My Top 10 PR Red Flags To Pay Attention To 🚩

I have been babbling about pitching for talks and accepting podcast invitations recently, and that’s for a good reason. For a long time now, I’ve spoken about my poor experiences within the digital PR industry, and the messages in my DMs tell me that sadly, I’m not the only one to have felt the way I do. In fact, from talking to a number of juniors doubting whether the industry is for them, I’ve realised we need to put a stop to whatever the hell is going on, and fast.

So, I’ve made it my personal mission to try and change the way that junior PRs are treated as they enter the industry, and how they can help themselves too. This begins today.

Soon, I’ll be appearing on the Azeem Digital Asks podcast to chat about this some more, and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to speak even more about it in the future too (yes, I guess you can take that as an ‘announcement’). But for now, and just for today, I wanted to share some red flags that those starting out in the PR and digital industry might want to look out for.

Remember, a probation period is just as much for you as it is for your employer, and noticing the signs of a relationship that has the potential to turn sour, is key for nipping things in the bud before they get worse.

My Background

But first, if you’re new here, you might be wondering where this has come from. So just to explain, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I had a bumpy start in my career, dealing with some issues that have regrettably permanently affected my own mental health and the way I perceive myself and my work. With hindsight, I’m now able to identify things that happened to me that weren’t quite right, but indeed hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s easy to critique a situation when you’re no longer in it. I always say it, but if this blog reaches just one person, gets them to thinking about their own circumstances, and has the potential to help them if they’re in a compromised position, then that’s all I do this for.

The Situation

Unfortunately, my experience is not isolated. As I’ve started to talk more about it on social media, I’ve lost track of the number of DMs I’ve had from industry peers (particularly those who are new to their career) reaching out and saying they feel the same. It only takes a little bit of digging to realise that it isn’t a ‘them’ problem at all. This was only further reinforced recently by Stacey MacNaught, who in her Autumn 2021 BrightonSEO deck, revealed statistics that I think were really harrowing and difficult for most of us. Though the problem of unrealistic expectations and poor management is prominent amongst the more junior PRs, it’s certainly not limited to them, and this Twitter survey proves this to be so…

Don’t expect this to be the last time I talk about this issue. In fact, let it be the beginning. But for now, with the help of some fellow friendly PRs, here’s some signs I’d identify as red flags, which might be useful to those who are looking to start their career in the industry. It seems like everywhere is hiring right now, so make sure you make the right decision and take advantage of the luxury of choice.

10 Red Flags To Keep Your Eyes Out For

#1 – High Staff Turnover

The saying goes “people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses” and while I don’t really believe that to be totally true, it’s something worth keeping in mind. There are many reasons why somebody might switch roles, but too often management does play a role in that. Take a look at the company’s staff turnover; if it’s really high – find out why. If there have been a number of people leaving recently, or if the business has a track record of short employments, I’d bet you there’s a reason. I love this from Angharad, and it’s one to take away with you: “at an interview you should ask why and when the last 3 people left and be comfortable with the response.” If you’re not satisfied, then guys, that’s a RED FLAG.

#2 – Working All Hours

The PR industry is a stickler for starting early and leaving late. I hate it. This sadly happens faaaar too often but this can be so detrimental to your mental health. Trust me on that! Now, I’m such an advocate of clocking off and having a solid work life balance, it’s so important. Pay attention during interviews and inductions to what happens when the clock strikes 5pm (or 5:30pm). If staff look at you weirdly for leaving on time, then I’m sorry to say, but that’s a BIG RED FLAG.

#3 – The ‘Family’ Ruse

I’m glad I’m not alone in noticing that the idea of your colleagues being ‘family’ often correlates directly into being a red flag. Don’t get me wrong, I’m super good friends with all of the guys that I work with. However, when the term gets thrown around just *a little* too much, then it might be used to mask overworking and spending more time at the office than you need to. I’ve come to realise that ‘perks’ such as in-office cinemas and socials every night are actually not as cool as they’re cracked up to be, and are often only actually used by those who spend all their free time as well as their working hours in the office. Not good, and definitely another RED FLAG!

#4 – Benefits That Aren’t Benefits

A while ago, my colleague Beth wrote a really good blog on how real work perks give you the best PR… None of this ‘we have a slide in the office’ nonsense. That extends to statutory requirements being advertised as benefits too. Holidays, pension and maternity leave are all pretty standard expectations for any decent job. When your policy goes above and beyond the common offering, then it becomes a perk. This was supported by the lovely Claudia, who reinforced that wishy washy benefits are 100% RED FLAGS.

#5 – Office Only!

This is a new one for 2021, and I might be a minority in thinking this (let me know if I am?!), but if an employer doesn’t offer any working from home options at all, then this kind of comes across as red flag for me too. Perhaps not a deal breaker, but if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that our old way of working was outdated as hell. Now, if flexible working isn’t at least considered, it suggests, to me anyway, a lack of trust and responsibility. Thanks Leila for backing me up on this one and highlighting another, you guessed it, RED FLAG.

#6 – Expectations That Don’t Match Budget

Proposed by Hannah but one that really rings true for me too, is when expectations seem unrealistically high, and especially when the training and budget you’re allocated doesn’t marry up with them. If you’re tasked with achieving a certain amount of links each month, for example, you should certainly have extra time or resource allocated to that, whether that’s you being given time to brainstorm with your colleagues or budget to create assets or complete research. If an employer expects you to pull results out of thin air, then that’s not only ridiculous, but another BIG RED FLAG.

#7 – When Drinking Is The Office Personality

A really big issue in the PR world is its drink problem. Unfortunate movie depictions have crafted the stereotype that PR people are extroverted and drink like fishes. Not true, but sadly something that a lot of agencies still seem to live up to. After work drinks can be so fun, especially at the start of the weekend. However, be wary of those who make going out every night the norm, it’s often a ruse to have more work discussions, after work. I remember being told once by an old manager that they “don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink” ahead of one of our Christmas parties. As someone who doesn’t really drink alcohol, I thought we’d left peer pressure at school… But apparently not. Needless to say I didn’t appreciate this at all. By all means, you do you. But, if after work drinks are actively encouraged and even disguised as a perk of the job, then pay attention, as that might well be a RED FLAG.

#8 – Being Sold The Dream

Something that happens more often than you might think, are interviews that sell you the dream but don’t actually follow through. I was speaking to one of our directors the other day about how many agencies use flagship clients to lure in new employees, only to never let them actually work on the accounts. The best employers, in my experience, are those that are upfront and honest with you from the beginning. The ones who tell you exactly what you’ll be working on, and who for. Also, while we’re here, let me tell you that some dream clients aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (I have some examples, but I shan’t name names 👀). If you find that when you start a job, it doesn’t live up to your expectations, then unfortunately that’s probably a RED FLAG.

#9 – No Training, No Feedback, No Support

Something that really grinds my bloody gears more than most things, is when I get DMs from my lovely fellow PRs saying they don’t feel good enough because they aren’t getting hundreds of links from their campaigns. Let me tell you now, that doesn’t actually really happen. Sure, it happens sometimes, but not as much as you think. Remember, you’ll only see the very best on social media and actually it was found in a poll that the average campaign only gets between 1-10 links. Don’t let your employer make you feel as though you’re not doing a good job if you’re not hitting triple figures. That’s crazy unrealistic! And on this, oftentimes results that don’t meet targets, seem to marry up with juniors and execs that are horrifically undertrained. Luckily, more people in the industry are opening up conversations like these and realising that we can’t expect those just entering the PR industry, to know how to do everything. Public Relations is barely taught at universities as it is, and to my knowledge you won’t find digital PR on any school, sixth form or university curriculum anywhere. We can’t pull knowledge out of thin air! Offer your juniors proper training and support, and I promise you’ll notice the difference. Back to the employees, if you’re not seeing this from your employers, then this is a HUUUGE RED FLAG.

#10 – The Word “Fast Paced Environment”

Finally, and okay, admittedly, this is a personal one and I might even get attacked for it, but from experience fast paced usually means toxic. It’s a word that recruiters and managers have coined instead of simply admitting that the job is high-pressure with high expectations. Thankfully, Russell backed me up on this one. By all means, I often thrive in fast paced situations, but if your job is built around always feeling as though there aren’t enough hours in the way – then that’s probably a RED FLAG.

Some Thoughts To End

The good news is, that for every crappy agency, there’s 10 or even 100 great ones. The wrong decision may have longstanding implications (like it did for me) but the right decision is sure to set you up for life. Like I mentioned earlier on, so many places are hiring right now. The industry is moving like I’ve never seen it before. You have the flexibility to make a decision that suits you. Make the most of that.

And to leave you, here are a few more suggestions from the lovely PR industry that I couldn’t weave into the blog post itself…

6 thoughts on “My Top 10 PR Red Flags To Pay Attention To 🚩”

  1. Lots of really valid points here! One of the things I originally meant to reply to your Tweet with (but forgot to do so!) was that I’d always recommend asking in digital PR role interviews specifically how you’ll be measured from day 1. And how the clients measure the agency. Because if the clients are measuring the agency purely on link numbers over a short period of time, then it’s inevitable that staff will end up measured the same way.

    Solid write up 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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