What PR Professionals Should Learn From Year 2020

2020 was a year like no other for everyone, including PR professionals. In this interview, Lorato Tshenkeng , the CEO of Decode Communications, a South African-based PR and Communication agency,  shares his thoughts and experience with PR Intelligence Magazine on the challenges of running a PR agency during a pandemic, how to overcome the challenges and what PR professionals should learn from year 2020.

You are the CEO of Decode Communications. Is there more to the Public Relations agency than we know?

Yes, there is. When I started the agency eight years ago, I had been frustrated by how lowly people thought of the value of PR and how other professionals misunderstood it, and in other instances, how executives, senior managers and business leaders even disregarded its role and impact as a strategic management function. But also, at the time, South Africa was still riding the wave of the euphoria from the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup. Out of that frustration, I set out to start an agency that would re-position PR with an ambitious mission – Decode Communications exists to positively influence how business is done in Africa.

The ambition came out of our passion about the potential the continent holds and we always look forward to working with brands to translate this potential into reality. I intended not only to make money from the agency but to use opportunities to educate people about PR and its value. It remains a constant struggle, but we keep at it with this audacious mission.

The way we do it is to encourage business executives and government leaders to think hard about how their daily decisions and actions, policies and organizational culture impact on their reputation management and brand building efforts which ultimately impacts how they tell positive stories and leverage on goodwill of their audiences to set themselves apart in the marketplace.

Of course, we never do this at the detriment of achieving the results that the clients want to achieve but we try hard to always leave them with deep thoughts on how PR is less about publicity but more about relationship building and maintenance, and that can’t be achieved when their culture and system is broken or dysfunctional. I must say though, working with small business owners – I have almost given up on educating them because they operate from a completely different paradigm – penny pinching (understandably so) and seeing PR as a nice-to-have.

So, yes – we intend to help organizations and brands achieve their business goals by helping them connect with people who matter to their success, and in the process influence them to maintain good business practices, so that they can continue being great corporate citizens.

Decode Communications has done work beyond the borders of South Africa. We have worked with a client that has presence in 42 Sub-Sahara markets and we were responsible for corporate PR. Beyond providing PR support to Nissan in those key markets, we have had the pleasure of working on the ground in Kenya, Mozambique, Angola, Nigeria, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

2020 was a very difficult year for most PR agencies. What did you do differently to keep your company afloat?

One of the first things I did was to hire a business coach as I had acknowledged that I had no idea how to deal with maintaining and growing a business during the pandemic that has disrupted everything we knew. I knew that I needed an objective support if I were to navigate the year successfully. This was a great decision as it came in very handy as the coach is not only someone I respect but one who successfully ran a PR agency, so his guidance and learnings have been exceptionally invaluable. He has helped shape our thinking, in particular our business development strategy.

Secondly, I increased the social commentary on current affairs and PR & Communication related issues which in turn helped with increasing awareness of the agency and the work we do. That helped us with lead generation and being called on to help brands and collaborate with some.

Thirdly, we also acknowledged that we had not done justice with our own marketing, so we onboarded a brand strategist to help us. Four months in, I must say, we are starting to see some results. Not that we were not expecting any, I guess it was about time we took our own medicine and instead of Do-It-Yourself, the external help seems to be working and we hope to keep at it. Alongside the brand strategy, we also took advantage of the fact that more and more people are spending considerable time and consuming content online, so we invested in some paid media campaign beyond social media. We had not done this before, so, we keep learning.

What lessons do you think PR professionals should learn from that year?

The first is, gimmicks don’t work and will never work, so, professionals have to invest in producing creative campaigns that are more about helping clients meet their objectives and addressing customers’ needs instead of just creating a buzz or trending on twitter. Of course, it is important to trend or create a buzz for good reasons but also, it is critical to consider the sustainability of the PR effort. We have to learn that communicating with a purpose is not a nice-to-say but a must do.

Secondly, we must use the learnings to help our clients to prioritise crisis planning and management. Unfortunately, crisis communications strategies are sometimes an afterthought and what 2020 has taught us is that things can get bad, really bad, very fast and last for longer than expected – and, when there is nothing you can do about it, you just have to keep level head and execute the crisis communication plan. Hopefully it will no longer be a hard sell to clients. One of the things we do at Decode is ask clients – now that we have planned for the best-case scenario, what if things go horribly wrong? When we ask this question, they sit up and we have been able to successfully work together to help them with scenario planning and crisis anticipation.

Thirdly, with a number of print titles closing down as fast as they are in South Africa and newsrooms shrinking – playbooks will help separate the effective PR professionals from the good ones. One thing that Covid-19 has shown us is that during a crisis, agencies have to rely on the strength of their systems along with innovation and creativity. Innovation because even with the dynamics affecting the media space, professionals still have to find ways to create and package campaigns that resonate with their clients’ audiences while proving return on investment on the PR efforts. I have seen that the playbooks help with prioritizing expert voices and thought leadership.

Fourthly, PR seems to be behind the technology curve. As professionals, we have to learn to fast adopt technology as an enabler to becoming more effective and saving time on the mundane tasks. Besides the social media upsurge, video and audio are fast becoming ways in which journalists and audiences are consuming content, therefore, we have to adopt approaches on how to churn these products in near real-time to ensure relevance and resonance with our storytelling efforts.

Lastly, change communications and employee engagement are disciplines that I believe have often taken the back seat in the course of our work with prioritization of external communications as we tried keeping clients happy. But now with more companies letting employees go as they were going through hard times; PR professionals have to master the skill of handling communications with the necessary care, and communicate with empathy because of heightened anxiety from Covid-19.

Also, adjusting to remote working has not been easy for some employees. Therefore, I hope that PR professionals will learn to emphasize with their clients to always prioritize employee engagement in order to manage anxiety and maintain optimal productivity.

Tell us what your agency is doing to protect the brands it works for in this Covid-19 era.

To execute our reputation management programmes, we are big on thought leadership, media relations and content marketing, so one of the things we focused with our understanding that many journalists were now preoccupied with understanding and dealing with the pandemic, we encouraged our clients to invest time is media relationship building exercises to help them keep top of mind as journalists were inundated with a flood of Covid-19 press materials. Our media outreach efforts seem to have earned Decode Communications so much respect with our clients and journalists as they both appreciated the value of the interactions and contents.

We also worked on refining our model of content council where we help clients to use a painless exercise of extracting information from their delivery divisions and experts, so we created content banks that we could just pull from for both earned and paid media campaigns.

Covid-19 has pushed many global companies to do more to promote the welfare of society. What opportunities exist for PR in that regard?

Empathy is a very important tool that all PR professionals must have learned to master throughout 2020. The pandemic has disrupted everything around us and with the economies being hit hard, brands had to learn to be mindful of perceptions and always minding their language. Many brands and organizations had to learn the hard way that self-serving promotions that are tone-deaf in times when people are dealing with devastation can be too costly and that it could take too long to repair the damaged reputations.

The opportunity that exists for brand is to adopt an attitude of focusing on communicating with a purpose, with the intention to help others instead of disrupting them with self-serving promotions. Also, the other opportunity is using humour in communications. Of course, this can be very tricky as not all jokes are equally funny and some can tread on the side of insensitivity. Therefore, cultural sensitivity should always be a huge consideration in communication campaigns to avoid unnecessary tactless moments of communication.

What do you think a PR agency should look like, in terms of skills and structure, in order to make the best use of such opportunities?

One of the things that agency owners have to focus on is culture. As the saying goes – culture will eat strategy for breakfast any day. I have observed tensions when agencies tried to emphasize strategy but faied to assess the organizational culture and how it affects positive storytelling. The PR professionals must sharpen the skills of researching and using insights to persuade their clients to act in a way that supports the communication efforts and pivot when necessary.

The other skill that I believe we need to master is adopting brand journalism as the shrinking newsrooms and traditional media outlets are posing a huge threat to earned media. Therefore, PR professionals should be able to write in ways that are not self-promotional but resonant with their audience.

From a structure point of view, I believe that agencies have to consider hiring or onboarding data analysts or even training their staff to help them extrapolate insights from data as more and more conversations and audiences are online. This will also help the PR professionals to tell compelling stories using visual aids such as infographics, dashboards, podcasts and videos created specifically for social media, and in particular, for instant messaging platforms.

You were selected into The Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans. Tell us more about it.

Mail & Guardian is one of South Africa’s premier read, a weekly newspaper with long analysis and extensive investigative journalism pieces that comes out on Fridays. One of their flagship projects is Top 200 Young South Africans which is open for nominations of people under 30 to profile them for the outstanding work they do in their respective fields. From the nominations, there’s a shortlist of the potential candidates per category and the finalists are interviewed by the journalists and profiled in a special supplement in the newspaper and hosted at a glitzy gathering of the 200 young people.

Back in 2008, South Africa was going through a very interesting time politically. It was the year in which former President Thabo Mbeki was asked to resign a few months before his term ended and a new political party was formed – the Congress of the People (COPE) – of which I was part of the communications team. I went on to work with the leader of the party in parliament as the communications manager in 2009 and it was in that year that I was recognized for my outstanding work as a communications strategist as I had been part of the machinery that helped the leader to be distinguished with a public profile and a very effective media engagement and political communications strategy. It felt good because COPE’s leader in parliament was not a politician before I started working with him and I was not in mainstream politics as well but we worked well to achieve brilliant framing of the party’s objectives and messaging consistently despite the dynamic environment we were operating in.

How do you manage your health and well-being during this very stressful period of the Covid-19 pandemic?

In all honesty, during our lockdown in South Africa from March to September I was too complacent with physical exercise. In fact, I gained a few kilograms and that contributed to the feeling of fatigue I got from time to time. Fortunately, I have a very active wife who always put me to shame with my laziness and I could see the benefits from her routines of exercising in confined spaces and it was only a matter of time before I joined her. Although it was tough getting used to it as I enjoy jogging in the streets.

For a team perspective, we worked from home for most of the time last year with a lot of remote engagement, and to manage the stress levels, we adopted some new habits including online catchups at least one evening in a week where we would discuss a book that one of us was reading or even talk about a marketing or advertising case study just to take our minds off discussing work all the time. We didn’t get it right all the time but it seemed to have been good for our downtime and it allowed the team to also share their coping mechanisms, which was good.