Surviving and thriving in PR

Surviving and thriving in PR - Claire Murphy on how PR practitioners can develop more healthy and sustainable ways of working.

We’re on Twitter @WeArePRoofed so come and let us know what you think of this chapter of #FuturePRoof. 


You’ll learn:

• How to identify the difference between good and bad stress
• Solutions for dealing with ‘always-on’ syndrome
• Ways to encourage assertiveness and conscious collaboration within a team to reduce over-work and burn-out

Many PR agencies and comms teams survived the lean years by asking more of their people. Now is the time to ask - how can we develop more healthy and sustainable ways of working?

No one gets a job in PR or the media looking for a quiet life.

It can be a real buzz to be at the centre of a developing story. Or watching Twitter as an idea that originally emerged from your team catches the collective imagination and sparks across the screen.

A bit of stress is good for us in this respect – energising and sharpening our cognitive functions.

But what happens when stress overtakes the fun element for those in communications? When it starts to feel that the news juggernaut, weight of client/management expectations and relentless waves of digital chatter are crushing you?

PRCA research last year found that almost half of PR people are more stressed than they were a year ago, with over a third reporting that they’d experienced mental health difficulties like depression or anxiety – significantly higher than the 25% of the general population who say the same.

Stress can arise from both external and internal sources (often, these influence each other).
Conflict within a person’s self, irrespective of what is going on around them, can prompt problems. For example, a need to please, instilled from someone’s early relational experiences, can clash with their need for adequate relaxation, nourishment and freedom.

Add on external factors and this can result in staff feeling increasingly distressed (but often desperately trying to maintain an outer façade of resilience). 

What’s the most important thing you can do to minimise this kind of staff burnout? Let them know it’s OK to ask for help.

Let’s look at two issues specific to working in PR that can elevate stress levels and a few suggestions that can to help alleviate the pressure.

1. Reactivity (AKA Surgically Attached To My Smartphone Syndrome)

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for PRWeek [1] on the dangers for PR people of being ‘Always On’. 

It attracted one of the biggest responses from readers I could remember. Most people agreed that PR people were only really off duty when they were sleeping (and sometimes, for those working on global businesses, not even then).

The ubiquity of the smartphone means there is nothing to prevent PR people from being always available. Over the years I’ve heard some colourful examples of this, from the comms director who juggled cooking the Christmas turkey for her family with handling a corporate crisis, to the freelancer who was still taking calls while in the early stages of labour.

But this isn’t just about handling crises – the ease by which you can access social media with the smartphone means that many PR people are constantly scanning the digital horizon. 

What might have begun as a way to fend off corporate threats has in many cases become something verging on addiction to seeing the freshest posts, blogs and tweets about the brand which you are guarding or developing. A PR-specific #FOMO (fear of missing out) [2].

This has a variety of implications. Friends and family can tire of playing second fiddle to a fascination with the screen. This is particularly significant for all the senior women who leave the industry when they have children.  

A lack of ability to have any boundaries between work and leisure can impact on your ability to hold the boundaries in other aspects of your life. And it can also lay the ground for some chronic anxiety disorders because habitual checking breeds a feeling that digital disaster is around every corner.

So what’s the answer? Clearly the digital world is not going to get slower anytime soon and PR people are employed to help their clients/colleagues navigate it. 

One potential solution has emerged from a research study at the Boston Consulting Group [3]. 

Researchers found that many workers felt like they were permanently on-call (sound familiar?). They compared this with doctors, who at least have times when they are officially off duty. So the BCG workers were encouraged to work in teams to arrange tasks so that each one of them had at least one evening a week of ‘Predictable Time Off’. 

Results were clear – job satisfaction rose sharply and clients noticed no difference in service.

2. Agreeing to (and then trying to achieve) the impossible

“No” is a dirty word in PR. 

Most Account Executives pick up the idea pretty quickly that their success seems to hinge on whether they can deliver the comms equivalent of the moon on a stick should their client/boss require it. I even heard of an agency once that was called “Yes”.

Not that I’m knocking the kind of ambitious, tenacious positivity that makes your client/brand famous. A can-do attitude often gets you very far in PR.

But sometimes, unrealistic demands can get pushed down the PR foodchain out of a desire to keep a client happy, or an inability to take the time to reflect on the wisdom of the task (i.e – “I was really hoping that we could get the cover of the FT with our widget launch”).

Crucial questions of whether a particular piece of coverage/strategy/media target are appropriate, effective or realistically possible given restraints of time and budget are often lost in the melee.

This has obvious implications for agency finances and brand strategy. But less obvious are the effects on the wellbeing of the person who has to vainly attempt to hit this target, while knowing it is either unattainable or ineffective. Having no control over your work tasks is a frequent cause of stress.

One way to head off this syndrome is to facilitate a culture of assertiveness within your organisation. 

In cult US political TV programme the West Wing, the President’s advisors would encourage new colleagues to ‘tell truth to power’ – i.e tell the President they believed he was wrong – in the interests of democracy. You can take a leaf from the book of Bartlett et al by empowering staff to know that sometimes, it’s OK to say no.

I can hear an industry-wide intake of breath. This isn’t about telling clients where to go in a fit of pique. Neither is it about encouraging ambitious graduates to protest about a task that they deem too dull.

But it is about being OK with the concept that people can question what is asked of them, backed with some guidance on how they should do that. They could start by asking themselves these three questions:

• Can I (possibly with help, or by stretching myself) do this?
• Do I have, or could I make, time to do this?
• Will I/we be paid adequately for me to do this?

Three no’s in answer to these should set some alarm bells ringing and prompt a referral to a manager for support.  Maybe you’ll still conclude the task is worth doing. But the time taken to reflect on it sends an important signal to your staff that their wellbeing is important.

Encouraging assertiveness in your people and some conscious collaborating to ensure everyone can be ‘off-duty’ are two ways that the PR industry can start to tackle mental and emotional overload.

Making this work in PR isn’t simple, as a culture of ‘busy-ness’ has developed in many areas as a by-product of all the cost cuts of the past few years. But it looks worthwhile as a long-term way of #FuturePRoofing the wellbeing of the workforce.


Claire Murphy is a writer and counsellor/psychotherapist, seeing clients near Kings Cross and in Kingston-Upon-Thames. She spent over ten years as an editor on PRWeek.

Twitter: @clairedotmurphy