LONDON — The Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the public relations agency business was the central theme of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, which kicked off our four-day PRovoke Global conference on Monday. The first two panels at the Forum brought together agency leaders from around the world to share insights into how the pandemic had impacted their business and to anticipate how their firms could emerge stronger and better from a challenging 2020.

The first of the two panels, “Independents: Winning in the Pandemic,” was moderated by Julian Boulding, president of Thenetworkone, which works with around 12,000 agencies—advertising, digital, and public relations—around the world. It focused on the advantages in nimbleness and flexibility that allowed many independent firms to outperform the market so far this year.

The second panel, “Thriving Rather Than Just Surviving in 2020,” featured four firms that have enjoyed a strong year despite difficult conditions, and was hosted by Michael Lasky, chair of the public relations law practice group at Davis & Gilbert, who also presented research conducted by his firm in conjunction with PRovoke Media.

Taken together, the discussions provided nine key learnings about how successful agencies managed their way through the crisis.

Lesson One: Many agencies were surprisingly well-prepared when crisis struck

Rick Lyke, executive vice president and managing director of US independent agency Mower, said that because his firm has nine offices scattered throughout the United States “we already had the technology in place to work remotely and communicate between offices.”

Rebecca Honeyman, co-founder and managing partner of three-year-old technology specialist SourceCode Communications, was similarly prepared. “We were founded with the idea of bringing humanity back to technology communications,” she said. “Being so young, we had always had remote and flexible working as one of our core principles. It was as simple for us as letting everybody take their laptops home.”

Stephen Millikin, chief operating officer of Hong Kong’s Sinclair Communications, which also has offices in China and Singapore, said his firm was well-positioned for a different reason: “Our founder Kiri Sinclair had managed through the SARS epidemic and so she—like many people in Asia—knew what needed to be done. People here started wearing masks right away.

“At the same time, we had been working at home in Hong Kong because of the protests, and so we had those systems in place when the pandemic hit.”

For Jen Prosek, managing partner of US financial services and capital markets specialist Prosek Partners, readiness was more a question of mindset: “We have always talked about paranoia, about productive paranoia, and we entered the year with a high level of paranoia, simply because we just felt everything had been going so good for the past few years. So about six months before the crisis we had started a started a series of presentations on operating in volatile times, which some people thought was ridiculous given our success.”

Lesson Two: Communicating with agency employees was the first challenge

For clients, the first challenge of the Covid-19 crisis was communicating with employees, providing them with health and safety information and making sure they knew that companies were there for them. That was equally true for PR agencies.

“Internal communications became extremely important overnight,” said Rebecca Wagstaffe, head of business development for 3 Monkeys Zeno in the UK. “Our global CEO committed to a roundup email every night so everyone had a barometer on how she felt things were going, and there were key insights we could pass on to our clients. We had a media report we could send to our clients every day, looking at who was communicating what.

“But it was also very important to look after our people, to keep our culture, and so we did a ‘be kind to your mind’ initiative that included giving all of our people free access to Headspace, and we did little things from Spotify playlists to Wednesday quizzes to keep people connected. We also asked people to draw pictures of each other from memory, which we then got printed onto a tea towel.”

Helping employees with time management was another critical issue. “We told people don’t work at lunchtime,” said Wagstaffe. “Take your dog for a walk, go the gym. We checked in on people to make sure they knew they weren’t expected to be in front of the screen the whole day.”

Lesson Three: Partnering with clients requires short-term sacrifice

As clients began to cut their budgets in March and April, preparing for the worst, many agencies were faced with a difficult choice: balancing the need for short-term revenue with the need to maintain long-term relationships.

“We lost some clients in the March and April timeframe that we continued to work with because we felt they would appreciate that and come back to us when they could,” said Tom Ryan, co-founder and CEO of corporate communications and investor relations firm ICR.

Other panelists felt like the choice was easier for independent firms, who could think long-term rather than focusing on the next quarter.

“The crisis gave agencies like ours the opportunity to demonstrate the power of partnership,” said Milliken. “Some agencies weren’t able to be flexible, and dug their heels in, and relationships were damaged. But we were able to be flexible, because we were confident that our clients would come back.”

Lesson Four: Educate clients about the full scope of your capabilities

In good times, agencies don’t always take the time to make sure that clients understand the full scope of their services, but in tough times it is vital that clients know there are multiple ways a PR firm can help.

Marianne van Barneveld, president of the PRWA network and owner of Marcommit in the Netherlands, said the first thing her firm did was to call clients and make sure they were aware of all the services her firm offered. “We wanted to make sure they knew we could help them not only with PR but on any new communications challenges they faced, because everything was so uncertain.

“So while we did have clients who had to cut back on activity altogether, we were able to offer extra services, which required a lot of flexibility.”

Milliken agreed: “We were facing some client losses, but it did open up new opportunities to showcase some of our additional capabilities and in some cases we have seen the scope of our work expand. We offered some services like brand analysis that were valuable in the moment and which we have been able to keep going once they saw the value.”

Others found increased demand for employee communications, executive communications, and crisis PR and pivoted quickly to provide those services to clients who had previously been focused on marketing and product publicity.

Wagstaffe, however, stressed the importance of sensitivity in this kind of business development. “Listening to people on the front lines who knew the client relationships was very important,” she said. “We were thinking about the new services we could offer to clients, but the people responsible for the day-to-day relationships were the ones who could tell us what was appropriate for each client, so we could be helpful rather than looking as if we were just trying to squeeze new business out of them.”

Meanwhile, Teneshia Jackson Warner, founder and CEO of integrated communications firm Egami Group, which specializes in multicultural marketing, was in a unique situation. While her business was impacted by Covid, it found itself in great demand as the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction with American companies.

“We had a chance to take clients who were already doing meaningful work and really build on that.” Warner said. “A lot of them went from a five and dialed it up to about a 20, as they realized they had a responsibility in this moment in time, whether it was issues around Covid-19 disproportionately affecting people of color, or whether it was the issues of racial justice. We were dealing with two pandemics: one being Covid-19 and the other being racism.”

Lesson Five: Develop new services

As Michael Lasky pointed out, the industry is constantly debating the balance between specialization and generalization. While there are many benefits to deep sectoral expertise or a focus on a specific PR discipline, the pandemic demonstrated the value of being able to pivot to new services, or balance losses in one sector with gains in another.

Many firms developed specialist services specifically tailored to the challenges of a locked-down world.

“We have always had a strong internal communications focus,” said Lyke. “But we also did a number of things with our industrial clients to reassure their customers about what they were doing to ensure a safe workspace and also to secure the supply chain. That was complicated in some cases, because we had clients who had to furlough some of their own people, including their communications people, but they found they really needed this kind of communications.”

Prosek, meanwhile, developed a new training product, focused on “business development in a virtual world, helping clients understand how they could use their social channels to drive new business”—something the agency was doing for itself.

Warner also began to offer a new training service, uniquely suited to the times: “We have been doing cultural competency training virtually,” she said. “Some of our clients have sent 100 or so of their senior managers to participate.”

Lesson Six: Don't skimp on marketing

Agencies are always keen to tell clients that marketing is an investment in times of trouble, but they don’t always act as if they believe it themselves. Leading agencies continue to invest in brand and reputation—in some cases, being even more aggressive in challenging times.

ICR, for example, is known for a large investment conference—1000 attendees or more—it organizes every year. This year, Ryan said, despite the likely cost, the firm has committed to a virtual conference: “It’s important for continuity, and to demonstrate our commitment,” Ryan said.

“It’s all about adapting,” added Wagstaffe. “In terms of new new business, our reputation has really helped. We are still getting new opportunities. But we maintained our proactive marketing program. We knew that personal contacts were our most important source of leads so we developed a program of virtual events.

“Lots of people are joining webinars, so we did virtual wine and cheese networking sessions, small intimate sessions where we talk about responsibility or purpose or crisis, but also offer a social aspect that people want to join.”

Other firms were coming up with equally innovative approaches: “We initiated a PR consultation hour for any company had questions about communications in the pandemic, offering free advice to clients and to prospects,” said van Barneveld.

Thought leadership was seen as especially valuable as a marketing tool, as a business development tool, and as a tool that clients could use to track how their sectors were changing in real-time.

Said Lyke: “We funded several research studies in those areas where we have expertise, to see how people were reacting to the pandemic, to understand how it might impact their sectors. Within our specialty groups we put together thought leadership we could share through our social and digital channels and through earned media. We showed our preparedness and readiness and our ability to go to work for clients right away.”

Lesson Seven: Leaders continued to lead

The Davis & Gilbert survey found that even in a difficult year, the majority of survey respondents committed to improving their performance of diversity and inclusion—and that leaders were more likely to make a big commitment than others.

Last year, for example, Sourcecode was one of the founders of the Diversity Marketing Consortium, which pledged support to minority and women-owned businesses. “For the worst of all possible reasons, that became more important than ever this year,” said Honeyman. “So we also made a commitment to increase the representation of people of color across our firm, and we will significantly change the proportion of our spend that is transferred to diverse communities.”

Jen Prosek’s firm also recognized the importance of taking a leadership position. “This year was a wake up call to everyone and we started to ask where we could do better,” she said.

“In our case, it was clear that where we could do better was in Black representation. We have a program for what we call apprenticeships, and this year we added five new slots—the partners funded it out of their own pockets—for Black apprenticeships just to over-index on that segment. It’s been extraordinarily successful and opened up our pipeline to many different colleges we hadn’t worked with before. Three will probably activate as full-time employees.”

Lesson Eight: Pitching on Zoom required new skills

The new business process has changed considerably, and even the best agencies have had to adapt to the demands of pitching virtually, rather than in person.

Said Lyke, “Being able to read the room is critical. In person, you can tell when someone is distracted, when they’re checking their cellphone for messages. It’s not always as easy to do that on Zoom. But one thing we do find is that over Zoom the attention span is shorter.”

Timing in general is an issue. Said Wagstaffe, “One lesson we learned was the importance of timing. There’s less flexibility on Zoom. If we ran over in a room with the client, that wasn’t necessarily an issue, but on Zoom, everyone has a hard stop.”

“Attention span has been such a casualty of all of this,” Milliken agreed. “On Zoom, everything has to serve a purpose and help you get across the goal-line. You have to keep it crisp and concise. You can send an appendix with your credentials and all the extraneous information after the call. Nobody wants to sit through a credentials presentation on Zoom.”

Similarly, van Barneveld added: “One thing we learned is that a big pitch team doesn’t work on Zoom.”

Lesson Nine: Balance will be important as people return to the office

Representing firms from around the world, the leaders on the two Forum panels were at very different stages of the pandemic. Sinclair, for example, has seen all of its Hong Kong employees return to the office, while most of the US firms continue to work entirely from home. All of them are aware of the need to balance the benefits of an office environment with the lessons learned about working from home.

“In the summer, we were looking ahead to a post-Covid world when we would go back to office, but it’s still here and it feels like it’s here to stay,” said Wagstaffe. “In the future, the office will be a hub for essential meetings, but we will continue to work like this for the foreseeable future and make it work for our people.”

Van Barneveld, whose firm returned to work in the Netherlands briefly, before a second wave hit, said most of her people had been back in the office for about 60% of the time, or about three days a week—and said this was a realistic objective once the crisis is over. Offices are still important, she said: “It certainly gave our creativity a boost.”

“It’s good to know we can do this if we have to,” said Lyke. “But collaboration is so important in what we do, so we want to get to a place where people are back in the office more than half the time.“