Silent shift in the PR industry. Alone but together
Article by Valeria Tudor, Founder & Owner of The House PR Agency, Romania
Death tolls and victims ramp up in the COVID-19 pandemic situation. All stores emptied with fury and competition for medicines won by the most astute people. News so far expose the elders as the most sensitive group in this pandemic. Statements go live on TV saying that we all are. Some countries have installed strict almost military measures, some others have decided to slow the process of shutting down the system. In Romania, we all barricaded voluntarily in our homes, hoping that brick walls will be enough to seal us from the coronavirus that turns the world upside down.
What has been said, has been said. What we know, we know. What we don’t know, it’s actually what’s in stall for our future. Someone returning from abroad, who lost his job there, interviewed on TV gave a grey perspective on this matter: “I look at the future and I see nothing”. Where people lack information, it is a void. Nothing. A void that howlers from a distance like a sick animal. It’s nor silent, nor noisy, but it’s there, approaching.
We watch the news where deaths are counted like a mantra, day & night. Local channels, international ones, they all look the same. Pandemic is gaining field and is leaving its mark wherever it touches. Pray, science, money, all useless. Jobs are lost, consciences are lost, competition for survival is felt everywhere. All these creating a context for harsh rehabilitation, once things get back to normal. But will they ever? Recent history shows that economic crisis brings no good. Coronavirus death will not disappear, but transform, like a freak monster that grows another head when the prince cuts one. Bankruptcy leads to depression. Depression leads to suicidal. A fact: death will raise its toll.
Predictions regarding the economic system are somber. Most of them envisage the crisis that we all expected but somehow felt in control about it. No one has ever had visualized the nightmare that we are trapped in these days. The dolce far niente has now other valences, fiestas alone make no sense. It feels like we are in a building which is demolishing with us inside, with no warning.
Industries are struggling to adapt. Online now absorbs everything like a top-rated vacuum cleaner. In-store stocks are empty, online is the place to seek. Small businesses already closed in the great capitals of the world. Talking to a friend in Paris, she said that her acquaintances have flown to province and took everything. They put a locker on their business. Having them closed for two months equals with bankruptcy.
These are the most visible changes, but what do the creative industries. What does the PR industry, which is known to stay behind the keyboard and to create for its clients? What do you do with industries with services that are not desired anymore?
I talked to some of my colleagues from abroad, taking the pulse from the distance. When you are wondering how you will recover from this, for you own sanity, it’s better to have a second opinion on what’s happening so you don’t lose track of reality. Some of them are doing well – they work for several clients that need to reassure their audiences about the safety of their products. We have all seen loads of information regarding how products are handled, how they are packed, how they reach to us.
Adapting means shifting perspective for the PR industry. Less work, less budget spent. Or same budget but redirected. If we want to keep our businesses on the floating line, our teams in the same formula and pretty much do not throw over the window our lifetime work, option two is the best for all of us. Colleagues from Germany, from Finland, from Luxembourg stated that they are actually shifting from external to internal communication – employees need to be instructed regarding the new health safety policies; plus, they need to be reassured about keeping their jobs. So, communication efforts are actually amplified where they were kept to minimal and they are not focusing anymore on products, but on humans. If I was cynic, I would thank the virus from teaching us that.
But what about new business? Signals are that networking groups have closed in the UK and not only, meetings have been cancelled – we only have online calls from day to day until further notice – industry events of all kind have been postponed. Nothing to put your hands on, new clients section froze. If business is still stable these days, how do you grow then?
Simple, some of us own the agencies that we have. We are entrepreneurs – damn, I think I’ll put that on my business card when we get back to the office. What does that mean? Dynamics of the market? They don’t scare us! Losing clients? Not in your dreams! We adapt! We are resilient! We have the power to learn on the go and to adjust our businesses. That’s what entrepreneurs do all over the world now, being in the communication industry or not!
Mikko Sillanpää, Managing Director at Harkonsalo & Vesa, shares his experience with the agency he manages in Helsinki, Finland. Not very far from this black scenario that we are leaving is taking over a company with debts. Somehow, he did find a way to bring it up and to survive and position the agency on a global market. What he recommends now:
“Besides obvious cutting down all costs, the question is very difficult to answer, but here are some my thoughts and experiences, perhaps these have some value (or not) for you. I started to map out expenses by type. As personnel is the only key for survival of the consulting business, I started to change the cost structure. I would do everything possible to defend the personnel costs and get rid of everything else possible.
Still our business is volatile one even at the best of times, let alone crises like this. We haven’t yet seen any effects here in our business from this crisis, but sooner (or hopefully) later we will see them. There is prognosis that Finnish GDP will suffer 4% loss this year because of the coronavirus, and that is big enough number that every company will face some effects. We discussed at team meeting about what we can do. Financial crises provided some reference material on what happens to the sales in the crises. It will be difficult to sell new retainer-fee based cooperation and we will probably lose more retainer-clients than we will be able to get new ones in.”
From South to North and East to West, no matter where we are on the globe, the impact of this unexpected situation is just the same. Nicole Capper, Managing Director of MANGO-OMC, South Africa share with us her perspective: “As a global population, we are all facing unprecedented times. Many of us are lucky enough to be able to work remotely, to utilise technology in the most positive way possible and to assist one another to stay calm, to stay financially viable and to stay informed.
As a communications agency, we are honoured to be able to assist with communications about this crisis in all sectors; whether public, private or non-profit. We are acting in accordance with the words of the President of South Africa on Sunday, 15 March – This is the most definitive Thuma Mina moment for our country. It is true that we are facing a grave emergency. But if we act together, if we act now, and if we act decisively, we will overcome it.”
At the heart of Europe, in Hamburg, Germany, colleagues found amplified the usage of the tools that they already had implemented. Karsten Hoppe, Founder & CEO, TDUB Kommunikationsberatung showcases their story in the middle of the crisis:
“Our DNA is quite digital – both from a clients perspective, but also regarding the communication tools we use in everyday work. So now that the whole company switched to homeoffice business after only a few bumps everything works well with Slack, Bluejeans, VPN, VoIP, smartphones, laptops. Of course, we all would wish to meet in real life from time to time – but that’s how it goes.
Crises for PR agencies always bear risks – more from a business angle – but also chances – more from a communications perspective. In view of business we always try to limit risk by focussing more to longterm retainer clients than to onetime projects. And from a communications perspective: the world changes, so communication has to follow suit and adapt, meaning “work” for PR agencies. Now’s the time for new strategies and approaches. Widen your view and adapt your targets to the new situation. We find products at clients, that have been out of their focus yet, but that are pretty helpful for people when in homeoffice. That’s a tailwind you want to have in earned section.”
In the USA, things are just going swirling. Kieran Powell, Executive Vice President, Channel V Media informs us about the current status quo: “The news cycle right now is focusing almost 80% on coronavirus, but we are already seeing this change. In the next couple of weeks we will start to see reporters return to their regular beats. Coronavirus will still be an issue, but it will be getting less air time.
PR firms need to focus on their internal business goals, setting goals with clients and planning out what the next three, six, nine months look like for clients. When firms manage their clients and events they can control, they are less susceptible to events that they can’t control such as the coronavirus.”
Blue Focus, an agency based on China, has shared a very insightful research on how the marketing trends will reshape during and post-coronavirus. The perspective is rather optimistic: “Brands remain resilient, confident and await recovery.” After the coronavirus communication has swallowed up all the mediascape, real-time attention and the online-related sectors are the ones where our interest should be manifested. According to their conclusions “Diversity brings safety”. And remember, China is where the COVID-19 timeline started so they might be just right with that.
What do I think? We are living hard times with an unfeeling closure; we have no possibility to make any plans and our known structures are falling down. But new ones are coming up, embracing the new wind of digitalization. In this context, when the numbers broadcasted everyday are living us in deep silence, we have no option than to keep going, to keep doing what we know how to do the best, to keep our sanity. After mourning, we need to get back to whatever normal will mean, we will need to find a way. As my grandmother told me:
“Do not lose courage. All will be well.”