Executive Editor of PR Week
Like all industries, the marketing and communications world has been flipped upside down from COVID-19, and agencies and in-house brands are being forced to adapt and rethink almost every aspect of their business. To help shine a light on these changes, we’re joined by Frank Washkuch, executive editor of PR Week, where he talks about some of the big themes and trends he’s following.
Frank, first thing’s first: how are you holding up in the current environment?
Well, thank you, knock on wood, family and friends are healthy and hanging in there.
Companies in all industries are adapting to a remote work setting, and discussions about the future of the workplace have gained considerable momentum. As an editor, how are you dealing with this rapid shift and what opportunities/challenges does it pose for media companies?
Sometimes you have to throw out news plans several times a day in good times when you’re sitting near your colleagues, so working from home under stressful circumstances requires a lot of communication and organization throughout the day.
I do a lot of nagging, in other words.
There are unique challenges, of course, for our colleagues who focus on print content and who work on events, some of which have become virtual events. Many publishers have grown their events business in recent years, and so it’s an area a lot are dealing with and figuring out.
Though it’s worth noting that reporters have always been good working remotely, so this shift hasn’t been a complete pivot. Often my colleagues and I would be on the road attending an event or reporting from a conference, so we’re used to the challenges and requirements that come with being out of the office: tight deadlines, filing stories from other cities, interviewing people via Zoom, etc. In some ways, folks in the media have been better prepared than others since remote work has always been a part of how we do our jobs.
You covered the PR industry during the Great Recession, so this isn’t your first crisis. What are some of the similarities and/or differences you’re seeing in the communications field between now and 2008?
A few differences immediately stand out. The Great Recession was a dire financial crisis before its effects were felt across the economy at large, whereas with COVID, some of the firms that have felt the most pain are in sectors such as travel and tourism.
Second, while the Great Recession was dire for sure, it was economic. Now, employees are worried about their jobs and their health, as well as the health of their relatives, while juggling the unique nature of working from home. And, of course, those who are parents have practically taken on a second job at night. So, to put it as simply as possible, it’s a lot, for everyone.
Based on your conversations with agency executives and in-house leaders, what are some of the main themes and takeaways you’re seeing in the communications field?
Broadly speaking, there have been layoffs across the major holding companies, many clients have pulled back on consumer-focused marketing and there are no events. But there is an increased demand for corporate and crisis counsel. And of course, there’s not enough aid for small businesses, including agencies, to go around.
One area we’re watching is that with more and more PR firms venturing into marketing and creative services, how are they creating content remotely and how is this process adapting? For many agencies, these services are fairly new and not as well-honed as traditional offerings such as earned media or internal comms. So, it’ll be interesting to see them manage these new efforts while being apart.
And another big theme is how the industry will handle the issue of mental health. The shutdown has completely altered the work/life balance, with many employees working long hours and doing so among strict self-isolation. Over time, this can create some troubling trends – especially in areas like New York City that has been hit hard by COVID-19 – and it’s an area many companies will have to deal with. It’s been promising seeing some industry voices talk about this and we expect to see an overhaul in how agencies and in-house PR folks go about their day, whether it’s moving to a 3 or 4-day work-week or assigning mental health days to help employees unplug and take time to recharge their batteries. Changes are already underway.
What are you reading and/or listening to while you work from home? Any other activities to maintain a healthy work-life balance?
Some really boring advice: It’s important to maintain routines as much as possible, which for me means early runs when it’s easy to social distance.
I’ve finished “The Only Plane in the Sky,” by Garrett Graff, which is an incredibly well done oral history of the September 11th attacks. I’ve become a fan of the late singer Charles Bradley. I haven’t gotten nearly as much clearing and reorganizing done as I promised, but, and this might be related, I’ve gotten better at Football Manager.