Nicky Regazzoni & George Blizzard, Founders of international virtual PR agency, The PR Network, and Co-Chairs of the PRCA Virtual PR Agencies Group, talk about being a virtual business throughout lockdown, moving to remote working and the importance of honesty with staff and clients.
“It’s not always a picnic”
When asked about the advantages of being a virtual business during lockdown, George said, “we were already set up to work like this…we have all the tech at our disposal”. The business was “set up from day one to be very flexible”, Nicky adds. George and Nicky doubled up their core team with clients and both worked full time for the first 3 months of lockdown. They have not furloughed anyone in the business.
“But it’s not always a picnic either”, with childcare being a particular challenge, “you're really juggling”.
"It’s been really tough, hasn’t it…you don’t know when it’s going to end…and I think that’s what is really hard to deal with".
"We’ve really got to know our clients better"
Support and honesty has been important for George and Nicky, both for their core team and network of freelancers. George and Nicky “sent out little care packs to our core team” to show we’re in it together. “Honesty and openness is hugely important” especially if you can’t work.
For freelancers it's a really tricky time. Nicky emphasised how the business “wanted to honour commitment to always pay freelancers on time”. New initiatives, including a “series of training programmes”, including PR-ED Talks (like TED talks) and fitness videos, have been launched through a private Facebook group. These initiatives have been popular and will continue beyond the lockdown.
The lockdown has shown us all “being very human”, says George, adding that being able to share stories and situations has helped “stem a really tricky time”.
"We’ve really got to know our clients better".
Post-Lockdown: "Definitely feel like things are picking up"
In terms of demand, both George and Nicky are beginning to feel more positive.
“I definitely feel like things are picking up…it feels a lot more positive”, says George, adding that “we’re back to pre-COVID” in terms of leads being generated and market interest. “Two of our largest clients have actually unpaused."
As an international agency, both George and Nicky highlight the pick up of business in the UK and abroad, especially in Germany.
Initially during lockdown, services were “COVID related projects”, but George notes that the “media are now much more open to stories that aren’t COVID related”.
"How we can help them respond quickly to a market need in a flexible way"
Flexibility is a key focus for The PR Network in the coming months.
“The budgets we’re seeing aren’t back up to pre-COVID…I think it’ll be a while”, says George.
It’s about “how we can help them respond quickly to a market need in a flexible way…that’s been a big focus for us”.
“We've probably been more proactive” with business activity and going after clients, adds Nicky, noting that they want to service their network of international freelancers.
Virtual Working: "Our argument has been made for us”
George and Nicky have noticed how lockdown has impacted the perception of virtual working across the industry.
Even 5 years ago “we had to explain quite a lot how it worked”, says George. Now “people get it, they know it works”. Being a virtual agency has become a plus for inbound leads, as clients know “we’re already set up”.
“Historically there was a stigma around us being virtual”, Nicky adds. The “sense that we’re a bit of a wild card” is not the case anymore.
George and Nicky both agree that lockdown will see long term changes to the PR industry working practices.
“Nobody would buy an agency just because they have a nice office anymore…our argument has been made for us”, says Nicky. Over the last few months “everybody’s had to work in an effective and productive way”.
“It's Culture first”
As a business operating virtually since 2005, Nicky and George are experienced in how to manage virtual teams.
“I think it's culture first…it has to work for people who work with you”, says George.
“It’s about trust...it’s to try and get away from presenteeism...agencies need to trust the teams are doing great work”.
Both Nicky and George expect to see a move towards a hybrid working model across the PR industry.
“I would like to think agency owners can take the best bits of what’s happened over the pandemic and there’s always a balance”, says Nicky.
Nicky highlights that remote working is not just about the people, but also the office. It might be the office “becomes more fit for purpose for the team and the business that is occupying it…maybe a smaller space, maybe a better degree of understanding as to who’s coming in when and why”.
“You don’t need to be present unless it counts for you and your team members...some aspects of the job are better done face to face”.
“It’ll be a lot easier for a working mum to come back with a flexible role”
Lockdown isn't just changing the way businesses organise their staff, but Nicky says “it’ll impact on recruitment and retention….everyone wants a degree of flexibility on work life and patterns”.
“I’m really envious” adds George.
“From a female perspective…I think it’ll be a lot easier for a working mum to come back with a flexible role...because the test case has been done...really brilliant news for a lot of returners”.