Interview | 25 Aug 2021

What’s Your Secret Sauce: interview with Harpswood

Posted in PR and Communications, Business, Interview, Client,

We are delighted to launch the first of a series of interviews, in which we talk with leading businesses from The Work Crowd community, get their intel on the secret sauce to success. This month we interviewed Harpswood, a PR agency run by James Clench and Abi Smith specialising in media relations for clients who want to make society better. Read on to hear about launching a PR agency in a pandemic, their thoughts on companies who got it right during covid and their secret to attracting successful clients.

Can you tell us more about the work Harpswood does and the clients you work with?

Harpswood is a PR agency run by James Clench and Abi Smith specialising in media relations for clients who want to make society better. A number of our clients work in green tech and are looking at the best ways to tackle climate change. We help them by highlighting developments in renewable energy, persuading drivers about the benefits of electric cars or publicising the work of non-profit groups sharing global climate data. Other clients are focused on improving health outcomes, increasing diversity in hiring, and protecting workers from job fraud.

What challenges have you faced as an agency during the pandemic, and do you think COVID-19 has had an impact on your business?

The agency launched at the start of the pandemic – April 2020. It sounds like a nightmare, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. As a start-up, we had no clients to lose, very few overheads to cover and had budgeted to give ourselves enough time to get off the ground. We didn’t really get up and running until late 2020 when Abi was free to join the business. The months before that were used to work on the business plan, design the website, consider key hires and the plans for attracting potential clients. It would be far harder to deal with the same situation now that we’re up and running and I really felt for former colleagues at established agencies going through it at the time.  

You wrote an article looking at the good, the bad and the ugly of lockdown communications, can you share lessons you learned over the last 12 months, that have shaped your approach to communications?

I’ve always felt that it’s usually not the communication that goes wrong, it’s simply that bad decisions have been made. Organisations that took bad decisions – such as furloughing employees and then demanding that they work, or failing to honour insurance contracts – inevitably got criticised in the media. Covid put businesses under the spotlight in terms of how much they valued their customers and their employees. That’s not to say it was easy – some businesses were clearly faced with existential decisions. But it reinforced our view that we wanted to work with businesses that tried hard to do the right thing. From a media relations perspective, having solid contacts with journalists during Covid became more important than ever, as many were working from home and were often harder to get hold of. It was also helpful to have informal conversations with reporters, news editors and producers about the news agenda and how best to land any story that wasn’t Covid-related.

You have worked with some innovative clients such as Octopus Energy, what is your secret to attracting and landing successful clients?

I think it’s down to understanding what drives a business or organisation, responding to that, and then delivering. Octopus Energy is in a hurry to make a renewables revolution happen in global energy while building a brand that customers love. Their people at the top are full of ideas and want change to happen fast. We’ve always tried to match their pace, deliver on ideas, generate meaningful coverage and offer informed advice. We’ve made a conscious effort at Harpswood to focus on excellent client service and delivery. We’re now seeing the benefits of that as all of our clients have come to us through referrals.  

As economic recovery begins, what opportunities and challenges are PR professionals now facing?

The opportunities come from increased business activity, whether that be from established businesses willing to invest in communicating their story or startups looking to make their first splash in the media. Challenges include dealing with the continued fallout from the pandemic and running hybrid working successfully. We’ve got a great office opposite Spitalfields Market in Shoreditch but there have been a few situations in recent weeks where people have been pinged and had to go home. Hopefully that’s going to become less disruptive in the months to come. I think the biggest challenge in PR is making sure workload is manageable within teams – and that will only become more challenging as agencies take on more business. I’d rather have fewer clients given an excellent service by a team working sensible hours than relentless chasing of growth which can only be serviced by unrealistic demands on people. I think meaningful success comes from good relationships: retention of happy clients and retention of a happy team.

The number of PR professionals turning to freelance during the lockdown has dramatically risen. How has your business engaged an interim workforce over the pandemic? And how have freelancers helped support your agency?

We’ve worked with freelancers to support us in the periods when we’ve taken on new retained clients or projects and are waiting for new permanent members of the team to finish their notice periods. We’ve been lucky with the freelancers we’ve used – they have quickly got to grips with the clients or projects they are working on and provided excellent support. We’ve learned from them too, asking them about the best lessons they have learned at other places and how they would improve our agency. All have added value in different ways, whether through sharing sector knowledge, cultural ideas or simply through great delivery.


If you’re a business looking for interim support, The Work Crowd can instantly connect you to the right professional freelancer to best support you and your business.

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