June 25, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Alternatives to the traditional 9-to-5 office-based PR workplace model

Alternatives to the traditional 9-to-5 office-based PR workplace model

Media Bullseye recently ran a post about changing PR hours, which examined some of the problems that arise when a standard workweek culture clashes with a 24/7/365 media environment. Among the problems examined in that piece, a few stand out: long hours and high stress leading to high turnover, a billable hours model that doesn’t serve clients or PR firms well, and, most importantly, a mismatch between standard business hours and “always on/ever responsive” expectation.

Although most larger agencies have stuck with the standard business model, there are signs that the PR workplace is evolving. A handful of firms are entirely virtual, with no set office headquarters. Others use a mix of traditional office work and occasional remote work for full-time employees, with a team of trusted subcontractors to arrive at the combination of teamwork, talent, and availability they need to make clients happy.

The All Virtual Firm Model

To make an all-virtual PR firm work, there are two crucial elements: employees who can thrive in remote work, and clients who value results more than a fancy address on letterhead. Neither of these elements is quite as simple as they might seem.

Public relations firms know that they need talented employees, and the biggest asset that an all-virtual PR office can offer a client is that they can—quite literally—hire the best applicants they can find, anywhere in the world. As long as that employee has reliable internet access and a reliable computer, many of the tasks associated with most PR work can be accomplished.

There’s more to being an effective and happy employee than internet access and a computer, though. Challenges for remote work employees include:

  • Depending on how far-flung employees really are, managing client teams across many time zones means that opportunities to connect in real-time are rare, and conference calls might need to happen at odd hours.
  • Employees need to know themselves very well. Do they really work best alone, or do they need more daily human interaction to thrive? Working remotely means that you will be on your own much of the time. For some, this is heaven, for others it can quickly begin to feel isolated.
  • Time management and productivity: we all have certain times of day when we are most productive, or execute certain tasks better than others. Knowing when you do your best work, sticking with that, and being able to communicate that effectively with other team members takes thought and effort. A virtual PR firm needs to have excellent internal communications; this takes work.

In short, the success of an employee in a virtual PR firm will rest heavily on his or her ability to do great work while being largely unsupervised on a day-to-day basis—which means that the hiring process needs to ask the right questions of applicants.

On the second point—the clients—there are probably still some people out there who find the idea of a totally distributed workplace “weird.” Work is where you go someplace else, away from your home, with other people who are also away from their homes. While this attitude is changing, there will likely always be some holdouts who are resistant to working with a PR firm when they know that there isn’t a physical office where all employees are together. The reasons are probably varied: some like the idea of hiring a big firm with many offices across the globe, others won’t trust that employees working from home will be efficient. It’s worth noting here that virtual PR agencies have eliminated a significant overhead cost by choosing not to lease or purchase office space, and that means that a virtual agency might end up being a better value, with greater talent on offer.

The Flexible Firm Model

Another alternative to the traditional firm is emerging, and it seems to be an organic response to some of the issues mentioned in the agency hours piece. Essentially this model takes the traditional agency approach of having a physical office space, but instead of hiring a large staff to provide a full range of services, it specializes and then hires subcontractors or freelancers as needed on a project-by-project basis. This allows the firm to have maximum flexibility when considering new business pitches.

One of the debates that has been considered within the PR industry, at least during the last five years and maybe longer, is the role of specialists versus generalists. A PR firm that adopts a model of a core of full-time employees bolstered by a network of trusted subcontractors can pull together a team that best matches a client’s needs, which could change from one engagement to the next. If a new client is a global company, the firm can put together a global team. If an existing client has a new project that will require app-building expertise, there’s no need to hire additional team members for this specialized work that may (or may not) be used in the future for other clients; the firm works with a subcontractor to fill this role on the project. If there’s a need for a writer who has experience in a specific industry sector, a trusted freelancer will be tapped for that part of a project.

As alluded to above, this model is also better able to weather peaks and valleys in client work, without the morale-killing and paranoia-inducing rounds of layoffs a large firm might feel the need to make. The main attribute of this model is the ability to quickly respond to changing market conditions and changing client demands relatively seamlessly.

Ultimately, changes in what clients need from PR firms will dictate how PR firms respond. Some clients will prefer the traditional model and cachet that a big firm can provide. Others will find that the virtual model works well for them, or will feel most comfortable with the flexible firm model. Finding the right PR agency for a company will be a selection process that includes assessing the skills and abilities of the firm, and making sure the culture fit is right for both parties.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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