webinars reached an audience of 1,500 people.

We offered free, no questions asked, individual membership to any PR professional who’d lost their job or was a freelancer who’d lost income, 214 people took this up. On the training front, delivered free training to anyone who’d been furloughed or was a freelancer who’d lost income. We quickly pivoted to virtual events, and made them all freely available to members and non-members. We recorded more than 10,000 YouTube views for 140 virtual free events in 2020. The largest conference attracted over 750 live attendees. We were accepted as the PR industry’s gateway organisation for the Kickstart job placement scheme. We’re now on tranche three and so far 200 roles have been created for young people on Universal Credit. We opened up our free legal helpline, normally member online and made it available to anyone in the industry. We launched the #PowerOfPR campaign to inspire optimism, prompting support for PR professionals around the world, and published research showing 82% of companies viewed PR as critical to protecting reputation. I had weekly calls with the cabinet office and still do. One element was critiquing their comms strategy, the other element was providing feedback on what was happening to the industry and how they could be supportive.


Why was it important for the PRCA to take that central role and communicate with the government?

We are the biggest PR association in the world and our industry was at a moment of crisis. If we hadn’t stepped up then, what would have been the point of us existing? I am really proud of all the things we made available for free, the legal helpline, the events, the training, the membership and so on. We made it available for free at a time when we were in a terrible financial position. I used to get a daily update at how much money we had in the bank and when we’d go bankrupt and at the worst point it was 5 weeks. So it was quite a brave decision to make lots of things available for free, rather than chasing every last penny. But, actually it really work and we’ve got more members now than ever in our history. We sold more training in January than any other month of our 52-year existence and the industry is increasingly positive. Lots of people look back and remember we did our best to help them when they needed it and hopefully they’ll keep remembering that.


Have you seen a rise in freelancers after Covid-19?

Yes, definitely. When it began it was quite sudden and companies went into save every cost mode. Initially that involved getting rid of lots of freelancers because there simply wasn’t enough work for them. About two thirds of our members made use of furlough, it saved lots of companies. When the furlough programme kicked in, the use of freelancers started to rise again just because of that flexibility. I do calls everyday with our members across the world and about half of them are recruiting for permanent roles again but they’re still making more use of freelancers than they were a year ago.


What do you think, if any, are the any lasting changes to the PR industry?

The short-term impact was of course negative for basically everybody. With a handful of exceptions, everybody felt the pain of this, about half of our members made redundancies. But now about half are recruiting again, so it’s been a rollercoaster. The short term impacts were terrible and there are some on-going issues in the industry – mental health is a real problem, in the country as whole, but certainly in our industry there’s the problem of people at the beginning of their careers, the cutbacks in graduate entry programmes, the difficulty of inculcating somebody into a corporate ethos when you’ve never met them, and the loneliness.

In terms of the changes, its accelerated trends we’d already seen for years. Companies really understanding the importance of comms and reputation, that’s been really crystallised during this period. The increase in digital is obvious and there’s a shift that’s been accelerated away from advertising towards PR. I saw the IPA Bellwether report about a month ago, PR was the least affected of the creative industries. I was on a call this week with fellow leaders of associations and we are in a far better place than almost everyone on that call. So long term, its actually going to be really good for the industry, you can recruit from wherever in the world and this will hopefully make us more socially diverse because people won’t have to pay those big rents to live in London. So as long as we can address the remaining issues of mental health, of companies getting back into profitability, then the impact of Covid-19 will be, and it sounds awkward saying it, in the medium and long term a positive for the PR industry.


How is the PRCA preparing for a post-lockdown world? 

There are bits of the new service proposition that are going to stay. We’ll continue to do majority of our events virtually, or in a hybrid format because we just get so many more people. We had an event the other day with 450 people and it’s truly globalised us. We always had international plans and we’ve got PRCA Middle East and North Africa, PRCA Southeast Asia, PRCA Latin America and we’ll be launching a PRCA US network and PRCA African network as well. We did an international conference that had 800 people there and we timed it so that everyone in the time zone had an opportunity to join in. So conferences will be overwhelmingly virtual, with a couple of exceptions. The training offering, we’re going to go to a hybrid model, where most of it is virtual.

The one bit that hasn’t worked for any of us has been awards. We’ve done loads of awards, I’ve been a comparé on some of them and some were done on twitter – it’s not the same. We have the DARE Awards in the summer and we’re going to do them physically. We are getting quotes to do a boat party one week after lockdown ends, so we hope to have the first big industry party. We will change our model, we got rid of our office – we will get a new office. There is a need for that physical contact, between colleagues and those creative moments. So we will be getting a new office and I expect people will be there two or three days a week.