Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the public relations industry is helping its clients navigate a sudden and catastrophic global emergency that has completely reshaped all of our lives.
We still have little idea how long this pandemic will last but we already know it will have a major detrimental impact on the worldwide economy and prevent us from attending large gatherings until 2021. With all that in mind, the public relations industry is stepping up to support their clients at a time when priorities are being reconsidered and uncertainty has stalled our ability to plan for the future.
So, how have CEOs and thought leaders in the industry responded to the crisis? And how will they face the year ahead? Let’s look at what they’ve been saying.
COVID-19 won’t be in the headlines forever
Public relations practitioners are already trained to keep their finger on the pulse of the news cycle, but now they are flexing those skills more than ever. Updates on the COVID-19 pandemic can come in hour by hour and throw off any plans a PR person had for their media approach that day.
Fred Feiner, President of Yankee Public Relations, makes this suggestion: “Avoid press releases and product pitches to the media that are not absolutely essential at this time … and do not try to tag company news onto a coronavirus related press release.”
This could be a bit of a severe approach because as PR Daily points out: “[Not] all stories are invalid during this time.” There are still product guides for Mother’s Day coming out because, after all, we can still ship a gift to our mothers even if we can’t be with her right now.
Jamie Knightley, head of client services for IBA International, thinks pitching should continue: “Journalists live and die by their contacts, so if you make sure content is timely and relevant for their publication and audience, now is the time you’ll be of incredible value to them.”
But what about consumer PR, which can rely on sending products to writers for review? WPP has this advice: “… most editors are not accepting products or samples. While the attention has certainly shifted, do continue to pitch long-lead topics, especially as editors and contributors are seeking content for longer-lead stories and continue to gather information for down the road.”
The pandemic dominates our day-to-day right now, but it won’t be the story forever. And when there’s a gap, PR people need to be ready to tell the story of their client in the new light of day.
Refocusing priorities and telling a new story
Film festivals, pride parades and major conferences have all been cancelled for the foreseeable future or have moved online. Promotional plans for all these events have been thrown out the window or completely rethought.
YouTube is launching a “We Are One: A Global Film Festival” with the help of the Cannes and TIFF, as well as other major festivals whose plans for a physical festival have been put in jeopardy. To be a part of this online festival, they have come together under one banner and branding. This is a pretty big deal considering these festivals’ past rivalries and emphasis on unique visual branding that differentiates one festival from another.
Maybe this isn’t the story that TIFF’s communications team was prepared to roll out this summer, but the festival will get a major visibility boost by being associated with the video streaming giant and it is a much more positive story than an outright cancellation of the festival.
And I know you’ve seen the stories about fashion companies creating masks and sanitizers instead of luxury clothing and perfumes. It goes without saying that these stories were pushed out by eager PR people, hoping to collect some goodwill for their clients.
But can you blame them? I mean, people aren’t interested in Prada’s new fall collection but they will be relieved to know that there won’t be a shortage of masks.
Updating consumers on impacted operations
Cancelled. That’s the word that keeps echoing everywhere. Cancelled flights, concerts, hair appointments and so much more.
Public relations practitioners have had to move fast to update consumers on how operations have changed for their clients. That means updating FAQs, putting information banners on the website homepage, sending out emails and social media posts.
Keeping consumers updated on the latest information is the most important thing any business can do right now. If they don’t, consumers will lose trust and faith—at a time when they’re already tightening their belts and looking to lower non-essential spending.
Canadian PR agency Casacom suggests that crisis communications teams meet daily to “identify … areas of vulnerability” and “discuss possible scenarios and agree on a consistent communication approach.”
What if a rescheduled event is actually cancelled? How will that be communicated to the attendees? And who on the team will be responsible for crafting that communication material? Instead of waiting for an update from a client and then scrambling to address it, PR practitioners should prepare in advance for what their client could approach them with.
Pausing the agency-client relationship
It is a tough time for many businesses. Even major companies we once thought would only keep growing, such as Airbnb, are laying off thousands of workers.
Of course, there will be a trickle-down effect where PR agencies are also impacted by companies having to cut back on their expenses. It’s best to have a check-in with clients as early as possible to see if it makes sense to continue the relationship.
Gary Frisch wrote in Agility PR: “One client, a flight school, has suspended operations until further notice. Since our efforts are mostly contingent on encouraging reporters to come out and experience flying, and there’s no flying to be had, I’ve chosen to suspend our contract for at least one month, then add it to the back end after he’s back up and running. His income has stopped, so how can we in good conscience charge him a fee when there’s not much we can do?”
And while some clients may be lost during this time, some may also be found.
Rediscovering the value of PR
During a time when communicating with the consumer is more important than ever, some companies have discovered they have a major gap with their in-house capabilities. Condé Nast has just appointed its first Chief Global Communications Officer to oversee external and internal communications, media relations and crisis management.
Meanwhile, PR firms that have cultivated crisis communications teams over the years are getting plenty of requests for help. The global chair of crisis and reputation risk at Edelman, Harlan Loeb, said there’s been a “very significant uptick in demand for crisis work.”
And as these PR firms form new relationships with new clients, they are convincing the clients that they can be a significant part of their future too. Marc Minardo, MD and leader of digital comms at Sard Verbinnen & Co. told Business Insider: “Now that we’re past the initial flurry of communications, we’re helping clients think a little longer-term about the impact, how they need to adjust their business, and how they’re going to lend a hand to those in need.”
However, not every PR agency will see the benefits of this rash need for communications support. Some agencies have made their bread by specializing in one particular industry and selling themselves to clients as experts in that industry. Now, this has threatened their survival.
Art Stevens is the managing partner of The Stevens Group, a mergers and acquisitions consultancy focused on the PR industry. He said: “[Agencies] focused on hard-hit sectors like tourism, hospitality and restaurants have lost upwards of 70% of their revenue, forcing them to layoff or furlough staff, reduce salaries, and plead with their landlords to reduce their rent.”
Preparing for recovery
While it’s true certain industries have been deeply bruised by COVID-19, don’t count them out entirely. If you’ve been using delivery apps or just dropping in for takeaway, then you know there are a lot of restaurants still operating. And the tourism industry may not be asking people to board a flight this summer, but they are already planning for their recovery. In due time we expect these industries will rebound and at that point, PR can help reel consumers back in.
Richard Edelman, the CEO of Edelman, is hopeful about the industry’s future: “Communications is now more important than advertising. People want facts and credible spokespeople.”
Ad News Australia came to the same conclusion: “In a challenging market, public relations has tended to be more resilient than the main business of advertising.”
So while everything seems more unpredictable than ever, we can expect that the PR industry will survive and with newfound capabilities to address the most unexpected and challenging issues of our time. Some good news, finally.