2020 was a bleak year for people across the world, no thanks to Covid-19. Unfortunately, as we struggled into 2021, the heat of the second wave feels hotter than that of the first wave. Businesses and individuals including PR agencies and PR professionals who desire to come out of the pandemic in the best possible shape must use the lessons drawn from experiences of the first wave and from the current one to make informed decisions.
As Orson De Witt has taught us, “We don’t have to waste our time learning how to make pastry when we can use grandma’s recipes.” Personal experiences alone may not see us through these rough and uncertain times unscathed. They may even drop us in the wrong place. Perhaps, the best option is for us to draw insights from the ‘recipes’ that other professionals freely share about the twists and turns in their journeys and the straight and smooth roads they followed and are still following.
Our Editor-in- Chief, Vincent Utere reached out to several PR professionals across the world to share their Covid-19 journeys with readers of PR Intelligence Magazine in 300 to 350 words. Here are eight contributions captured in topics that reflect the practitioners’ experiences and the approaches they used in managing the first wave of this pandemic and are using for the second. Some are longer than the number of words requested, but they are worth sharing. We believe they will provide you with the insights you need to dodge the pitfalls, spot and avail yourself of the opportunities in the journey as you navigate the rough roads of this pandemic. Happy reading!
Crisis Principles Should Drive Everything In Pandemic Communication
By Jay Blanton, University of Kentucky, USA
In crisis communication, the emphasis is often – understandably – placed on the idea of incident response. How quickly can you respond with accurate, timely and consistent information, aimed at key stakeholders and the media? I would submit that the emphasis – first, during and at the end of an incident or issue – should be on crisis principles.
Principles should drive and inform everything. And if you get that right, the response and other communication tools and tactics will follow and, more often than not, be maximally effective.
As part of the University of Kentucky’s response to COVID-19 – during both its initial surge and as the crisis has deepened in recent months – our focus has continually been on developing and then returning frequently to our principles. We have kept them few and straightforward:
• How do we ensure the health, safety and well-being of our entire campus community in everything that we do?
• How do we return to normal, or as close to normal operations as soon as possible?
• How do we live up to the idea in communicating that sometimes more is more?
• How do we demonstrate that in this crisis, finances come second?
The articulation of straightforward – and widely shared – principles across some 500 people who formed 19 different work streams made the job of pulling together an operational plan timely and tenable. And it made the communication plan that flowed from it more straightforward and nimble.
For example, we decided early on that in a community naturally more disconnected, as more and more people worked remotely and practiced physical distancing, we would aim each week for two communications from the president. We called it Uplift and Update.
We were making sure that each week we were providing the most timely and up-to-date information to our campus – what they needed to know and when. We also were taking time each week, usually in video and on our social channels, to present the story of individuals and teams of people who were making a difference during a time of such strain and stress, change and challenge.
Yet, we were nimble enough to know that some weeks would require a communication every day. And, as we learned throughout the semester, we changed channels to keep content fresh and valid.
This semester, using data analytics around both open and click-through rates, we are changing up our cadence of communication a bit – still frequent, but shorter, more interactive and more targeted to utilize particular communication channels to reach a specific audience with the message that resonates the most in the manner most likely to hit home with them.
However, regardless of the channel or medium, we always go back to first principles – established long before the first response. They will continue to guide everything we do and be used to evaluate our effectiveness after vaccines have been administered and masks put aside.
—Jay Blanton is chief communications officer at the University of Kentucky, USA.
Covid-19 Pandemic Highlights the Importance of Kindness
By Kate Woodruffe, Auckland, New Zealand
Here in New Zealand we’re operating in an almost ‘normal’ environment, able to travel freely within our border and congregate without restrictions. We are doing things differently, but we are no longer in crisis-mode.
We cannot be confident we will not have further lockdowns this year, so we are planning for all scenarios and accepting that any plans we make may change. We must remain flexible, and mentally open to the uncertainty of everything we plan. This has increased the importance of mentoring staff and being emotionally available to our colleagues, as we also have changes in our personal lives that we are dealing with.
I currently work in public infrastructure development, which has benefited from Government investment and new legislation designed to stimulate our economy. The biggest change has been in my clients’ attitudes towards investing in online tools, remote working, and my ability to work effectively from home. Covid-19 has opened up both minds and budgets for digital tools as an essential part of our communication toolkit. This has been a positive leap forward that I hope will outlast the pandemic.
Even though we can meet in person, we have become much more accustomed to building business relationships online. I live and work in Auckland, but none of my current projects or clients are local and I am not expected to travel as much as I would have previously. I think we have a new perspective on what is ‘essential travel’ and the need to work from the office. I now work from home most days, and many people I have talked to have not returned to their office full time and are enjoying this balance.
We are a small country of many small communities, so relationships are important, and we operate under ‘two degrees of separation’ from each other. The pandemic has heightened and highlighted this closeness and the importance of being kind, to ourselves, our environment, and others. This is also something that influences my work.
Kate Woodruffe is a Communications and Engagement specialist. She has been a Fellow of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) since 2013. She is currently the Chief Judge of PRINZ Awards
Working Principles for Unusual Times
By Prabhat Bhattacharya, India
While 2020 was a year of extreme uncertainties induced by the pandemic, looking back, it is heartening to say that although our challenges were many, each of our team members had the grit to fight the situation, the passion to keep pushing the boundaries, challenging the next normal and leading from the front, shoulder-to-shoulder. It is this spirit that has kept our company’s dream alive, and it is this spirit that will keep it alive for years to come.
As a young organization, 2020 helped us gather many insights in navigating through complex business situations. With Covid-19 turning the world upside down, social distancing and working from home became an emerging imperative for all of us. As a progressive organization, we took a bold step on 18 March 2020 towards supporting our community’s safety by testing remote working options. We set in motion multiple protocols for those who needed to opt for work from home. Our technology and infrastructure ensured that we are able to effectively serve clients through work-by-wire.
Some of the guidelines and working principles include:
- Report day’s plan by 9.30 AM in respective WhatsApp groups/emails
- Ensure to send a day-end progress/report by 6 PM
- Be available for any client meetings, phone or video calls as required from time to time
- Set up daily call mechanism between, preferably by 10-10:30 AM with respective team/team members, and follow up with regular conference calls as and when required.
- Use Dial-in/call bridge- whenever more than three colleagues are required on the call. Put the time blocked for the call on Bridge on the working group to avoid any clash with anyone else’s agenda
- Ensure appropriate network and calling network/landline so that there is no break in communication.
- Start using collaboration tools like Zoom, WebEx, Google share, etc; more actively for effective teamwork.
Our reward and recognition initiatives combined with fun at work (we learned to master this in a virtual environment too), our in-house training interventions and the weekly All-Hands Connect have proven to be very effective in capacity building and have continued to help us build a winning culture at Consocia Advisory.
Prabhat Bhattacharya is the Chief Partner Officer of Consocia Advisory, a New Delhi-based consulting firm that specializes in Reputation Management, Public Affairs and Sustainability.
An Interesting Time for Building Relationships
By Melissa DiGianfilippo, Arizona, USA
This is the most challenging time I have ever experienced as a PR professional, and I have been actively working in this field since 2005. Not only is our staff spread out across the country and working remotely, the media landscape has changed drastically. We have found success by still creating as much collaboration as possible, even virtually. We still host our weekly PR team meetings, now via Zoom, where we discuss every single client and brainstorm big ideas, talk about the media landscape and what current events are unfolding that week to help one another through challenges and opportunities.
The team utilizes Slack for in the moment communication with the entire agency, and I have made it a point to ask the team to share client coverage as it runs so we can (virtually) celebrate and boost morale every single day. As an agency we are being responsible by allowing our employees to choose to either come to the office if they are comfortable (where we have plenty of room to social distance amongst 7,000 square feet) or stay home.
With clients, it has actually been an interesting change in how we build and maintain relationships with them. Where previously we would have regular status calls with our clients spread across the country on the phone, now that the world is accustomed to using Zoom, we are able to see many of our client’s faces for our weekly or bi-weekly meetings which have actually helped us build upon current relationships and foster new ones.
Melissa DiGianfilippo is a co-owner and President of Public Relations, Serendipit Consulting, Phoenix, USA. She was named the Top Female PR Professional in Arizona by Arizona Foothills Magazine in 2018 and the Most Admired Leader by the Phoenix Business Journal the same year.
Covid-19 Challenges: The Can-Do Mentality Wins
By Samantha Hogg, South Africa
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be felt across the globe, wreaking havoc on economies. While this has given many the much-needed push to digitally transform, it has also changed the business landscape and how it functions. With customers that are mostly home bound, communication and building trust have become understandable priorities. Given that business trust has long since been an issue that needed to be addressed, Covid-19 pandemic has only amplified its importance. Customers need to know who the brand is, what it stands for, how it is going to serve them and when. Will this brand be there for them when needed? Answering these questions may seem simplistic, but it is how they are answered that matters most. Does it show the integrity of the company, the depth behind the brand, the values and the vision? Communicators have one of the biggest jobs during this pandemic, working to not only meet the basic needs of their audiences but to engage, involve and assist in helping these audiences move forward at a time when most are gripped by fear.
In South Africa, we have seen an increased demand for communications services. So many businesses, big and small alike, are realizing the vital role communications campaigns will play as the business landscape changes irrevocably. The pandemic has given rise to more tech-inspired start-ups filling gaps in services in innovative and inspiring ways. These companies need brand awareness to survive, as well as coverage that will generate increased interest from potential investors.
In 30 years of doing PR, I have not lived through a more interesting time than this pandemic. I watched Bill Gates launch Microsoft; helped Cell C launch its networks, survived the 2000 dot bomb, introduced new mobile phones and other exciting tech, but never have I watched a world grind to an almost standstill while human lives are being lost and economies are being destroyed. If you consider how humans behave at a time of crisis then you will know that they want to communicate, they want to be seen, heard and supported. The same goes for business, customers have the same demands and I think that the brands that stand up and show the most support will forever win their favour.
As an innovation-led industry, South Africa’s tech sector continues to rise to its many challenges and Covid-19 is not different. There are more business launchings, the sector is almost thriving on yet another challenge. Perhaps it’s the inevitable consequence of being a country with a painful struggle history and one whose citizens have become experts at surviving the worst of times, political upheaval and global sanctions. At heart, South Africans are survivors, fighters with a ‘can-do’ mentality. Covid-19 may have had a disastrous effect, but I can see an industry that is fighting hard to see a silver lining and communicating about it is one of the top priorities.
Surviving in Covid-19 times has led to new ways of working. From an agency perspective, my team works remotely while we connect with clients via Zoom, Google Meets and Microsoft teams. Building relationships with clients during this difficult time is vital. As an agency that is known for its delivery, we have simply ensured that clients feel extra comfortable with their status of PR accounts. We engage not only on the phone but via WhatsApp too, which is increasingly becoming an important business tool.
This new way of communicating does work and in fact better than we could imagine as GinjaNinjaPR has welcomed three new clients in the midst of the pandemic. Once you have decided to work together, it is all about delivering. As a team, we have embraced the new remote working, connected as a team and remain steadfastly committed to achieving the PR goals we have for each client.
The pandemic has not stopped us, it just requires us to take a different route to the final PR destination. It has inspired and motivated us to continue pushing as we enter our 18th year as a tech-focused boutique PR agency.
Samantha Hogg is a Communication Consultant with a strong pedigree in technology. She is the owner of GinjaNinja PR, a South African tech-focused Public Relations agency.
How Covid-19 Opens You Up For Growth
By Omawumi Ogbe, Lagos, Nigeria
Long before Covid-19, the team at GLG Communications and I were working 90% remotely. So apart from when we had client events and other live activities, we met physically once every month for our Innovation Day – Here, we put out all the campaigns, clients and accounts we have at the particular time and break them all down from strategy to tactics and more. We work, eat and laugh and this helps us to get a lot done. I am not a fan of mindless meetings; they are usually ineffective. I have seen that bureaucracy and daily meetings can render a company unproductive and I think one thing Covid-19 has done is to show employers across the globe that many meetings could have been phone calls or emails.
When I started GLG Communications, my desire was to build a vibrant and efficient remote-workforce. So in March 2020 when Lagos (Nigeria) and other cities of the world went into lockdown, it felt like business as usual for us. We were fortunate to not struggle as many teams did. We, however, could not hold our usual Innovation Day meetings and attend other physical client events, where we would have connected with one another so I knew it was important for the team to touch base more, as this would help members receive needed support during the challenging time. This made me introduce a weekly virtual meeting called Power Hour and like the name suggests, we come together every week on Zoom, talk about our individual issues and dive into work plans. This has really helped us to achieve so much as a team and individually as well. I believe now, more than ever, that it is important for leaders to support their teams. A great way to make remote work efficient is to touch base regularly, give clearly defined tasks and expectations plus delivery timelines. This way, team members understand what is expected of them and are not going about like a ship without a rudder.
Before the Covid-19 outbreak blew up and the consequent lockdown which has shaped how we work today, we had many events lined up from March 2020. For some, we had booked venues and started publicity. Once we saw that it was going to be a marathon dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak, we cancelled most of the events and quickly pivoted where we could.
My first reaction was to connect with clients and see how best they should be responding to things. We ensured that cancellation announcements were communicated in the right way, with empathy and support for client communities. Most important, we went back to the drawing board to see how we could help our clients deal with the disruptions and stay afloat in this unprecedented time. So, some of our clients were part of the very first to host virtual conferences and events that 2020 became known for. We pivoted all offline events to online and went a step further to ensure that we brought key live event elements into the virtual events to make them memorable and give participants more value.
I believe that there is not much to learn from success and rosy times. Challenges, however, open us up for growth and give us the opportunity to be more creative and find unique ways of doing things. For example, we pivoted a planned book launch and hosted it 100% online, just a few weeks after we went into lockdown. We had to rejig our strategy for the launch and stopped thinking just within our region and opened up our PR strategy to cover Africa.
When it comes to the media to work with, the pandemic is helping to break down location walls. I have booked clients in California to have TV and radio interviews in Lagos and vice versa; just because we could use video conferencing to do so. Even interstate media relations has improved. We no longer just have clients based in Lagos do only Lagos based radio interviews, for example, we could let them be guests on shows in Abuja and anywhere else. This enriched our offerings and gave our clients more access and visibility. Some media houses were already doing this, but many in Nigeria were not open to it, they preferred guests to come to the studio physically but now, even when I am planning an event in Nigeria for a client, I will definitely build in getting participants from other countries in Africa, Europe, America and more to attend because distance is no longer a barrier. We will see a lot of hybrid tactics even when Covid-19 becomes a thing of the past.
Late 2020, I worked with a larger team to host a global press conference. Before now, at the annual event, we would just have Nigerian media and the Nigerian representatives of a few global media houses join us, but for this 2020 virtual edition, we went all the way and invited press from across Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. It was so rewarding to see how successful the press conference was and how we were able to open up the brand to a whole new audience. This global thinking is also reflected in all our digital adverts.
Unless we want to focus on local alone, from April 2020 till now, I no longer think just Nigerian media when I have campaigns or events. We are constantly looking at the different places we want to help our clients add their footprints, and it has been quite exciting in that regard.
Omawumi Ogbe is the managing partner of GLG Communications, one of Nigeria’s fastest growing PR & Communications agencies. Ogbe is a TEDx speaker and a certified Life Coach with studies in Neuro- Linguistic Programming (NLP), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), Emotional Intelligence and more. In March 2019, she was honored with the Coaching Icon Award for her work in coaching and media.
Purpose-Driven Communication Rules During This Pandemic
By Robin Wilhelmsson, Sweden
In Sweden, the pandemic has turned pretty much everything upside down and we went from a situation where communication alternatives were abundant compared to the situation we are in now. With that said, most of the things related to my work have remained unchanged. I am lucky to be part of a company whose business has not suffered significantly during the pandemic and therefore I have been able to keep my way of work intact. I work alone so I have not had any problem with working remotely or digitally. I can still focus on how to maximize this unprecedented situation and execute effective communication.
Pre-pandemic, much of our communications were external, but during the pandemic, things have changed. Our focus is more inwards. Employer branding, storytelling and digital events have all played an important part and will continue to do so considering the fact that the pandemic is far from over. A continuous two-way communication with employees and customers has been an effective way of maintaining and building stronger relationships. I urge everyone to be more vocal within the organization and use ambassadors and spokespersons to effectively carry on the message.
Looking outward, Public Relations still works well. Journalists may not be able to do physical interviews or cover live events, but they still write news. One significant change though, is that local journalism has received a boost during the pandemic. Everyone is all of a sudden interested in what is going in their own backyard, and because of that, local Public Relations efforts have been more successful than before.
One observation from the situation we are in, which should be considered, is that purpose driven communication has never made more sense than it does now. We are all tired of the situation and desperate for a change. We need to be inspired and filled with hope. And therefore, companies that connect their product or service to a bigger cause, and communicate in an engaging way, will gain more than they would have done during ‘normal circumstances’.
Robin Wilhelmsson is the Corporate Communication Manager of Heimstaden, Sweden . Heimstaden is the third largest residential real estate company in Europe, operating in seven markets
Agility Is The Name of The Game
By Kimberly Starks, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Whenever others ask about the health of Blue Scorpion Reputation Management (BSRM), I never say anything negative. As a leader, you have to manage your thoughts and what you share with others, always. Instead, I say that in business there are ebbs and flows. Depending on the day, the ebb and flow will fluctuate. The economic state of businesses, in general, is most trying. My firm has worked hard to remain agile in an economic climate that has brought new surprises daily.
January of last year, our firm was just a PR firm. By the time we were all quarantined in March, we were leveraging other thought leaders to provide weekly Q&A sessions online to keep ourselves relevant in the marketplace – and as a means of exposure to stay afloat. The popularity of our Q&A sessions helped launch a weekly podcast that gained a global audience by June. The inside joke was that we had serendipitously become a media company. Our efforts were good but not enough.
We noticed that so many businesses were hurting, and they were coming to us for
exposure as a means to grow their revenue. Exposure alone was not helping them realize profits immediately. So, we expanded our offerings to provide digital marketing as a means of helping those businesses in the area of online advertising and growing their presence online. We also sought a number of government contracts that helped us, too.
Our team of eight communicated virtually on Slack daily, and to boost morale, I enjoyed sending them gift cards for us to share our favorite dish during our group lunches. We spent time getting to know one another, which helped us to work better as a team.
With all of the progress we have made in 2020 being flexible and working rapidly in response to the environment, we still could not skirt the effects of the pandemic. We are resilient, and we will continue to fight with grace. As hard as we worked to stay afloat in 2020, we will work even harder to thrive in 2021.
Kimberly M. Starks, APR, is an accredited Public Relations practitioner with specialization in reputation management. She is the principal consultant of Blue Scorpion Reputation Management, a PR firm specializing in the areas of video gaming, agribusiness, pet health and wellness, and government contracting. She also is the Cofounder and CEO of Immense DC, an esports consultancy. She is a board member of the Georgia Game Developers Association (GGDA).