The ninth in our series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus pandemic for a variety of sectors and practice areas, we interviewed a number of experts whose work is focused on entertainment communications.

Participating in the discussion:

  • Mark Owens, CEO, Rogers & Cowan PMK

  • Brian Lowry, entertainment critic, CNN

  • Rick Rhodes, EVP, Zeno Sports & Entertainment Consulting

  • Bret Werner, president, MWWPR

  • Elizabeth Harrison, CEO and principal, Harrison & Shriftman

Diana Marszalek: What has been the impact of Covid-19 in terms of entertainment PR?

Mark Owens: To date, the entertainment industry, like the restaurant and hospitality industry, has experienced a serious jolt, especially live music, sports and movies or group events. Many professionals have temporarily lost their livelihoods, especially in production. On the other side, in terms of content, viewing at home, and the OTT arm of the industry - Netflix, Hulu, now Quibi and others - there has never been more quality or quantity of options available, and the pipeline was full providing at least a few months of “new shows”.

In addition, films originally slated for theaters have debuted online, old classic TV shows have come back to OTT platforms for free, talent are performing new podcast or online streaming as direct publishers, and no one cares about hair and make-up right now. It is a moment of realness that probably will stay with us for a few months or years.

Brian Lowry:
I’m seeing a real sensitivity about some of the pitches. A lot of introductions that acknowledge this is a trying time and are almost apologetic about having to go through the usual routine. That said, there’s obviously a sizable demand for entertainment, so it hasn’t stopped the flow of promotion for things that are premiering.

Rick Rhodes
: The biggest impact has been the cancellation and rescheduling of major annual events in sports and entertainment. The NBA was the outright leader in taking swift action to pause competition.  Since their decision, many organizations and events followed. The impact of these cancellations goes far beyond the athletes, coaches, musicians – think about the stadium workers, t-shirt vendors, restaurants and bars that surround the venues – all of it brought to a grinding halt when the sports and entertainment world essentially closed.  The lack of sports and entertainment events has proven challenging for many, as these are where people typically turn to and find solace during difficult times. However, many athletes and entertainers are using their platforms for good during the pandemic.  For example, Steph Curry’s Q&A with Dr. Fauci shared critical information to thousands on the importance of social distancing.  And Lady Gaga’s collaboration with the World Health Organization and Global Citizen airing Saturday, April 18, will be a star-studded global event which should raise millions of dollars for front line health care workers.

Bret Werner:
The entertainment industry has been forced to shift away from core pillars, such as live venues and television. Covid-19 is substantially speeding up what was already inevitably the future of the industry—less physical and more digital engagement making up the typical entertainment experience. In essence, it’s what everyone has always talked about, having more direct digital connection points for consumers and creators.

However, success for “entertainment PR” amidst Covid-19 isn’t necessarily limited to traditional channels – the entertainment evolution has favored innovative content creators, where anyone that can leverage a platform to aggregate a crowd is an equal player. Regardless, at some point in 2020, we are going to see a surge of entertainment/sports content and live performances as we have never witnessed before – performers are ready, and so will be audiences.

Elizabeth Harrison:
In our agency alone, we’ve seen many clients have to make tough calls during this uncertain time, but we’ve been with them every step of the way and have kept close with our media contacts to quickly relay important news, as well as check on their well-being. From program cancellations to postponed activations, we’ve seen it all and remain ready for whatever may come. 

 When it comes to celebrities and influencers, there is a fine balance between attempting to boost morale and coming across as insensitive. It’s critical for publicists who are managing talent and influencers to think very carefully about how their actions will be perceived. While some celebrities and influencers may think they are lending support or showing people “we're just like you,” that’s not always how it comes across.

DM: What have been the priorities in terms of communications over the past few weeks?

More than anything, it is important for brands to show how they are caring for their customers and listening to their overall life challenges, not just related to their specific brand. The companies that stay focused on purpose, while entertaining and showing empathy, will be those that consumers will value the most post COVID-19.

Recognizing that families are multi-tasking at home, that loved ones are in harm’s way, and that financially things are unstable, the brands that provide hope, clarity and a vision for a better tomorrow that is authentic, not jaded in their brand DNA, is how we are pushing our clients forward.

There has been a lot of emphasis on broader shifts in consumption patterns, with an emphasis on streaming. But the truth is people forced to stay at home are watching a lot more of everything, including traditional TV. PR people are promoting that, but clearly trying not to appear too celebratory about it, for obvious reasons.

The priorities — whether we are talking sports and entertainment or industry across the board — are on societal relief, recovery, philanthropy and overall humanity.  Most brands and companies are doing what they can to be the best corporate citizens they can during this time, and that has been a very bright spot in a very dark time.

There has been a shift that’s seen less emphasis on breakthrough traditional creative and more demand on aggregating content for audiences. Communicators are focusing a little less on inventing new concepts and ideas, and more on giving new twists to the existing and even the “norm” of life fresh approaches to home cooking, happy hours, working out, or even leisurewear.

The main communication priorities are rooted in humanity. At Harrison & Shriftman, we’ve made monitoring the content and tone of media coverage a top priority, and we’ve adopted the practice of checking in with journalists and editors before sending any entertainment and lifestyle pitches. Taking steps to show we understand this temporary “new normal” or that we are patient when awaiting replies isn’t just requested – it’s expected. Media are changing their beat, many have been reassigned to the COVID-19 news cycle, and the type of coverage they are reporting on can change daily. Writers are pivoting to cover ever-changing global events, so we too must also pivot just as quickly to be sensitive to their priorities.

DM: Is there a company that has done a particularly outstanding job in responding?

Our client Verizon has been doing two great programs. Play it Forward is providing engaging content at home featuring A-level stars like Alicia Keys and Dave Matthews, with solo performances from home to entertain content starved audiences. It is happening at the same time as Feed the Frontlines, a small business program providing thousands of daily meals from local businesses to front line nurses, doctors and first responders. They are being authentic to two missions at one time, carrying for those who care for us, and providing relief for those who are stuck at home.

Nobody really stands out, although I have been impressed by some of the children-oriented outfits — such as Scholastic — that have sought to help out parents by making content available aimed at kids that are sheltering at home. That said, I also have seen a few pretty tone-deaf pitches, but I’m generally cutting those a bit more slack given how understandably frazzled every is.

: There have been several, but Anheuser-Busch InBev definitely stands out. They have stepped up to the plate — from redirecting sports and entertainment investments to supporting those on the front lines of COVID-19 to switching its beer lines to produce hand sanitizer to the One Team campaign. ABInBev is truly leading the way in how organizations should respond.  Many companies, across industries are doing an amazing job. For example, what the banks and their people are doing right now in conjunction with the treasury and PPP loans is incredible for small business. Carhartt, too, is leaning into their brand purpose and history.  Their present shift to producing PPE for healthcare workers is not just commendable but also authentic.

Overall, brands that have been able to lean into the lighter side of the new global at-home culture and conversation while not minimizing the impact of Covid-19 have created opportunities for themselves. Nikon’s #CreatorsHour (MWW client) did a great job refreshing a global passion for the hobby of photography and dominating the conversation in this arena with a content series that inspired creativity by offering free photography classes online. The program generated a large amount of high-indexing earned media—a connection point for an existing community as well as an entrance point for new audiences.

There are many examples of brands that are stepping up, showing resilience and providing impactful support in response to COVID-19. BACARDI is one of our longest-standing clients, and they wasted no time identifying opportunities to help combat the crisis in a meaningful way. Early on, when we first started seeing shortages of various products like hand sanitizers and disinfectants, BACARDI quickly determined that they had the means to provide one of the key ingredients: ethanol. They were proactive about diverting their global production power, resources and processes to supply the much-needed alcohol essential for the increased production of hand sanitizers. On top of that, Bacardi Limited also pledged $3 million in aid and support to the bar and restaurant community, which has been severely impacted by COVID-19.

DM: What are the major communications challenges once the recovery begins?

Strangely enough, I believe the biggest issue once recovery begins will be the flood of content, sports, and music available all at once, and how to get messaging out for consumers that differentiates movies, e-sports, TV shows, short form content and awards type materials in a much more crowded space. Everybody will be competing for eyeballs and activities at the same time.

Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about this in the context of journalism, and the number of reporters being laid off and furloughed by local newspapers— already a struggling industry — is especially concerning. And that obviously has implications for everyone in the communications chain.

In my opinion, a major challenge is going to be communicating to the public it’s safe to resume normal activity — including flying, attending concerts and packing stadiums for sporting events.  I read Tuesday in Barron’s, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger mentioned more scrutiny and restrictions, such as temperature checks when entering Disney parks.  Taking this action could make some feel safer —but, to some it could be a reminder of what we all have endured with COVID-19 and if the risk in attending major public gatherings is worthwhile as we recover.

Continuing to contribute to the greater good while re-engaging consumers with purchase intent and brand love will be critical. Brands will also need to ensure they maintain a total stakeholder approach communication while navigating post-Covid-19 new normals, inclusive of consumers, employees, B2B partners, and investors, etc.

EH: So many brand events, activations and campaigns have been pushed to the back half of the year, so one big challenge we will face is how to ensure our clients break through the clutter and capture a strong share of voice. I also foresee there being some hesitancy from consumers to start attending larger gatherings like music festivals or launch parties. We need to consider that the quarantine mindset may not go away immediately, so we will have to find ways of marrying virtual experiences with opportunities to bring people together again. We haven’t faced something like this in our lifetimes, so as communications professionals, we’ll need to shift our approaches and think more creatively than ever. 

DM: How will this impact the entertainment PR business short and long term?

In the immediate short term, large scale events and experiences are not going to be utilized by brands as a mechanism for consumer activation and amplification, as everything communication wise moves digitally online.I believe this “PR” digital transformation will be a permanent outcome of the trend that started years ago with media advertising, and will continue faster due to COVID-19.
If companies are hurting, I suspect you’ll see PR swept up in the belt-tightening that has already begun, and seems likely to continue until these industries begin to fully rebound. Nobody can really be certain how long that will be, but one would hope that as a sense of normalcy returns, the employment opportunities will too.

Short term — especially as we talk about sports and entertainment — we are feeling it with the cancellation of sporting events, concerts, productions etc., and business has significantly slowed as the product has halted.  We have also witnessed the shift to digital in many forums — from televised eNASCAR races and NBA2k competitions to Instagram concerts by various artists. We are also seeing a significant shift in personal values. Long term, I’m optimistic that once the public feels safe to return to normalcy, sports and entertainment activity will boom. People are yearning to root for their team, take their kids to the movies and travel. It will take some time to gain widespread public confidence. But, when we do, I feel sports and entertainment industry professionals will be busier than ever before. 

Every business will be impacted in some capacity in the short term, but the role of PR will be mission-critical for the recovery, and over the long run, it will be the industry’s time to shine. As a whole, the PR industry needs to reinforce its value to all stakeholders -- leaning into PR will not only support but accelerate the rebound for businesses. If there was ever a time to elevate the status of our own industry, it’s now.

These are unprecedented times, and I think we’re going to see varying degrees of short-term and long-term impacts to the PR business. In the short term, I know many of us are seeing clients cut budgets as they’re being forced to halt production, close stores, etc. We’re being challenged to think creatively in order to keep entertainment- and lifestyle-focused brands in the news amid the high velocity of coverage focusing on the COVID-19 crisis. We need to continue closely monitoring the news cycle and be mindful of the limited resources within the editorial community during this time. 

Other articles in this series:

Covid-19: What it means for corporate reputation
Covid-19: What it means for public affairs
Covid-19: What it means for travel PR
Covid-19: What it means for consumer marketing
Covid-19: What it means for financial services PR
Covid-19: What it means for capital markets communications
Covid-19: What it means for corporate purpose
Covid-19: What it means for healthcare PR