Gareth Thomas, Managing Director, UK of PAN Communications, speaks about the "biggest challenge I’ve had in my career" managing the COVID-19 lockdown and his ideas for how virtual working could shake up PR job opportunities.
“It’s been brutal”
“If you rewind back to the start of it, I think it caught everybody off guard, nobody was expecting this to happen…certainly in the London office, we got hit pretty hard and pretty quickly”.
“Tech has perhaps been a bit more resilient, if you compare it to hospitality or travel or something like that, but without a doubt we’ve experienced client losses and client reductions just like everyone else”.
Gareth explains that many of PAN’s early stage businesses in tech and healthcare sectors have been impacted. “Some of those brands were reliant on funding that very quickly evaporated and probably reacted more quickly to what lockdown was going to be in terms of cutting budgets”.
“They were absolutely heartbreaking decisions”
Gareth describes the lockdown period as “brutal”.
“We’ve certainly lost revenue here in London…we lost that quite quickly. That unfortunately led to consequences…to try and control costs”.
“We furloughed staff, we ended a lot of our contracts with contractors that we had working for us. We’ve had to scale the team back a bit”.
“I can talk about that stuff right now with a little bit less emotion…at the time when we had to do those things, they were absolutely heartbreaking decisions”.
“Our US colleagues I think obviously were impacted but not quite as quickly and not quite as hard as we experienced in London”.
“The market is getting a bit better for us”.
“It’s been kind of helpful talking to other people”
“It’s been kind of helpful talking to other people in the industry who’ve been quite open and honest about this as well. I don’t think it was helpful in the early days when there were quite a few people saying ‘we were unaffected by these things, we don’t need to do this and that’”.
“It’s been the biggest challenge I’ve had in my career...it also means the reward getting through this…will be the biggest achievement of my career”.
“Us becoming part of PAN Communications…probably couldn’t have come at a better time. Anybody who runs an agency knows it’s sometimes quite lonely at the top…you bear the weight knowing everything that’s going on…so actually for us, having the benefit of colleges in the States, who were ultra experienced to lean on, that was really helpful to me personally”.
“In terms of the team here in London, we had to walk that really fine line between try to be really transparent and open and honest, but also trying to shield people a little bit, trying to protect people from what frankly was a constant stream of bad news….not unnecessarily worrying them, was a really fine balance”.
“It’s forced our teams to really hone our skills”
Lockdown presented varying challenges for Gareth’s team when working with clients. “We also had some clients, like everybody, who behaved maybe not quite so well and were difficult to deal with”.
“The ones that have worked in real partnership with their agencies during this time; I think that will be really remembered by the team members and will pay dividends for them as we come out of lockdown”.
When asked about the impact of lockdown on client relationships, Gareth emphasises the increasing importance of measurement and scrutiny. “It’s speeded up this process that the industry is going through by demonstrating the value of what we do, not just in giving data about it but explaining our value in a way a senior board member will understand…it’s forced our teams to really hone our skills in that area”.
“We tried to replicate what we would do in the office virtually, very, very quickly”
Gareth credits the team in the States for initiating remote working across PAN Communications. “We began working remotely a week or two weeks before the lockdown came...I was kind of like, do we really need to do this?”.
“We tried to replicate what we would do in the office virtually, very very quickly”. Gareth explains how the UK team still does a “stand up huddle” every morning. “Getting that real, regular, everyone talking together as a team was really really important”.
Social activities were also organised, including virtual “quarantine drinks at the end of the week”.
“It began really well but then actually we had to take a break from it because in the heat of lockdown they were zoomed out”.
When asked about returning to the office? “We’re not in a major rush…we probably won’t be back in the office until the back-end of this year”.
“I’m trying to make sure we don’t look at this through the lens of maybe older senior managers, we think about the junior staff”, he adds, explaining how different members of the team will have different lockdown experiences, especially concerning living accomodation.
Gareth hints at plans for a more phased approach to returning to the office. “We like to do things as one PAN” - referring to the team over in the US.
“You get a huge amount of value from an office.”
Gareth doesn’t see fully virtual working as permanent practice. “I don’t think that works for us…you get a huge amount of value from an office”.
But Gareth also acknowledges the benefits of having virtual capabilities. “It’s opened my eyes to probably doing more of that”. He recalls hiring a senior member of the team during lockdown who hasn’t met a single member of the team in the flesh (apart from himself and his co-founder).
“What surprised me is how we’ve been able to onboard that person, and understand him and what he’s about, and his personality and how he’s become part of the culture at the agency”.
“We’d had 387 applications for that one position”
Gareth is particularly aware of the impact of the pandemic on careers and recruitment in the industry, including the impact of virtual working for juniors, with no “over the shoulder coaching”.
He recalls the response PAN Communications received after recently putting out an advert for an Account Executive (entry level) position. “On that Saturday we had 40 applications…4 days later, we’d had 387 applications for that one position”.
“It completely flipped the relationship between employers and candidates”.
“On one hand as an employer I go, fantastic…we can get at least one person who is going to be brilliant, on the other hand it deeply saddens me because it shows you quite just how difficult things already are particular for people who are trying to get into this industry at the entry level”.
“I’m sure that is a reflection of lots of people being furloughed, or being made redundant, plus of course you’ve got graduates coming on the market right now who are struggling to find opportunities and work.”
“One of the consequences of that, that worried me…where you start to see the rise of unpaid internships…which, by and large, the industry has done really well to get rid of.”
The Rise of Unpaid Internships?
Gareth recalls the response from a couple of unsuccessful candidates that he wrote to after the application period.
“Their immediate response was ‘look, I’m prepared to work as an intern, I’ll work as free, I’m prepared to do anything, I need the experience’. And I was like - that’s not good, that’s really not good, because that doesn’t serve the industry well or those individuals”.
“I really hope that the industry as a whole resists the temptation to misuse that power that employees now have, which is the ability to pick and choose from a far wider pool of candidates.”
Gareth says PAN Communications will be restarting internships on a paid basis and apprenticeships will “certainly be something we’ll look at again”.
Gareth also explains how virtual working could help to diversify PR recruitment, especially in early stage jobs.
“If we continue to work in this remote way…it levels the playing field”.
“Somebody who might not be able to begin by living in London and commuting into London may be more able to take a remote internship, for example. That’s something that we’re looking at”.