We’re nearly at the end of a year of unprecedented disruption, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the global economy and changing the game for every industry imaginable. Public relations is no exception.
Unlike what we may have imagined (or not-so-secretly hoped), the pandemic did not turn out to be a month or two of temporary shifts. It fundamentally changed the way this industry works – likely for good. Fortunately, change and challenge are natural sparks to innovation.
A recent PR Week study paints what in many ways is a grim picture. Polling both clients and agencies, they found many members had either themselves contracted COVID-19 or knew people who became sick or even died from the virus. An overwhelming majority of agencies confirmed their clients had either postponed or canceled PR campaigns, and barely 4% implemented more. About 40% of agencies reported needing to either furlough or lay off workers, and more than a quarter had to cut salaries.
Most people also seem to agree that, for better or worse, working from home is here to stay. Business trips, be they national or international, will become much more infrequent, and large-scale in-person events like conferences will also become rarer.
Our legendary resilience and flexibility as PR professionals is being put to the test like never before. The “new normal” is, in many ways, a heavy and fraught phrase. But people often underestimate their adaptability when crisis hits.
On a more basic level, experts say we shouldn’t worry about our own abilities to bounce back. For example, Columbia professor George Bonanno suggests that people who face even the most severe traumas can rebound and do so more quickly than we think. The trick is living in the moment; figuring out what the particular challenge is at a given time and figuring out a way to sort through it.
Putting to one side the tough decisions agencies and industry professionals have had to make to stay afloat, I look around the industry and see a silver lining. We are having to learn to do more with less, creating opportunities to produce more focused, higher-caliber content.
That may seem counterintuitive. But hear me out. One effect of the pandemic is that audiences are both more plugged-in to current affairs and the news, but with a shorter collective attention span caused by the sheer scale of information, along with every topic being seen through the lens of COVID-19.
Many newspapers may have gone as far as to take down paywalls for pandemic coverage, but among acute consequences of the pandemic are slashed advertising budgets, canceled content and freelancers laid off en masse. There is more to deliver, but seemingly less ways to deliver it.
Some content is no longer appropriate. The 2010s saw an acceleration of the phenomenon of social media influencers, whose content ran the gamut of luxury vacations to pitching skin care and fitness products. There was often little eye for brevity or subtlety. Agencies took notice, even absorbing some of those tactics themselves.
But with life much more curtailed – more people at home, some unemployed, few able to travel anywhere or to experiment with new lifestyles – there is a smaller space for that content to land. There is even less space for people to stake out controversial or provocative positions, with much more emphasis on the tone and appropriateness of messages.
Authenticity has added urgency for anyone producing content. And simplicity seems to be the easiest road there. Nike, for instance, built off its impactful Just Do It campaign with the addition of a single word. “Play Inside,” read one succinct new ad. This particular example represents a continuation of an image a company built for itself and advertised to the world, in taking clear stands on social and moral issues and being more than just a retailer (supporting those who were more than just a player). This consistency will no doubt be an important tool as the company charts a long-term sales path in the months and years beyond a pandemic-induced slump.
Perhaps most of all, what the pandemic has demanded of PR are campaigns, content and messaging that focuses more on value than profit. Not only does this afford us more flexibility in the midst of an ever-evolving pandemic, it familiarizes the industry with tactics and content that are essential in appealing to the next generation of consumers. An industry once moving gradually toward these changes now has the opportunity to fully adopt them, and thrive amid constant disruption.
This article originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal.