The real cost of being always on

Calculating the emotional labour involved in public relations reveals some tough truths about the industry.

Despite the enormous growth of the public relations agency sector, predicted more than a decade ago[1], industry growth has accelerated at considerable cost to those who have entered its labour force.

In 2018, the European Communication Monitor found that four out of 10 communication professionals across all sectors in Europe reported “feeling tense or stressed out” in the workplace. Among the top reported factors related to workplace stress were “constant availability outside working time” (35.6 per cent) and “too heavy a workload” (35.5). When analysed by sector, agency/consultancy employees reported working significantly longer hours than their in-house counterparts[2].

A UK survey, undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, (CIPR) echoes these findings. It found the highest levels of stress reported by agency/consultancy practitioners (73 per cent) compared to in-house practitioners, of who 61 per cent reported high stress across private, public and not-for-profit sectors combined[3].

Poor mental health is frequently ignored by the communication industry or regarded as a performance issue according to UK industry experts[4] while almost half of agency respondents to the CIPR survey reported either that they did not have a mental health policy (49 per cent) or did not know whether their agecy had a policy (29 per cent). A mental health crisis, which is endemic across a range of institutions and occupations, would suggest that people from all walks of life are required to manage their emotions in many difficult situations; but when the illusion of being ‘in control’, positive and successful is crucial to the communication profession, then denial of these pressures may prevail.

"Poor mental health is frequently ignored by the communication industry."

 First coined by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in 1983[5], ‘emotional labour’ is common to many service-orientated occupations and involves the management of one’s own feelings and the feelings of others through face to face or voice to voice interactions. The concept of emotional labour is highly relevant to the work of communication professionals, especially women. Women are employed in large numbers at the lower and middle levels in PR agencies, and it is women who are often on the frontline servicing clients’ relational as well as technical requirements.

Unlike other business consultancy services, however, there are other relational demands: those of handling the news media, and increasingly, social media influencers (SMIs), who have particularly exacting requirements when it comes to agreeing terms on the brands they promote. These relationships are mediated within the agency setting, which itself has ‘feeling rules’ or socio-emotional norms which professionals have to learn how to manage. Relationships are the bedrock of successful PR agency/consulting work, and these relationships in turn, legitimise the status of the communication professional in the eyes of the client and other stakeholders.

 From my in-depth interviews with 14 practitioners based in England, at executive through to agency director levels, I found that practitioners adopted a range of emotion management strategies in their day-to-day professional interactions in order to earn a client’s trust – while becoming highly skilled in doing so. Typical strategies included continuously educating clients about the value of PR services and managing expectations about the contingent nature of PR services such as media relations.

However, typical account manager frustrations arose from the tendency to ‘over-service’ clients (emotionally as well as financially) who were not always clear about their communication needs or objectives, as well as those clients who simply outsourced basic administrative duties when they were apparently paying for strategic communication advice.

A dirty job?

Previous studies have found that chemistry between the practitioner and the client is paramount to a good relationship, and my findings were no different. Interestingly, some agency directors I interviewed were frustrated by a trend, in sectors such as Fast Moving Consumer Goods and healthcare, towards procurement departments handling tender bids. This trend prevented ‘chemistry’ to be tested early with the client contact, be they the CEO, CMO or head of corporate communication.

Arm’s length procurement practice felt like a threat to the creative process as well as to professional status. One agency director declared: “they are treating us like commodities”. While some PR agencies practised a highly organised, project-led approach to PR services, providing greater transparency about the service provided, as well as potentially reducing emotional risk in the client relationship, one important ingredient to a successful relationship was the availability – and support – of key decision-makers in client organisations.

"One agency director declared: “they are treating us like commodities”."

From my research[6], I would argue that emotional labour is a defining feature of the professional role. To some extent this is recognised by recruiters in their requirement for emotional intelligence as a personal attribute (CIPR, 2019). Emotional intelligence, which is the capability to recognise and manage the emotions of self and others in order to achieve goals, is now considered essential to many service-orientated roles.

However, the emotional labour concept especially focuses on the negative consequences of intensive service interactions, including the commercialisation and exploitation of ‘feeling’ – to the extent that the individual may experience psychological problems including stress and burnout. Furthermore, sociologists argue that emotion work is ‘dirty work’ because it involves engaging with the feelings of others that threaten the ‘preferred order of a given individual or group’.

Such emotions are those that are unwanted or “deemed out of place, contextually inappropriate, burdensome or taboo”[7]. Reframing unwanted emotions as positive narratives is arguably part of the role of the communication professional. However, experiencing and reframing unwanted emotions personally may have status implications for self- and occupational identity. As such, within a fiercely competitive business environment, there may be an unwillingness among some PR recruiters to address the emotional implications and costs of the job, instead accepting high staff turnover (25 per cent according to one report) as an industry norm.

I argue that although technological developments are changing the nature of PR work, the need for the practitioner to manage a myriad of relationships will not go away, even if these relationships are mediated remotely or online (prompting the requirement for different forms of emotional labour). Relationships that are mediated remotely present particular challenges for the practitioner, requiring an ability to emotionally attune to their client or other contact without the full benefit of nonverbal cues and deep understanding of the client’s situation. The small talk that is so important to face-to-face relationships cannot readily be replicated.

"The need for the practitioner to manage a myriad of relationships will not go away."

 Neither should the gendered work of (digital) emotional labour be overlooked. For example, the ‘gift exchange’ of feeling, performed on various online platforms (e.g. in ‘liking’ and ‘commenting’), as well as remotely, may be assumed as tasks that can be undertaken at any time – but this work may be taken for granted and undervalued, particularly if it is largely undertaken by female communication professionals. Highly significant differences are reported between male and female communication practitioners in regards to two stress factors: “constant availability outside working time (e.g. emails, phone calls)” and “work interfering during personal or family time”[8].

Striving for a work-life balance, both for themselves and their younger generation employees, was an ongoing concern among the agency directors I interviewed.

 By ignoring, or downplaying, the value of the so-called soft skills, the extent of emotional labour required to work in PR may go unrecognised or unstated. Furthermore, if unwanted emotions are not explored in practitioners’ education and training, and they are instead left to sink or swim in developing their emotional competences, then the issues of stress and high staff turnover are unlikely to go away – and clients may be the first to notice. 

  • [1] Holmes, P. (2007) The state of the public relations industry: preliminary report: June 2007, for Huntsworth plc. /p. 22
  • [2] Zerfass, A., Tench, R., Verhoeven, P., Verčič, D., and Moreno, A. (2018) European Communication Monitor 2018. Strategic communication and the challenges of fake news, trust, leadership, work stress and job satisfaction. Results of a survey in 48 countries. Brussels: EACD/EUPRERA, Quadriga Media Berlin/pp. 72–85
  • [3] Chartered Institute of Public Relations (2019) State of the profession. London: Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Available from: sites/default/files/11812%20State%20of%20Profession_v12.pdf 
  • [4] Hall, S. and Waddington, S. (2017) Exploring the mental wellbeing of the public relations profession. London: PRCA
  • [5] Hochschild, A. R. (1983) The managed heart: commercialisation of human feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
  • [6] Yeomans, L. (2019) Public relations as emotional labour. London: Routledge.
  • [7] McMurray, R. and Ward, J. (2014) ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Defining emotional dirty work. Human Relations, 67(9)/pp. 1123–1143.
  • 8] Zerfass, A., Tench, R., Verhoeven, P., Verčič, D., and Moreno, A. (2018).

Liz Yeomans

Dr Liz Yeomans was reader in public relations and communication at Leeds Business School, Leeds Beckett University until her retirement in January 2019. She continues to supervise doctoral work, and is peer reviewer for journals in public relations and communication management. She remains interested in the emotional dimension of organisations and public relations’ role in society and culture.