A job? A business? A lifestyle?
About the author
Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
It’s an implicit truth that all public relations work must involve more than one person. So the default setting for public relations roles might be assumed to be in teams.
But it’s never been true that a few large teams have dominated the world of public relations in the way that, say, the ‘big four’ firms do in business services. The UK’s largest employers of public relations practitioners are surely the Government Communication Service (GCS) and the National Health Service (NHS), though the latter in particular is highly fragmented rather than centralised.
It’s much more typical to work in small and versatile teams. This is true in-house, where people may turn their hand to internal and external comms and might be expected to have some expertise in public affairs too. Meanwhile consultants are always juggling the demands of multiple clients and a new business pipeline.
Success in public relations roles usually leads to promotion to managerial roles. Managers rarely give up doing completely, but they are expected to have oversight of others and to be responsible for people and budgets, and for reporting upwards.
When working for the larger consultancies, with their holding company ownership, there’s a remorseless pressure to hit financial targets. Some flourish in this role; yet more hanker after the creativity and buzz of a more hands-on role.
So rather than teams inevitably becoming larger, there’s a counterbalancing trend for people to seek renewal by starting over again.
Ours is an entrepreneurial business. Careers based in one organisation are untypical; instead, there’s a flow between working for one employer, between setting up in business or most flexibly a sole-trader.
I’ve worked for consultancies and also in-house, and during a ten year period as an independent practitioner I took on a succession of short-term in-house secondments (often as maternity cover). In retrospect, this was the best of both worlds.
For this overview, we’re looking at three examples of people with different backgrounds and with different levels of experience taking a distinctive and entrepreneurial approach to their working lives.
After 17 years at Hotwire (latterly as Group CEO), Brendon Craigie has left to start a new consultancy, Tyto. His business partner also happens to be his wife, Ellen Raphael, and their family home is in Spain, even while the business is London-based. Tyto reflects this with the ‘PR without borders’ tagline.
One of Tyto’s consultancy partners is David Clare, who works from Lincolnshire to ensure a better work-life balance for his family (these concerns affect men as well as women).
You might think starting a pan-European consultancy business with London at its heart just as Britain finalises its exit from the European Union a risky choice, but there’s an inexorable logic to borderless thinking that’s driven by business, media, money and technology, if not by politics.
In one of Brendan Craigie’s first posts on the Tyto website, he describes the technology they use to foster close teamwork and client relationships, even while adopting remote working.
Travel, office politics, an unsympathetic management culture, a deadening routine. There are many reasons to leave and set up on your own. Starting out is easy; sustainable success is the challenge.
So Rachel Miller’s new series reflecting on five years as a sole trader (AllThingsIC) is valuable and insightful. In the first part, she discusses starting out – including how to find work and make money.
‘Regardless of how you set your company up legally – e.g. sole trader or Limited Company, there are lots of other things to consider e.g. company bank accounts, VAT registration (if applicable) and branding. But, one of the most important things to do is communicating the fact you’re available for work.’
She credits a supportive husband and discusses the challenge of starting out in business just as she was starting a family. The business is five years old – and she now has a five year old daughter and three-year-old twin sons.
According to Rachel, blogging is both a shop window for the business and a one-woman brainstorming exercise for making sense of the world.
‘I’d been writing it for four years before launching my business. As an ex-journalist, writing has always been an important part of my work. It’s how I express myself, work out loud and make sense of the world around me.’
So far, we’ve focused on how experienced practitioners can use what they know to start up or start over. But a more flexible approach to working is open at all levels.
Michaella Biscomb only graduated with a public relations degree last year (2017), so she’s at the start of her career. But when others in her year are pursuing graduate opportunities in London, she stayed in her home city and has already set up on her own, positioning herself as a ‘Freelance PR, Social Media and Marketing professional based in Leeds.’
Though she’s a fresh graduate, she has five years of consultancy and in-house experience gained through work placements (including a paid placement year at Welcome to Yorkshire.)
We have introduced three examples of different ways of working flexibly. There’s little that Tyto, AllthingsIC and Michaella Biscomb share in common in terms of their experience and approach. The unifying factor appears to be the way technology enables remote or freelance work, and the way that blogs and websites can act as a level playing field between large and small teams.
We hear a lot about business uncertainty and the rise of the gig economy. This suggests that smaller teams and independents might be better placed to survive than larger teams, with their higher salaries, larger fixed costs and traditional models based on retained monthly fees from clients.