Diana Marszalek 20 Mar 2020 // 12:00PM GMT
NEW YORK — Since Western countries began their coronavirus shutdown a week or so ago, communicators with the full range of expertise — creatives, copywriters, consumer specialists — have, in some way or another, become crisis communicators.
And it’s no wonder. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the business turmoil that comes with it, has effectively left the profession with little choice. 'Business as usual' has pivoted towards keeping employees safe, communities healthy, companies up and running, and shareholders breathing comfortably.
With that in mind, the usual conventions of daily PR life appear far less pressing. New business assignments have slowed, while many expect clients to pause marketing activity even as they search for their crisis communications manual.
“Right now it’s not business as usual because everyone is in preparedness mode and a little bit of issues and management mode,” said Ketchum CEO Barri Rafferty, who this week has been overseeing the realignment of staff so that, for example, the firm’s crisis communications team can benefit from expert copywriting — all amidst the tumult that comes with shuttering an office. “This is not a few days working from home,” she said.
Although the societal fallout from the coronavirus is epic, shutting down schools, cities and borders, there is no doubt that firms with strong crisis communications capabilities can translate their expertise from disasters past to the benefit of their clients.
"Many of [our crisis team], myself included, have worked on the Ebola crisis, H1N1 and SARS," said BCW North America president Chris Foster. "While Covid-19 presents its own challenges, there are plenty of learnings we have taken from managing through those crises that we are applying for clients now.”
But firms are also getting creative, pooling their talent and their range of services towards the challenges that now face their clients. That might involve helping healthcare companies and retailers reach consumers, navigating corporate responses to employees contracting Covid-19 and aiming to serve communities rather than marketing to them.
Golin central region president Ginger Porter, who managed Springbok Cohn & Wolfe in the wake of 9/11, said there are merits in harnessing a range of diverse talents in times like these, when clients, as well as internal and external communities, are looking for guidance.
“Creativity doesn’t have to come in the way of a celebrity having a big moment. Creativity can come in the way of helping clients problem solve, reach out to consumers in a meaningful way and making sure it’s not superfluous,” Porter said.
Agencies in other regions are also changing their strategies to help ensure their clients remain visible and helpful, rather than relying on a business as usual approach.
“The public agenda is rightly laser focused on Covid-19, so now is not the time for us to be giving broad platforms to unrelated health topics. However, the needs of all patients and other health stakeholders continue, so we’ve had to creatively rethink how we best execute programs in many instances,” said GCI Health Asia-Pacific managing director Rikki Jones from Singapore.
"Companies are of course worried about how they best protect their people and businesses in the face of uncertainty. Requests for support in how best to prepare and mitigate risk have been coming through and we foresee them increasing as the business impact of Covid-19 is further felt."
"Most companies and brands have not functioned during a pandemic and therefore, most brand marketers are underprepared to deal with its consequences," adds ICCO and PRCAI president Nitin Mantri in New Delhi. "In this unprecedented time, companies have to not only insulate their businesses from risks but also be quick to respond to customers and focus on the safety of its stakeholders across the spectrum.
"In a situation such as this, there is not much scope for ‘normal’ work to continue," continues Mantri. "Technology helps to keep things moving but is not the complete answer. Most businesses are pausing to reflect on their strategies and seeking support from communication agencies to ensure that contingency plans are ready for their campaigns. Brands need to prioritize customer and employee communications and effectively use their platform to share credible information and garner support for the greater good of the communities that they operate in."
Hot Paper Lantern president Ted Birkhahn said that, if the last few Covid-19 weeks have taught him anything, it’s that “the old crisis communications playbook is dead.”
While time-tested virtues like transparency, empathy, and honesty are still fundamental, managing a crisis like the coronavirus outbreak requires communicators to be able to access accurate information, and turn it around quickly as needed; rally business leaders of various levels to act; and address mental health issues — particularly when people are afraid of getting sick and anxious about how long our curtailed lifestyle is going to last.
“The problem is that most crisis communicators are not mental health experts. In this new world, they must align with professionals in the field to provide tools, resources and solutions that help people cope with the extreme impact of Covid-19 now and into the future. And, perhaps most importantly, communicators must learn how to listen and look for signs of psychological stress at every stage of this crisis,” Birkhahn said.
Challenges like these can test the most experienced crisis communicator; for those who are being plunged into an unfamiliar role, the risks are even higher.
"Not everyone is going to be qualified to handle the surge of risk preparedness work, a team including the right deep crisis, reputation, health and other industry specialist expertise as appropriate, is a good starting point – and that team should be part of a broader multidisciplinary approach," points out Jones. "Unfortunately, Covid-19 is a topic for everyone.”
Some agency leaders are looking to their colleagues in China for guidance, as business starts to resume an air of normality in that market. "Once this is in order, it's back to business as usual because no one wants to believe in a scenario where business is durably impacted," said Simon Vericel, the Beijing-based founder of Influence Matters.
"The shift also means stakeholders in the 'old' epicenter of the virus, China, a major partner or workforce center for western B2B companies, are now looking for transparency that was asked from them before as they are preparing to turn the factories back on, and a strongly hit West will mean a longer downtime in China."
As people get used to this "new normal," the industry is also grappling with a level of uncertainty that must seem unprecedented for most of its people. "We’ve found that clients are very willing to put the spend into more digital, internal comms and so on," says a source at an MNC agency in Singapore. "But I don’t think we’ve truly seen the impact from the west and global HQ decisions yet."
Others, though, believe business will continue — with companies shifting to online models and a more digital focus, rather than stopping entirely. Suresh Raj, Blue Impact’s chief business development officer, said he hasn’t seen pitches or campaigns fizzling out, but they are now primarily digital endeavors. Bospar hopes to close on as many as three deals this month.
So there is an upside, said Rafferty: “The good news is that the communications discipline is in demand right now and we should all feel good about that.”