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Public Relations

Is COVID-19 Changing Public Relations? Industry Experts Weigh In

Since March, COVID has altered every industry across the globe and will continue to impact them for the foreseeable future. The field of public relations is no exception. With events and public speaking engagements on hold indefinitely, and the front page perpetually inhabited by a global pandemic, how are PR agencies and in-house PR teams managing visibility campaigns for their clients?

We reached out to public relations professionals to hear their thoughts. Some acknowledged that they needed to completely redefine their PR strategies. Others pointed to longtime successful business practices that stood them in good stead. Almost everyone agreed that the habits and attitudes they’ve picked up will have staying power – and possibly alter the industry forever.

Has COVID-19 changed anything about your work?

Jessica Graham, President, Fionix Consulting — “It’s changed many of my projects – mainly timelines … It’s been hard to publicize news that is non-COVID related, so my pitching timelines were pushed out. It’s also harder to get renewals and new contracts because companies just aren’t sure when their cash flow will pick back up.”

Catharina Nilsson, Director of PR and Branding, onePRgroup — “Usually, PR is one of the first services to be cut at most companies during times like these. However, I have seen that companies are putting a bigger emphasis on PR during the pandemic. They’re trying to survive and thrive by building up their awareness and credibility now so that when everything starts to return to normal, they are at the forefront of consumers’ minds.”

Kimberly Smith, Marketing Manager, Clarify Capital — “COVID-19 has actually increased the value of PR within our organization. Because e-commerce has been accelerating in growth, we’ve made changes to marketing budgets and PR efforts to reflect the shift in consumer behavior. The greatest change is to how we’re using PR to align with business goals and improve sales.”

Eric Yaverbaum, CEO, Ericho Communications — “Perhaps the biggest change and challenge for myself and my team in the pandemic was dealing with my own positive coronavirus diagnosis and the 100 days of uncertainty that preceded my eventual recovery. While my team adapted well to trappings of remote work and remained as flexible and steadfast as ever, the pandemic forced us to put a finer point on being communicative with each other.”

Jennifer Adler, CEO and Founder, Adler Public Relations — “Adler PR represents a number of locally-owned restaurants, so unfortunately my business was hit hard and early by COVID. Most of my restaurant clients were forced to pause their PR contracts in mid-March amongst forced shutdowns and necessary budget cuts. One of them still remains closed to this day, unsure if they will ever be able to re-open, and the others still haven’t made up enough revenue to re-engage our PR services. Out of goodwill, I have continued to support them through this challenging time, even though they are not able to currently pay for our services.”

What new strategies or habits have you used to adapt to the pandemic?

Kristine Maloney, Assistant Vice President, TVP Communications — “I want to make sure I’m sensitive to any hardships that [reporters] may be going through before I pitch them in a much more deliberate way than before. It’s important to know – and in some cases acknowledge – if a reporter is dealing with furloughs or sickness of a loved one, for example, before I reach out. And it may make sense to wait on pitching them depending on what they might be dealing with personally. Overall, I am trying to be much more aware of how others are being impacted. These are hard times and we’re all human.”

Leah Frazier, CEO, Think Three Media — “We knew that the effects of COVID-19 on small businesses were devastating, so we decided to produce and distribute information that could help these businesses. We’ve had everything from live Q&A sessions to more YouTube videos to more podcast episodes. The content we put out helped to keep the business community inspired and informed during a time where they felt hopeless.”

Christine Deussen, President, Deussen Global Communications — “We each now share our top daily priorities to be sure that we are all pulling in the same direction and serving every client properly.”

Jo Caruana, Founder and CEO, WriteMeAnything — “Complete curiosity to discover the very latest trends and ways of doing things. When we lost all of our business, we immediately put our team into ‘learning mode’ where they were full-time employed to learn – which they did and loved.”

Fabiana Meléndez, Senior Publicist, Zilker Media — “This isn’t new to my practice, but we are focusing on pushing people over brands even more during this time … Who are the people behind this brand that we love and admire? What do they stand for and do their beliefs align with mine?”

Julie Lilliston, Founder and President, Julie Lilliston Communications — “I have upped my virtual presentation game and created an in-home studio environment. I’ve invested in lighting, green screen and headset/mic to reduce distractions. It projects a polished and professional image when you can be seen and heard more clearly, and you’ll stand out.”

Lexie Smith, Founder, THEPRBAR inc. — “I have had to adapt and evolve some of my teachings. Many of my clients were unsure of how to navigate communication strategies in light of the pandemic (and other social justice movements). I have made it a priority to amp up MY learning so I can lead and coach accordingly … I’ve been speaking with other professionals, reading a lot, attending webinars weekly, and truly doing my best to consume any and all information that could end up benefiting my students.”

Jenelle Hamilton, Founder, Jenelle Hamilton PR — “I try to use Facetime or Zoom when communicating with clients, so there is a face to face interaction. I also use texting much more regularly, and I never used to encourage that as much before. The human connection makes a huge difference in creating trust with your clients and ensuring that there is no miscommunication on either side.”

Do you believe this will have a lasting impact on the field of public relations?

Nina Reeves, Founder and President, Nina Reeves Communications — “I think that businesses have discovered that in-person editor and client meetings are not absolutely necessary to achieve desired goals – virtual or phone meetings can generate the same results for clients.”

Julie Lilliston, Founder and President, Julie Lilliston Communications — “I think a lot of events and conferences will remain virtual into the future since it’s a lower overhead cost, more efficient, and fits our on-demand mentality. There is a trend towards more lean, midsize PR agencies that have all of the capabilities of a large firm without the mega price tag. I would look for more collaborations and strategic partnerships among smaller firms to compete for contracts. The virtual workforce is the PR agency of the future.”

Mirjam Lippuner, Founder and CEO, McoM LLC and Get Ink DIY — “I absolutely think so. Most companies are reluctant to hire full-time PR people, now more than ever, which on the flip side is good news for us consultants.”

Jessica Graham, President, Fionix Consulting — “On the negative side, a lot of people have gone out and claimed to be “experts” in the space when they don’t have the experience to effectively help clients. This is particularly evident in crisis communications. There are unfortunately a good number of people claiming to have expertise in that area these days who have never actually handled a crisis professionally.”

Is there any advice you would offer for an entrepreneur trying to manage PR during this time?

Sandy Lish, Principal and Co-Founder, The Castle Group — “Because the news cycle is extremely crowded, it can be difficult for startups or entrepreneurs to insert themselves. It’s critical to stay focused on your goals, mission, and core messages and explore ways to get your expertise and thought leadership out to your audiences.”

Sarah Lloyd, Founder, IndigoSoulPR — “Read the room – or be conscious and sensitive about the messages you are sharing. I am not saying stop sharing altogether, I am saying if you ‘piggyback’ onto sensitive subjects trying to sell something, it may not be taken too kindly if you aren’t thoughtful in language and approach.”

Jolene Rheault, Owner and Founder, Refreshing Solutions — “Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. If you send one email and wait around, nothing will happen. You need to follow up around seven times to get a reporter’s attention. And absolutely do not underestimate the power of a phone call. Calling a newsroom to ask what openings they have may slide you in the door as well.”

Marie Lazzara, Public Relations Manager, JJR Marketing — “Yes, I would say to join a PR association in your city and become a volunteer on its board of members. Your participation helps because you can glean much information that can help you manage PR for your clients.”

Annabel Maw, Director of Communications, JotForm — “Most people say to limit watching the news, but if you work in PR, you should be watching it more. Each day there are new things happening and it’s important to understand trending topics, so that you can be a part of the conversation if it makes sense for your organization.”

About the author

Laura Grant

Laura Grant is a recent graduate of Western New England University with a bachelor's degree in English Literature. She spent her undergraduate term developing her writing and communication skills through internships, tutoring, and student media involvement. Her goal is to publish a novel one day.

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