The new normal. Far from being an empty cliche, COVID-19 has truly changed the things we took for granted. As proof, I write to you from my new home office— our company is one of many that has gone remote.
As Stephen Waddington puts it, the societal shift is so seismic that we may view the world in terms of B.C. (Before Covid) and A.C. (After Covid).
It’s an evolutionary moment not just for business in general, but for PR in particular. With marketing budgets as the first “costs” being cut, brands are rethinking how to reach their audience. It’s PR’s time to shine: with some thoughtful positioning, PR could finally step into the leading role it’s always longed for.
If you’re having trouble convincing your boss that your work is important, look no further. Here are ten reasons PR became essential during the pandemic:
1. PR can navigate a crisis
While many PR agencies have had a harsh year, in-house PR teams have been proving their worth; working around the clock adjusting messaging, giving interviews, writing crisis communications plans, and keeping customers at ease. Especially in the first couple of months after the outbreak of COVID-19, PR teams have been vital for businesses. Companies without a good communications professional on board have been struggling; they’ve learned that crisis communications are not to be taken lightly.
COVID was fatal for some industries. Those that survived emerged with a lot more on their plate; more demand, more criticism, more fame, and greater attention to their business practices.
PR has always been able to navigate these complex waters, which is why we need a PR team now more than ever. COVID will not be the last crisis we’ll have to deal with in our generation.
If the pandemic was the dress rehearsal for climate change, then PR can help companies prepare— and survive.
2. PR is cost-effective
The coronavirus outbreak has impacted marketing budgets in pretty much any industry: both positively and negatively. Industries such as apparel, non-profits, healthcare, and hobbies & leisure have seen better PPC results, whilst the largest chunk of industries has seen the efficiency of their campaigns drop and costs increase.
Many companies responded by cutting their marketing budgets. Airbnb, for instance, pulled $800 million out of their marketing budgets in 2020. Secondly, trust in the big PPC giants such as Facebook and Google has been crumbling for a while. Brands are looking for cost-effective ways to reach their audience without financing powerful, shady tech giants.
It makes sense then that we should redirect our budgets to advertising’s more cost-effective cousin, PR. After the pandemic, it will be the job of people in PR to convince companies that they are worth the investment.
It should be an easy sell: PR stories told through editorial and social can raise millions in a week (if done right.) Free media exposure is THE most cost-effective way to reach your audience.
3. PR strengthens relationships
PR’s main strength— building relationships— is what got us through the pandemic. Without international cooperation, vaccine development and distribution would not have happened.
Relationship builders who work in PR know that to move through crisis, fostering cooperation rather than leaping to blame is the best way to get things done. In fact, going through difficult times together as agencies and clients improves relationships tenfold. It shows that you are a solid and trustworthy partner.
That also applies to relationships within the company. COVID has seen greater collaboration between departments. We’ve seen a real sweet spot when PR, marketing, social media, and digital work in unison.
4. PR builds trust
Central to building relationships is trust, a company’s most valuable asset, and gaining it is in PR’s wheelhouse. The COVID-19 pandemic proved that brands are expected to do more for society, with 62% of people saying their country will not make it through this crisis without brands playing a critical role. That means solving problems (like where we house medical staff) and caring about the public interest (working out how products and services help communities).
How PR steers (trustworthy) behaviour throughout the pandemic could pay companies back dividends. Those with the leadership to act during this time have strengthened the bond they have with consumers.
Adapting to changing public opinion during the pandemic was a make-or-break skill. In the Netherlands, where we’re based, some big companies have held up their hand for government support, after years and years of massive profits and sometimes billions of dollars in stock buybacks. It’s up to us communicators to (re)build trust with the public, and pass on public opinion to management to make sure these unethical, greedy actions don’t happen again.
5. PR is courageous
Bravery is second nature to PR— being newsworthy often means challenging the status quo. The pandemic journey will naturally move from recovery to reform. Like many periods of change, there will be many who won’t admit the need for it (or want to do it). People in PR will need to do some handholding as organisations adapt to new social realities.
Most of these changes were underway already; the pandemic simply pressed fast forward on them. What was ‘business as usual’ will soon no longer seem usual, and the pandemic shone a light on inequalities that are increasingly uncomfortable to defend.
Brands (and the media they work with) should represent the communities they serve. One look at the growth of briefs on the critical issues of the day like Diversity and Inclusion is proof of this. PR itself will also have to do some soul-searching. 28% of PR professionals are privately educated – four times the national average.
Businesses that were brave enough to change have built up the resilience to help them in future crises.
6. PR keeps brands relevant
PR is good at responding to changing consumer needs. It’s how it helps companies stay relevant. PR can help guide brands as they pivot. Gym chains switching to home workout videos or liquor brands launching virtual bars will only survive with good PR— with a third of consumers saying they’ve started using a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way it has responded to the pandemic.
Google’s rising retail habits are a fascinating insight into some of the new industries that have grown out of the crisis. In the public sector, communicators have never been busier, as public education and information are crucial. Quickly adapting to changes in the market is just as key to PR’s survival as an industry.
7. PR aids remote working
A lesser-known part of PR— internal PR— gained importance during the pandemic. Companies needed to keep staff regularly updated and safe, and internal communications have become one of the mainstays of comms teams— especially in parts of the world where the virus was still raging.
Daily crisis communications updates to our customers are going away, but remote work is here to stay. PR can help companies with their internal communication as they learn to onboard staff remotely, create new online workflows, and keep employees happy.
Virtual agencies have benefited enormously from the pandemic. It may seem ironic for a relationship business that we are suddenly apart, but virtual agencies were already on the rise for cost reasons. 64% of UK comms leaders would use a virtual PR agency, but now that number has climbed to 100%.
After getting used to the lower prices of remote agencies, it’s hard to imagine that procurement departments will suddenly want to pay for the overheads of a physical PR agency.
8. PR can adapt to a declining media
Not only did advertising decline during the pandemic, but with people indoors, newsprint publications reduced their distribution, accelerating digital. We’ve discovered that many of the systems we had in place for media and events can’t be retrofitted for digital, leaving us to build digital products from the ground up. Luckily there are quite a few lo-fi production solutions— so creating content didn’t have to cost the world.
The pandemic also got PR thinking about human behaviour. No one wants to be stuck in a virtual press conference for days. Conversational content keeps people engaged.
The pandemic was bad for journalists. It saw thousands of layoffs from major publications, many of which now run on a skeleton team. Smaller or niche publications were the most impacted, with several folding altogether. For people in PR working a niche beat, this was a tricky change.
The journalists that remain are even more slammed for time, but their need for expertise hasn’t decreased— the demand for news during the pandemic was high. So much production was cut during COVID that original content is now in short supply. PR can fill the vacuum.
Sensing that the tides are changing, many brands have shifted to owned media and social channels, with the added bonus of being able to use them to communicate better internally.
Social media, which was only the ninth activity in the 2019 State of Media report, reached the top spot in 2020. This has opened up the gate for new critical PR skills like link building for SEO. PR has proven it can adapt, and gain skills more akin to a TV producer when necessary.
9. PR informs
PR provided vital information during the pandemic, helping people feel more comfortable with the new normal. 85% of people want brands to use their power to educate. Brands like Microsoft, for example, used their healthcare bot to help people identify symptoms, which helped with vaccine attitudes.
Unlikely sources like the brand Steak-umm emerged as an unlikely coronavirus misinformation watchdog. Others developed helpful information platforms to keep the public educated, like Brandwatch’s COVID resource centre Google’s information site.
Consumers liked to receive information from multiple sources during the pandemic, perhaps reflecting their growing wariness towards fake news. The most trusted combination of mediums was mainstream media and email. PR influences both channels, so it has a key role to play.
Information reassures when emotions are running high. People have craved emotional connections during the pandemic, “including brand messaging that communicates empathy and support with the struggles they face… (and) social channels that facilitate a sense of community and offer support to those in need.” PR has the emotional intelligence to communicate community and connectedness.
10. PR supports a purpose-driven future
Business is transforming from profit-driven to purposeful. Blackrock’s announcement that it is including Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics in its investment strategies was a turning point. Companies can no longer shirk the responsibilities of addressing climate change or thinking about their social impact.
Indeed many of the press releases that were seen as profiteering or newsjacking during the pandemic were rejected by press release distribution companies. Examples can be found here, including titles like Goyle Dentistry Endorses Powerful Shake you can Make at Home to Boost Immune Function, De-stress, Fight Disease and Heal Now.
PR professionals are well placed to help businesses figure out why they are relevant and how they can contribute — so they do not suffer a moral loss and die out. 71% of consumers agree that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever. The pandemic saw a huge increase in consumers looking deeply into company's supply chains. With more scrutiny, companies must be transparent. This can only be done with sound, sincere communication; consumers can sniff out a fake.
PR should now make sure all storytelling is followed by action. This is the only thing that will protect reputation. And, as all PR practitioners know: reputation is everything.