“Our industry has come of age in these 6 months” - Jim Donaldson - CEO of FleishmanHillard UK

With 250 staff based in the UK, Jim Donaldson provides an in-depth insight into managing lockdown at scale. From keeping team culture with virtual working to establishing new innovative virtual services for clients. Jim also provides us with an insight into what trends he thinks will be promoting change in the PR industry more widely.

“We were 10 to 20 percent of the way there”

“We were surprised at how easy the move to home working was. One of the main challenges we had was in how to keep everyone engaged. So, we put a lot more focus on the separate teams, who would each hold their own regular catch-ups.”

With regard to whether virtual working was new to FleishmanHillard, “I suppose we were 10 to 20 percent of the way there, which helped. We felt we were going to move in that direction more and more in part to allow people the freedom to focus when they were working. But coronavirus made us move forward with this agenda at some speed.”

“Emails aren’t allowed to be sent from 8:30 pm to 6:30 am”

“There have been phases during the lockdown… at the beginning, it was about making sure everyone was well and that people were connected. We wanted to be over-communicating, both on a macro level but also in individual teams.”

“Around May, it became clear that we were going to be working virtually for the long haul. By this stage, we’d had a couple of good months - we didn’t see a huge fall off of revenue.”

“But then a new set of challenges came in. We have a very flexible work culture, where people are given the freedom to fit their work around daily tasks eg. looking after children, or, going to the gym. But one of the consequences of this was that people looking after young children would be working incredibly odd hours. This meant that email traffic would be sent off at strange hours of the day eg. 9 pm, not allowing for people to decompress.”

“A month ago we put some new rules in motion where emails are not allowed to be sent during a specific time period, such as 8:30 pm to 6:30 am. We also made Wednesday afternoons a time for intense work, not allowing for meetings to be scheduled in so people could focus.”

“We found that people were working more. There weren’t points in the day where you could have a small break by sharing a joke with a colleague, as you would do in an office. So the second phase, once we realised that our business was okay, was about trying to get a new rhythm in place for people.”

“One of my colleagues said that work had invaded the home. Where in the past you would have a work premise and a home premise, which would sometimes merge. Now work is in the middle of your home life, and that can be disturbing.”

“This was the recession where PR/comms was not the first to be chopped”

“The early signs of trouble for us were when some of our consumer marketing clients, before lockdown, started to pull back. We knew that was going to be a challenge for us. But our healthcare work has been strong throughout. We also had a lot of work around employee comms.”

“Another interesting, broader point, is that this was the recession where PR/comms was not the first to be chopped. Having been slightly behind in April and May, our consumer marketing clients started to come back in June. This is because they now know that they’ve got another six months of this, and need to start doing things differently.”

“The advertising market has shrunk over the past couple of months, and I think it’s because companies are finding different ways of communicating to customers. Turning to areas like PR, digital and social media comms.”

“When we go back, we will not be the same office who left in March”

“I think the reality is that we will be for the short term, a predominantly virtual organisation, with the office being a place we could meet should we need to. We’ve had a few requests to do pitch meetings online, which is definitely a change. People who do want to go to the office, miss human interaction. It may be that smaller teams start to go in, but we’re far away from 250 people being back in the office.”

“When we go back, we will not be the same office who left in March. We’ve had people join us whilst in lockdown. It’s certainly one of the biggest managerial challenges I’ve faced with 30 years of experience in this industry.”

“Our industry has come of age in these six months”

When asked about trends which will change the way the PR industry works, Jim says geography will play a huge role. “One of the big questions is what will happen to the hubs of firms who are currently based in the West/ East Coast of the United States, London and Hong Kong etc. Will they get bigger and more strategic? Or, will you start to have diversification of talent? This might be piped into a central hub and sent all around the world?”

“This has also been such an earthquake for working habits. I think our office will turn into some kind of pop-in hub. This will change how we will work with our clients and how we work for ourselves. Our industry has come of age in these six months.”