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What PR learnt from the pandemic

With the vaccines offering hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, we ask PR professionals the lessons they have learnt from this pandemic and lockdowns that they will take forward into 2021.

1. Empathy rules
James Selman, managing director of PR firm Allison+Partners UK and Ireland: “With a potential vaccine on the horizon, I step back and think about what the pandemic has taught me about our collective expertise as communicators.

"As an MD it was easy to become disconnected and work in my own bubble"

“As quickly as the team adapted to remote working, we also had to evolve how we communicate and manage virtually. I probably can’t call myself part of the digital native generation, so building and strengthening relationships in an online setting is new territory. I found being clear, empathic and in regular contact has been crucial for colleagues and client communications alike. 

“As a managing director it was easy to become disconnected and work in my own bubble, but I soon learned the value of simply asking ‘no, how are you really doing’. From there I began introducing other ways for the larger team to meet regularly and to ensure our culture remains as vibrant as ever.” 

2. Roll with the punches
James Selman: “For client work we had to roll with the punches, but we bounced back quickly with some great wins. A more strategic and meaningful communications approach was necessary given the unique impact that the pandemic has had on clients and to continue to own relationships built on trust.

“I encouraged the team to adopt a similar approach when reaching out to all stakeholders, and conveyed that wartime spirit when we had to collectively roll up our sleeves and react to changing client needs wherever they may be across the globe.

“All in all, this unique challenge has helped me to reaffirm my skills as a more nurturing communicator, and hopefully made me a better business leader at the same time.”

3. Internal comms is key
Amberly Dressler, director of brand and content at HR technology firm isolved: “The biggest PR lesson I learnt through the pandemic is the need to communicate early and often with internal stakeholders. Some of the best PR efforts in 2020 were around internal comms to ensure employees felt supported and informed. In my previous role at Episerver, my cohost and I held twice-weekly internal webinars around topics such as home schooling and stress management as well as fun ‘Episodes’ like a game show, entertainment show and more.”

4. Don’t hold onto old ways
Amberly Dressler: “I take a less-traditional approach to my new role at isolved when pitching to journalists knowing that their lives have changed tremendously in the past year as well. They may not be as supported within their orgs. Empathy-led outreach isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must-have at a time when people’s circumstances are more unique than ever.”

5. ‘Hybrid’ working works
Dominika Paciorkowska, managing director at software firm ClickMeeting: “Eight months into the ‘great remote work experiment’ it is clear that we’re never going back. The Covid-19 pandemic may have forced the hand of companies around the world to implement remote work, but it’s viability long-term has never been more clear, or more studied. 

“For companies that decide there’s no need (or benefit) to going back to the old way of working, but do not want to embrace a fully remote work environment, creating a successful, long-term hybrid workforce will require changing the way we think of work in subtle and not so subtle ways. 

“My first tip for businesses going ‘hybrid’ is to level the playing field between remote and in-person workers. Remote workers must be able to feel like they are an equal part of the team as the office denizens. This goes beyond simply making sure everyone is rowing in the same direction regarding production goals and includes equal footing for promotion tracks and other benefits.”

6. Be adaptable
Eddie Hammerman, managing director at communications agency The 10 Group:Adaptability has been absolutely central in the pandemic. As thousands of in-person events closed their doors earlier this year, the speed of virtual event adoption took us by surprise, but we knew there was opportunity if we moved fast. We quickly realised that brands would have to fight harder to get their voices heard, so we took time with our clients to identify who they really needed to reach and make sure we communicated with those audiences with the right nuance and sensitivity.

"After starting off with Zoom webinars, we saw more and more brands eager to follow suit, and with audiences continuing to engage well with this new type of content, started shifting towards making virtual moments with product launches and reveals. We’re living through a time of huge change, but if we approach it with empathy, transparency and a willingness to adapt, there is huge potential for growth.”

7. Media relationships really matter  
Adam Smith, managing director of Teamspirit: “The true power of media relationships has come into its own during the pandemic. Those agencies and consultants with the strongest relationships are the ones who have managed to continue delivering cut-through for their clients. It’s highlighted why being a specialist in any given industry is so beneficial, where expertise and insight hold value in a fast-moving world.”

8. Creativity can thrive remotely
Adam Smith: “Another learning from the lockdowns is that when we work remotely, we can still maintain creativity. We’ve been able to evolve, find new ways to stay interesting, and adapt our working behaviours – whether it’s having a walking brainstorm, or holding virtual workshops with break-out rooms to keep our training programme going.”

9. There are many ways to motivate
Adam Smith: “The pandemic has forced us to find different methods to keep motivated and maintain our culture and relationships. We’ve continued to grow our team, hiring remotely and ensuring that they still experience our company culture, albeit virtually, with regular events for the whole team to get together and recognise one another’s achievements.”

10. Be bold with imagery
George Theohari, head of content at marketing agency Speak Media: “Our brand newsroom produces a large volume of photography and video for major firms in financial services, and one of the biggest changes has been in our approach to visual content. 

“At the start of lockdown, it was much harder to justify sending out photographers, so we had to rethink our approach to sustain that output.

“Our picture desk pivoted towards a broader range of visual storytelling formats – increasing our use of illustration and graphics, for instance – while also creating a robust set of safety guidelines that meant our crews were still able to get out for essential shoots. 

“The restrictions on movement actually resulted in imagery we would never have shot pre-lockdown – newly-remote senior executives relaxing at home, for instance, instead of the usual desk or breakout-sofa portraits. 

“The noticeable uptick in social response to these more authentic portrayals helped us make the case to clients that – beyond lockdown – we can and should be bolder in our image choices; even, or perhaps especially, when dealing with more ‘serious’ subject matter at the thought leadership end of the corporate content spectrum.”

As the year 2020 draws to a close, it may be a little too soon to breathe a sigh of relief, but at least the lessons it has taught us can be carried on to a (hopefully) happier new year.

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