In times of financial uncertainty, the first “luxury” many businesses place on the proverbial chopping block is a public relations campaign, meaning that outsourced heads are usually the first to roll. As of now, very few can confidently predict what Covid-19 will mean for the American economy, and how long it will take to recover. Businesses that are continuing to operate are cutting their expenses and only retaining the essentials. This “bare-necessities” crisis mode means that PR firms are rarely kept on retainer. Many CEOs consider a PR campaign to be gratuitous, simply adding “flair” to a pre-existing organically-built reputation portfolio. And so, with Covid-19 still taking over the news cycle, many PR professionals will be experiencing reduced client loads.
I’m not here to wave the “keep your PR firm on retainer through Covid-19” banner in front of New York’s C-suite executives. I do, however, want to explain some nuances of my trade that might cause any client of a PR firm or employer of an in-house PR team to think twice before sending out their “stop all services” memorandum that they probably drafted within the past few weeks.
There is a crucially important similarity between an obsessive news cycle and a raging storm: however strong the storm and however long the winds rage, the clouds will eventually break and the sun will start to shine through. The news cycle has every reason to be obsessive – Coronavirus is a serious threat to our wellbeing as individuals and as a society. Broadcast and print can and should be focusing almost exclusively on Covid-19. But as early as Monday, March 16, a features reporter of a major New York Newspaper (that will go unnamed) replied to a pitch about their Sunday column, saying, “I need a distraction. Please. Give me a non-corona-related story.” As of April 7th, a reporter covering culture and art for a national paper said, “this week I will be still be focused on Coronavirus, but next week I hope to be back to my original beat.”
According to the governor of New York, we might currently be experiencing the long plateau of a Coronavirus peak, but still some reporters are planning on returning to their beats as early as possible. After any catastrophe, certain reporters return to covering regular news in order to quell readers’ fears and show that society is progressing as normally as possible. This means that I expect some reporters to return to their original beats as soon as states like New York roll out their re-opening plans.
Many clients jump to the conclusion that a quiet time in their publicity campaign means that the campaign is a failure altogether. For the next few weeks, there will definitely be a handful of clients who aren’t getting media placements. I wish that these very clients were able to see what is going on behind the scenes. Reporters know that they will eventually return to their normal coverage patterns, and they are filing away emails into folders or post-it notes (or however a journalist stays organized these days) in order to prepare for the moment that they are no longer covering Covid-19. Volleys between PR executives and journalists will probably include the phrase, “once this is all over, I’ll reach out again.” Stories must be constantly fed to the press in order to keep a momentum going. When all is said and done, neither the client nor the PR executive knows when a reporter will be scrolling through their emails or texts to decide the first non-Covid-19 story they will cover. The client’s business, name, and brand must be in that pool of options. Just like the lottery, “you have to be in it to win it.”
I have been so impressed at how incredibly creative and clever my colleagues at HeraldPR must be on a daily basis. They continue to churn out Covid-19-related angles for even the most unrelated types of clients. The goal isn’t to change a client to fit into the news cycle, as this would be dishonest. Instead, PR executives work with all the information they have in order to widen the news cycle to include their clients – every client. For just as many businesses that, in a moment of crisis, fired their PR firm this week, another business will start receiving calls from new customers or prospective partners due to an unexpected placement in a major news outlet. A landscaping business can offer thought leadership on what people in quarantine can do at home to prepare for spring. Virtual reality businesses can discuss what they are doing to facilitate distance learning. Psychologists can discuss helpful tips for families who want to ensure grandma or grandpa feel less lonely during this time of social distancing. Just because the news cycle is unpredictable doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.
If there is one profession that requires employees to normalize fleeing from a family dinner or recreational activity, it would be Public Relations. PR executives are the last type of professional to become inefficient working from home. The trade requires far too many Saturdays and Sundays sitting hunched over a laptop in a living room, answering emails. Countless vacations and holidays are interrupted by a text or a call from a reporter (seems to always happen on the first night of Passover) or a client. PR firms are also increasingly becoming full-service, offering web development, digital marketing and brand development. While the world tries to sleep off the effects of the Coronavirus – reawaken your brand by taking advantage of these features – and of publicists who never sleep!