A new report by PublicAffairsAsia and Prospect shows that nearly four in 10 PR professionals in APAC saw their salaries frozen in 2020 while 10 per cent saw their pay slips docked. Worryingly, only half of respondents enjoyed salary increases. When the data set is analysed on the basis of agency compared to in-house, those in the latter camp were more likely to receive salary increases last year. Comparatively, six per cent of in-house professionals suffered a salary reduction next to 17 per cent of agency staff.
The same proves to be true of benefits and bonuses where 67 per cent of respondents across the board said that benefits remained the same in 2020, while 19 per cent reported reduced benefits. However, with work-from-home policies rolled out last year, a renewed focus on work-life balance was brought to the table with 55 per cent of respondents saying they received some form of benefit such as flexible working hours.
When asked to consider overall job satisfaction levels on a scale of one to five, a majority of respondents were middling or slightly above average with only 6 per cent saying they were extremely unsatisfied. But in more qualitative responses, several agency practitioners expressed "concern" about their roles, saying that some clients have been "more demanding" despite smaller budgets overall. Others reported a high workload, leading to a hectic lifestyle. Despite this, practitioners feel "lucky to have a job" due to growing unease about job security and employment risks.
Increased awareness around the comms function
One interesting development through this survey is the increased awareness around the importance of the communications function. This proved to be especially apparent among in-house with 100 per cent of in-house survey respondents noticing a greater appreciation of the value and importance of comms and 71 per cent of agency folk reporting the same.
"Corporate affairs has been included in strategic meetings, group management board level discussions, meetings with the chairman and executive leadership team much more than in previous years," said Lynne Mulholland, director, group corporate affairs, at The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Limited.
And because of this, in-house professionals also say that they have a bigger seat at the table. One chief communications officer of a financial institution said, "Communications expectations are very high. We are now engaging a far broader range of stakeholders and have more connectivity with other business units such as risk and compliance which has deepened our relationships across the bank."
But there's a small downside to this. With the increased recognition of the value of comms also comes greater pressure and expanded responsibilities, oftentimes without enhanced resources. Within companies whose regular business operations were most impacted by the pandemic and the related restrictions, there remains a constant pressure for communications teams to remain visible internally.
Where are budgets being allocated?
When it comes to budgets, while half of agencies surveyed observed an overall reduction in their clients' agency budgets, the specialties that remained in demand in 2020 were internal communications, digital and social media, crisis and issues management, and strategic counsel. Across the board, budgets for events and training were significantly reduced.
"In 2020, crisis communications capability has been 20 times more important and it has been enormously valued," said Adrian Warr, CEO of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand for Edelman. "I've seen a convergence of public affairs and crisis, and more crisis management that has a significant internal communications factor to it. A lot of the crisis management was introspective, and by that I mean the basis for why the crisis needed to be handled was the impact on employees or close stakeholders of the business rather than customers or external factors."
With regards to skill sets, it was clear that the measure of success was the ability to adapt to the changing situation. Individuals with a specific skill set such as brand strategy, digital production and creative strategy, saw a shift in their job function away from experiential events and sustained campaigns to guerilla marketing and social content. Similarly, writing was no longer a standalone skill, as writers were also expected to provide solutions around marketing the content they created.
Plus, the widespread adoption of video conferencing opened up more avenues of engaging with stakeholders, who previously were only willing to participate in-person.
Challenges of team management
One of the biggest challenges of the year was team management with many leaders having to grapple the responsibility of providing job security, managing staff mental health, and keeping the lights on in the business. One regional leader of a global agency said: "Trying to maintain a creative business when the majority of your staff are, quite frankly, depressed is very hard."
Many in the survey responded positively to work-from-home arrangements but leaders say it wasn't an easy process to get used to. Jeremy Seow, APAC managing director, growth and innovation, at Allison+Partners, said that WFH has been challenging. "I have worked at every single level of the agency world. I do miss the social aspect of the work, and the connections I have with co-workers. It's been challenging. Other than sending a pigeon, I've used every single communications channel I can," he said.
But in this area, small and mid-sized agencies fared slightly better. "We had a strong, stable team culture and that was the glue which maintained good work and collaboration in the virtual reality that we are in," said Angela Campbell-Noe, senior partner, Asia, at Tulchan Communications. "Larger agencies which didn't have this culture and had larger over-heads may have found this period much harder."
Respondents at all levels said that the concept of work-life balance has fallen by the wayside as a result of work-from-home. Work life and home life have blended into one, they noted. Working hours have increased in the absence of 'breaks' for commuting, 'water cooler chats' or socialising over lunch.
And in the absence of team spirit generated by in-office comradery, agencies and companies have sought to build a team culture in smart and creative ways such as virtual townhall meetings, karaoke nights, drinks sessions and competitions through social media platforms.
(This article first appeared on PRWeek.com)