How PR teams are carrying business through the COVID storm

by | Jul 13, 2020 | Public Relations

Though lockdown restrictions are gradually easing around the world, we are definitely not through the COVID-19 storm yet. In fact, and as we’ve previously reported, a second wave is regarded as the biggest threat to business continuity.

The pandemic has already had some massive worldwide effects. Beyond the headline figures that show an impending economic crisis for many economies, others are starting to look at how the pandemic has changed consumers’ view of the world.

Many of the conclusions they are coming to, while novel for the business community as a whole, will not be news to PR professionals. In fact, the importance of understanding the post-COVID consumer, of communicating with them through appropriate channels, and even moving to new business models in the post-pandemic world, mirror many of the changes that are already old news in the PR industry.

In this article, we’ll look at how PR professionals are helping businesses through the COVID-19 storm, and why PR will be a crucial part of the post-pandemic business landscape.

Feeling the pain

When the pandemic first broke out, many businesses were faced with a communicative challenge. It was immediately apparent that they could not continue to advertise as normal, because pushy marketing materials can always look pretty insensitive at a time of international crisis and significant personal suffering.

What was needed was an approach that could empathize with customers, and that genuinely communicated a shared experience. Equally, given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, it was clear that AI-driven tools were not going to be able to respond.

This is where PR professionals came in. PR, after all, is based on the idea of understanding the experiences of customers, whether this be their desire for a new car or their experience of shelter-in-place orders.

Across many sectors, PR professionals were able to carefully target messages to customers that resonated with their real-life experiences. In many businesses, this approach was something of a revelation, though it’s effectiveness won’t come as news to PR pros.

New business models

The pandemic has also forced many businesses to change the very basis of how they operate. The effects of lockdown orders meant that many people were stuck at home, and that businesses in multiple sectors were forced to move to a delivery model.

In doing so, many have been forced to rethink their core offer to consumers: instead of merely being a merchant for manufactured goods, many businesses are beginning to see themselves as services companies. Many consumers in today’s era are increasingly preferring a services model to traditional merchant/consumer relationships.

SaaS-based PR businesses in particular rely on a consistent subscription stream in order to ensure growth, and this can take several years to turn a profit. Such companies are therefore very vulnerable during economic recessions such as the current one, and this is an issue that is also very widespread because 86 percent of companies are reliant on SaaS for their software needs.

Subsequently, PR businesses are being forced to adopt new strategies to attain customers, and specifically by crafting marketing content that can cater directly to the needs of a customer by helping them resolve their concerns. SaaS-marketers are also investing more in cheap paid advertisements, which is paying off as more people are spending time online than before.

The good news is that PR teams were well prepared for this shift as well. In service models, reputation management and maintaining brand consistency are exponentially more important than in traditional business models, and are also an integral part of what PR teams do.

In other words, the post-COVID consumer will be increasingly looking to brands that can prove their values: whether this be a commitment to quality, or a social conscience. The role of PR teams in communicating these alignments should not be overlooked.

New ways of communicating

It wasn’t just everyday experience that changed during the pandemic, though. The very basis on which customers communicated was also transformed. As shelter-in-place orders took hold around the world, we witnessed a huge shift to remote working. This also had major consequences for the platforms that businesses could use for marketing.

Again, PR professionals came to the rescue. In many businesses, the PR department contained the most developed (and sometimes the only) expertise available on using social media and email marketing, and on using these in a way that respected the need to practice responsible data retention.

Email marketing in particular remains one of the most effective ways to build relationships with customers by connecting with them directly. But it has become even more essential as a result of COVID, with email open rates increasing significantly over last year.

The recognition of the value of these forms of communication are ultimately one of the key reasons why the PR industry stands to gain from the pandemic. For many businesses, the COVID-19 crisis was the first time they were forced to devote significant resources to digital marketing, and after seeing how much can be achieved, they will be unlikely to go back to more traditional methods.

The bottom line

All of these factors have contributed to a surprising fact about the past few months: that while business investment has fallen in almost all sectors, the resources devoted to PR teams has actually increased. It seems business leaders are finally recognizing the value of PR when it comes to communicating with their customers, and ultimately ensuring ongoing profitability. It’s just a shame that it took a pandemic for this to occur.

But while this might be great news for PR professionals, now is definitely not the time to get complacent. Instead, PR teams should use the value they provided to their companies during the pandemic as proof of their ongoing worth to their respective organizations, and perhaps even use this as the basis of an argument for more resources.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s too early for that just yet. If you’d rather focus on the crisis, before you pat yourself on the back, please check out our resources for COVID-19 communications. Just make sure that after all this is over, you take the time to recognize (and perhaps mention) how important your PR team was during the pandemic.

Dan Fries
Dan Fries is Founding Partner at Lakeview Capital in Hong Kong.