Is the PR industry primed to go fully virtual post-pandemic?

e4m asked experts for their opinion on the rise of virtual agencies in an industry that relies heavily on human interactions and relationships

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: Jun 18, 2020 8:14 AM
Virtual Agencies

People didn’t have the slightest hint that Work From Home would become the standard way of working someday. Almost three months into the adoption of new normal, PR agencies have set an example of exemplary work amid the COVID crisis. 

From pitching clients on Zoom meetings to organizing a virtual press conference, PR professionals have embraced the transition seamlessly. It would be quite interesting to witness the rise of virtual agencies in the future. In a profession where meetups and face-to-face interactions are commonplace, will a fully virtual working set up become the norm? e4m reached out to the industry experts to know their point of views.

What will a lack of physical spaces mean for agencies, employees and creativity?

Work ethics have always advocated the need for proper physical, official spaces since time immemorial. Of late, drawing rooms have been converted to official spaces and kitchens to creative corners. What will a lack of physical spaces mean for the agencies, employees and their creativity?

According to Rakesh Thukral, MD, Edelman India, “With technology taking over our lives in the lockdown, as an organisation, we quickly adapted to the new normal. We have been doing our collective thinking over voice and video conference calls. While the internet may not be a substitute for face-to-face interaction, it has helped us maintain engagement levels, during these trying times. Our employees have, almost without exception¸ risen to the occasion.”

He added, “However, one must be conscious of privilege and be empathetic to individuals who may not be in a position to thrive whilst working from home. Space constraints, broadband access, communication disabilities and the job function itself may prevent some employees from being able to work remotely. Organisations need to put in place processes that enable these employees to also contribute meaningfully.”

Amit Misra, CEO, MSL India and South Asia spoke about the backend infrastructure of the agency: “We have not seen any deterioration in the kind of work being done. The backend infrastructure has been very robust and employees have easily adapted to the new normal. The level of engagement has gone up and work has even greater impact and engagement”.

Tarunjeet Rattan, Managing Partner, Nucleus PR said, “While the physical address of an agency always served as resting coordinates, we were rarely in the physical space to make use of it. Meetings, events and media meet-ups took up most of our time. Now that all of this has moved towards a digital connect, it is just a physical space.”

Will going virtual be cost-effective and better ROI generating approach?

Rattan acknowledged that agencies will become more cost-effective. By moving to a virtual set up, creativity is bound to go up and team productivity will also increase as they now have the option of operating within time slots that work for them. 

She added, “As an agency, we already had a WFH option for team members based out of other network cities and post-maternity offer, which was extended to employees who have been with us for more than two years. This has worked out well for us. But I do believe it takes both the employer and employee to make it work. As an industry, we work on the currency of trust and this has to be earned with time and performance. “

Are the PR agencies backed up with optimum technology to go fully virtual?

Technology infrastructure has to be extremely robust to support the ever-growing demand in these unprecedented times. Going fully virtual will need a strong technological base. So, are the Indian PR agencies ready?

Thukral agreed: “We moved seamlessly from working in an office to working from anywhere – since we were equipped with robust technology (even before the pandemic). It allowed us to store our data securely on cloud, have meetings virtually and travel only on a discretionary basis. Edelman had the good fortune of being able to go seamlessly from offline to virtual as a plug-and-play option. All organisations need to equip themselves to be ready for scenarios like the one we are in, where employee safety and health is of paramount importance while maintaining business continuity.”

“Yes. Since we already had an option earlier, it took us only a couple of days to modify it and extend it to all our team members. We have invested in technology and PR tools that will help us be a more effective agency for our clients - virtual or otherwise!  The operational costs, overheads, physical rent etc has now been reallocated to technology. The PR agencies that see technology as an added expense are going to find it very tough to survive to go forward”, seconded Rattan.

Will the pandemic give rise to virtual agencies in the coming future?

The pandemic has established that an organisation is made by the people and not by the physical spaces. It has made us realize the importance of human perseverance and efforts. Lack of office building can be no excuse of not performing to the best of one’s capability.

Agreeing to the fact, Sunayna Malik, Managing Director, India and Senior Vice President, APAC, Archetype said, “We are all well into the new normal. This pandemic has flipped not only our working models but our everyday lives and through it all what has emerged is the adaptability and resilience of our people. We have been focused on ensuring that employees feel connected and supported through this cycle of change with a number of initiatives.”

However, she informed that Archetype will continue to follow a remote working model until it is safe enough to be physically present in the office but doesn’t think a virtual model alone can be a permanent feature. Malik added, “The social and human connect at work is critical from a culture, happiness quotient, people development and employee wellbeing perspective and is imperative for teams to bond and thrive. So we will see a hybrid model emerge, where physical and virtual spaces come together and employees have the option to work both from home and office.”

Thukral also added, “Integration of data, technology, digital to create virtual experiences is going to be the norm, helping brands conduct important events such as launches, key communications online and interact with consumers in real-time.” He stressed on the fact that we must also need to learn to draw personal boundaries for work and play as we step into the brave new post-COVID-19 world with virtual working becoming mainstream.

Misra gave another yet relevant perspective: “Working virtually is still being looked at with a temporary lens. More hybrid work will evolve with physical and remote work co-existing”.

Employees’ mental and physical health has also been the prime focus of agencies. Working at home could be quite stressful at times for managing work and personal life together.

Only time can tell whether the industry is primed to go fully virtual lies, but as of now, agencies have to take lessons from pandemic to rise stronger and wiser.

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