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How the pandemic has changed PR

PR has had to change tactics because of the pandemic, for example, virtual has replaced experiential. PR leaders list 17 strategies that work now.

1. Op-eds cut through

Madalina Grigorie, director of PR consultancy OMG Partners:PR during the pandemic has been defined by one word: pivot! Last year, all rules flew off the window – articles got delayed from publishing, journalists missed pre-established briefings, and it was almost impossible to get anyone on the phone. Timely news stories did not work as the agenda quickly got filled up by pandemic-related stories. What has really worked for me was op-eds that would complement the current news stories. Being understanding and useful to journalists is always top of mind, so being flexible with deadlines has helped.”

2. Use case studies

Lucy Smith, senior PR manager at Starling Bank: "In this period of isolation we are looking to connect with others in ways which are non-physical. This is why the power of a human interest story or a case study has proved to be the very best way to tell a brand story. If you can connect your customers with like-minded people then they are more likely to engage and the journalists are likely to feel more inclined to cover your brand if it is endorsed by an impartial third party. It can also allow you get gain press coverage in new vertices allowing wider share of voice and new audiences.”

3. Less physical, more digital

Liz Alexander, tech director in corporate comms team at PR firm Grayling UK: We’ve been helping our technology clients to adjust their messaging and content to their customers’ new decision-making journey. This journey now involves less physical contact and more digital touchpoints. Those digital touchpoints – online experiences such as conferences – must really stand out to attract people in a competitive space. The key is in exclusivity, high-quality content and guests, and timing is everything.”

4. Be creative with video

Fran Prince, head of communications at marketing agency Champions (UK) plc: “The rapid digitalisation has meant experiential and physical PR has almost fallen off the radar. And now, much like consumers, journalists are looking for that something ‘extra’ in order for them to cover your story. Exclusivity and a personalised pitch is just one thing expected these days, especially where PRs are looking to add SEO backlinking value into their stories. But it is ever crucial to stand out from the crowd, so why not trial a 10-second video pitch via a direct message on social media? Don’t forget that a face to face meeting even if done virtually can add character, depth and personality to your story.”

5. Social rules

Jessica Pardoe, senior PR exec at agency Source PR: “More people are spending time on social than ever before so don’t miss out on hitting that audience. Whether it’s on traditional platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, or more modern social media websites such as TikTok. PR has been evolving to be more digital for years, but the pandemic has accelerated this.”

6. Prove ROI

Scot Devine, MD of agency ArrowEye Communications: “Clients are under increasing pressure to prove and quantify ROI, so we’re seeing demand for our PR and content testing engine, We test, learn and anticipate results before even finalising messaging and creative content, so clients can get an improved sense of what they’re getting for their investment – and even how much they should invest. With consumer behaviour changing so fast, we have to be able to flex quickly with confidence.

“With Burns Night for instance, we were able to be quite scientific. We even quantified the market for single malt whisky, by location, then identified the messages and content that would help our client win, within hours. Of course, this year Burns Night was driven by e-commerce, so we pivoted the PR and social media support eco-system to support that with virtual event activity. Along with the desire for ROI, though, the creative idea is still king. But now we know which ideas will work outside of the agency echo chamber.”

7. Jump on popular viewing trends

Armarni Lane, digital PR executive: "One man's trash (TV) is another man's treasure! From Tiger King to the Crown, Bridgerton to Emily in Paris, we've seen a boom in binge-watching over lockdown. With so many of us glued to our TV screens, the PR industry has seen heaps of opportunities to jump on popular viewing trends. Re-angling existing stories and studies to include mentions of the newest Netflix series has proved to be a golden ticket to client coverage, and so PRs must evolve with this, and seek opportunities for clients outside of their usual sphere. Bridgerton alone gave opportunities for staycation travel, jewellery, fashion, sex and even property angles. So, don't just keep an eye on the news, keep an eye on Netflix."

8. Be more empathetic

Laura Thomas, account manager at agency High-Rise Communications: “The content we produce, both for ourselves and our clients, has become much more considered and considerate. It notes the current circumstances and thinks carefully about how best to reflect these. It doesn’t boast of success without showing how lucky the organisation is to be in that position – especially when there are so many who have been badly hit. It doesn’t take for granted what it has and isn’t afraid to call out for help when it needs to.

“It is more realistic, more authentic, and more empathetic. I would like to believe it is also permanent. We won’t be in this situation forever, but there are lessons to be learnt and taken forward for every industry – and this is one of them, for PR.”

9. Focus on inclusivity

Elma Glasgow, PR consultant, trainer and coach: “I am big on integrating more sensitivity and emotional intelligence into PR – the world has changed suddenly, and brands who aren't keeping up, will soon look irrelevant. 

“I'm focused on the resurgence Black Lives Matter, which happened, I believe, partly because of the pandemic; it's given people the space and time to reflect, learn and take action. As communications professionals, it's our responsibility to help brands respond and build a fairer society.

“Not only is taking a much more inclusive and 'switched on' approach to PR the right thing to do, but the business case for being more socially aware is clear, WARC's research carried out in autumn 2020, revealed that consumers want brands to fight racism externally and internally. They expect them to go way beyond tokenistic shows of support. They want brands to demonstrate their support in meaningful ways, not just posting the black square on Instagram.”

10. Create unique content

Helen Simpson, associate director at PR agency Hatch: “To stand out, brands need to be bold and confident, deliver unique and authentic content and say something that nobody else is. We can expect to see more agencies, investing in their creative content offering to elevate their digital storytelling capabilities and deliver campaigns people will remember.”

11. Be reactive

Will Hobson, PR director at search-first creative agency: "We've been remaining close to what's trending in order to pivot our campaigns for our clients and make sure something is newsworthy. Reactive campaigns are becoming more and more common as the news agenda is changing too quickly for planned campaigns to work. 

“An example of this would be virtual travel, this is a subject that was huge back in March, but then as we left lockdown and different restrictions were lifted the spike decreased. The biggest thing we've learnt as a team is to move with the press, change and adapt as quickly as they do. Use tools such as Google trends and Buzzsumo to discover which topics are beginning to rise and find a way to either make it relevant for your brand or offer something of value to the press to add to their story on the topic.”

12. Stay true

Jill Cotton, PR manager at Paired couples app: “Don't let a global pandemic stop your PR. Yes, everything has been turned on its head in the last year, but ensuring that your brand maintains a relevant and consistent voice that can connect with the changing needs of your customers, the media and its readers is vital. When we are over the worst of Covid people will look back and ask brands, what did you do during the pandemic? How did you contribute? Conscious consumerism is on the rise and a 'always-on' PR campaign that is sensitive to external events will help future-proof your company/client and stand them apart from competitors.”

13. Make journalists’ lives easier

Sarah Danzl, head of global communications at upskilling platform Degreed: “News desks became very busy. It felt like breaking news came every day and journalists were scrambling to keep up. In PR, part of our role is to make journalists’ lives easier, so Degreed looked at how it could help support its journalist contacts – and that extended beyond usual PR offerings like comments, research and bylines. We would send small gifts to keep people’s spirits up and we also arranged kids’ activity books for working parents (to give them a much needed break!).”

14. Content must work harder

Vicky Stoakes, communications director at design agency PR specialist Red Setter: “Because of the issue of time (for both journalists and our clients working in a pandemic), we’ve been focused on making each piece of content work harder. Pre-pandemic once an article had landed, we’d likely move onto the next story, but now it gets pitched as a podcast, becomes a webinar, becomes a series on our client’s LinkedIn, whatever works. We’re using time to get the most out of the best ideas and making sure messages are heard again and again from our clients that support their new business objectives.”

15. Don’t forget SEO

Heather Baker, CEO of agency TopLine Comms and TopLine Film: “We have seen an impressive surge this January in businesses looking for search marketing support. It seems that every company that would typically generate a big chunk of its leads through events is now scrambling for new ways to get business through the door. Whilst they are all interested in branding, video and content, what they are really keen to invest in is the clear and focused lead-gen potential of search engine optimisation.” 

16. Use whatever media works

Maria Hamilton, account director, Custard Communications: “As a hospitality focused agency, we have had to adapt our approach to showcase our clients’ experience to the media. With the lockdown affecting site visits, press trips and mailings, we have utilised video, online masterclasses, virtual meetings and tours, podcasts and interviews as alternative activities for target journalists.”

17. Collaborate with influencers

Emma Leonard, director of agency Unify PR and Marketing: “Influencer collaborations have never been so essential as they are right now. In a time when producing content for PR campaigns has become challenging due to the circumstances, influencers have seamlessly filled the gap, creating stunning content whilst developing meaningful partnerships with brands that have enabled campaigns to move forward.

“Our influencer partnerships have generated bespoke content, new audiences and real value, but they have also provided us with the feel-good factor, something we all need right now. To be effective, PR campaigns need to put the nation’s feelings first ahead of commercial objectives with influencers, the perfect online brand ambassadors.”

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