Freelance PR consultants have had a tough 2020 but there are reasons to feel optimistic according to Nigel Sarbutts, the founder of Freelance PR matchmaking service The PR Cavalry who we spoke to recently.
Journolink: It’s been a tough year for most people, how did lockdown affect freelancers?
Nigel: Comments in July from PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham offered quite a bleak analysis of the PR agency market and his remarks shocked many
He forecast that approximately 5,000 UK PR people are likely to be made redundant and claimed “The majority of people on furlough within our industry have no idea what’s coming their way”.
The more recent PRCA Census suggested an industry contraction of around 10% in headcount in the sector.
Journolink: Is that still true of freelancers?
Nigel: We have enormous respect for Francis and the PRCA and we are partners to their freelance PR matchmaking service but question whether that grim outlook apply to the freelance PR market as well?
We’d say that freelance PRs have reasons to feel cautiously optimistic.
There are a number of factors at play which suggest that the freelance PR market has reasons to think there are some rays of sunshine ahead.
On workplace absence, we are hearing anecdotally of some companies planning for sickness rates of around 20% in the coming 12 months, which is about three times the norm.
That is a lot of empty chairs and resource that will need filling with freelance PR support.
There is a workplace bubble forming in the shape of holiday requests, that is likely to need freelance support to solve it. The Wall Street Journal recently reported a study of 3000 businesses showing holiday requests are half what they were last year. That’s an enormous backlog of holiday that people are going to be squeezing into the second half of the financial year.
Even if some companies do a deal with staff to pay them in lieu, that is still likely to increase absence in the second half of the year a problem to which freelancers are a solution.
Journolink: Interesting contextual stuff, but what is the position in the UK, in the freelance PR market?
Nigel: There is the data from Google. In the summer months search volumes for a collection of phrases relating to freelance PR increased 25%, indicating strong market interest.
That kind of data was enough for us to put our money where our mouth is and re-start our advertising after a period out of the market when the first lock downs hit. It has produced an increasing number of briefs on our platform and we intend to capture more of these searches from brand owners and clients for cost-efficient, expert freelance PR talent.
Journolink: Does this mean you are calling an end to market turmoil?
Nigel: Definitely not, there is far too much uncertainty and you need a strong stomach to read some of the data on the jobs market.
Some sectors are going to be in intensive care for a long time, but others like tech and some professional services have been holding up well. There is some useful early analysis of consumer spending data on the Bank of England’s Bank Underground blog.
Overall, this is not a time to hang out the bunting and from our research, the feeling amongst freelancers themselves is mixed.
Journolink: OK what are PR freelancers telling you themselves?
Nigel: We sponsor the biggest Freelance PR Group on Facebook with around 3500 members.
A poll we ran in the group in the summer on how work capacity is looking got about 170 replies. Of these, 44% reported that work had already recovered to levels at or beyond where they were at lockdown while 30% said that some work had replaced their losses since lockdown but they were not yet back to where they were.
19% reported that work hadn’t returned to the losses sustained when lockdown hit.
This may seem like a fairly mixed picture hence out caution when using the word optimistic but you have to remember where the market was in Spring when we carried out a survey of the impact of the pandemic on freelance PR incomes.
The results were very sobering:
- Half had already lost over 60% of their income
- Two thirds of freelancers do not quality for support
- Six in 10 freelancers are the main household earner
- Almost half have limited companies so get no support
- Half are considering leaving freelancing altogether
- Until Covid-19 half were forecasting income growth of over 20% this year
Journolink: So what does this lead you to conclude?
Nigel: PR freelancers are agile and resourceful and with the economy feeling its way back with baby steps, the advantages of flexible freelance talent are going to in demand.
The megatrends that are shaping the future of freelance PR work that we have identified have not really gone away and we will continue to do all we can to support the growth of flexible expert PR talent in the market place.
We are biased of course, but when the economy is taking tentative steps to working out what has changed for ever and what is the same, being able to access PR expertise in a way that is low-risk, easy and cost efficient, is going to be more valuable than ever.