Kerrie Finch
Apr 13, 2020

How one PR firm navigates with employees hit hard by pandemic

70% of Futurefactor's European staff suffered COVID-19 symptoms.

How one PR firm navigates with employees hit hard by pandemic

This isn’t my first pandemic rodeo. On New Year’s Day 2010, I was belatedly diagnosed with a combination of swine flu (H1N1) and pneumonia -- and then promptly slipped into a coma.

I woke up 10 days later tied to the bed, in isolation, in the intensive care unit of an Amsterdam hospital. It was the single most PTSD-inducing moment of my life.

Once I was home, I spent a week feeling anxious about not being at work, then went straight back to work. Too soon? Of course. As the founder of what was then a small independent Amsterdam-based PR company, called FinchFactor at the time, I felt incredibly responsible and generally guilty for putting the team through this.

I felt the need to prove that I was recovered and capable, ready to pull my weight and lead from the front. Nevermind that I was more a liability than a leader, sending off half-baked emails to clients that would involve much backtracking from colleagues. Sitting at my desk, I would power-down mid-sentence like an android switched to sleep mode and re-awaken none the wiser. My synapses weren’t snapping because my brain was still healing.

Swine flu took me months to overcome physically, but other than additional pressure placed on my team’s shoulders during Q1 2010, neither my business nor that of our clients significantly suffered during this pandemic. Fast-forward 10 years and the view is starkly different.

Firstly, we’re a bigger operation. FinchFactor grew to three offices in Amsterdam, London and Los Angeles. Two partners, Nick Bailey and Sarah Taylor, joined the leadership team in 2018 and last year we evolved the business to become futurefactor, a communications company helping brands become future-fit through strategy, content and PR. Our international client footprint includes Airbnb, BlackRock, bunq bank, Code and Theory, Framestore, General Mills and MediaMonks. Nowadays we have more to play for and more to lose.

Personally, I’ve been fortunate. Due to pre-existing health conditions, I was tested mid-March when I started displaying flu-like symptoms, was found positive for COVID-19 the following day and told to stay home in self-isolation for another two weeks at least. This time round, it’s easier to do what the doctor ordered, because I’m older and wiser, but also because worldwide, them’s the rules.

To do any less would be simply irresponsible, with potentially deadly consequences. Fortunately, it didn’t go to my lungs and I didn’t end up in hospital. I’m fine. I got through it. As has everyone in our Amsterdam and London offices who experienced symptoms, a full 70% of the European team.

Secondly, keeping the company healthy and out of intensive care is proving more taxing, because the combined health, business, financial and societal impacts of the coronavirus are like nothing any of us have experienced before.

All businesses are financially affected by this pandemic, some drastically and dreadfully more than others. For us, Q2 is painful, and we’re doing everything we can at futurefactor to pivot in the name of progress. It’s proving enlightening.

Cabin fever breeds team spirit

Since we all started #WFH, I’ve noticed that team calls are more often driven by laughter than during the old-world BC -- before coronavirus -- era. Perhaps this enforced isolation is driving us all to edge-of-reason hysteria.

Let’s face it, how many "save me from my kids/partner/life" viral funnies have you seen in the last two days? I’d like to believe, however, that it comes from an "in it together" survival instinct, a desire to make connection and laugh ourselves back to fitness, financial or otherwise, which is bringing out the best in all of us.

Travel is overrated

In the olden days, when our industry used to physically go to conferences -- remember January? -- I thought little about jumping on a plane. In the last month, I’ve cancelled flights to Austin, Atlanta, Los Angeles, London and New York.

Sure, I missed South by Southwest, but the new business meetings, client check-ins and team visits have all been handled -- successfully -- via video conference. With blue skies and audible birdsong to brighten up our days, perhaps this is the start of something more consciously innovative and planet-positive. Not an end to in-person festivals, but an opportunity to re-think our habits, become future-fit and act differently.

Think fleet, not solo tugboat

Since the start of the pandemic, we’re in uncharted territory and none of us wants to fall off the edge of a half-drawn map. This is where our business community comes into play, especially for independent companies. A united flotilla does better on the high seas than a single rudderless boat searching for the horizon. By knowledge-sharing, listening and learning we can be – or see – the lighthouses that can guide us through this, before too many boats are sunk.

I’m hoping that by Q4, we as a global creative industry surface with a better, healthier and more positive perspective on what it means to do business and to be part of a community.

Kerrie Finch is founding partner at Futurefactor and Cannes Lions country representative for the Netherlands.


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