Expert View: Way forward an elusive term for PR industry post COVID-19?

COVID-19 Impact on PR Industry

A lot of sectors have been jolted due to the on-going pandemic including the PR industry. However, there is always a silver-lining capped with a solution-centric approach & strategy. Experts decode the COVID-19 Impact on PR Industry and suggest way forward – that is if it exists.

As we traverse through the Week 5 of social distancing, Indian industries try their best to stay unscathed during Work-from-Home (WFH) and the challenges it presents. Like every sector, PR & Communications industry too is impacted; as clients retract retainers, prefer stirring away from media quotes & battle real time crises with CRM being affected COVID-19 Impact on PR Industry is gigantic.

Challenges & Operations

The ‘State of the Industry Survey 2019’ predicted the PR industry to grow at CAGR 12.5%. The beginning of 2020 pointed towards the growth but is now experiencing a set back. 

Amit Misra, CEO, MSL, South Asia echoes the sentiments. “Our main challenge has probably been traditional marketing forms taking a hit, and the cancellation of public launches and events”.

Another challenge, he shares was identifying and updating initial brand and client communication, keeping in mind the responsibility during the on-going socio-economic crisis.

In terms of operations, however, he pointed towards the brighter hue and shared that the team is working seamlessly, thanks to robust tech support provided by the IT teams. “We are using virtual tools to engage with clients and media to conduct business as usual”, he says.

Apart from that, he says, daily video-conferencing calls with internal teams, WhatsApp groups, updated attendance apps, and a strong support system network extended to our colleagues & clients alike have helped us cruise along in these times.

Sonam Shah, Founder, and CEO at Treize Communications shares, “Our biggest challenge till now has been to get clients to understand that if there is no relevant news, catering to a larger audience, then it’s better to take a pause and rework on the overall strategy. Keeping unrealistic expectations will not help anyone in the current moment.

With media covering more than 80% of stories around Covid-19, and the readership also being around it, it is imperative that only relevant information is shared. Media Relations play a major role in PR, and it is in challenging times like these, that we help them in quick quotes and articles. This helps build true media relations, she adds.

Sharing a global perspective, Scott Kronick, President & CEO, Ogilvy PR, APAC says, “We have found that throughout Asia this is a time when companies have prioritized communications over marketing. They are working to inform their constituencies and we are delighted to have been able to help them in this area”.

 

Vikas Sahni, Senior VP, Ketchum Sampark Pvt Ltd says, “I thought I had seen almost all possible crises in my PR career, but this is something unprecedented.”

That said, he expresses that there is a huge impact on the way the industry works and communicates. The challenge is to build visibility for the client’s offering when the media universe is on only reporting on one news, he quips.

For WFH scenarios he shares that it has now been accepted as the new normal and the physical meetings are replaced by Zoom calls. While WFH is a greater challenge, especially for PR professionals, the team seems to have settled down to the circumstances.

The pandemic seems to have urged the industry to opt for innovative methods. Valerie Pinto, CEO, Weber Shandwick shares that the world is now moving from ‘offline’ to ‘online’ and the spotlight will be on all things digital.

She also explains that owing to the WFH scenario, the company has taken cues from China. They aim to quickly adapt to the operations from homes backed by technology & plan.

 Tarunjeet Rattan, Managing Partner, Nucleus PR, looks to the future of the domino effects of the pandemic. She says, “The full impact will be witnessed next month when the coffers dry up”. One of the major challenges, she points out, would be the industry facing sustenance of its teams till the market picks up again.

“Once we pull out of this crisis, it will still take some time for the rest of the industries to get back on their field before they start considering hiring agencies for advertising, digital and PR.”

In terms of operations, she shares, “We have subscriptions to all the publications along with Magzter and Skribe that help us keep track of news on the industry and clients along with helping us find the right contact.”

Impacted Sectors & Clients

COVID-19 seems to have impacted most of the sectors barring health care and few others. While some PR firms leverage the robust tech strategy & planning to remain un-charred, some express concerns regarding their retainer clients & subsequently the budgets. 

Rattan points out while agencies with healthcare clients who have deeper pockets will survive along with those who are currently engaged in crisis communication, the rest are facing an uphill challenge. Retail, hospitality, fashion, luxury across genres are already seeing the effects of the epidemic which has resulted in an overall economic slowdown. 

Nandita Lakshmanan, Founder & CEO, The PRactice expresses, “Sectors like hospitality, consumer goods, startups, travel and tourism, manufacturing have been hit badly.” The PR Industry has significant exposure to these industries and hence, it will see an impact. She shares that they can only opt for a ‘wait & watch’ approach at this time. “We are mindful that some of our clients will scale down their operations significantly and this will lead to a “pause” in our services”.

She states that there has been an increment in the stakeholders’ communication. Certain sectors are more active such as IT, healthcare, public utilities, NGOs, etc. Further, new technology players continue at the same pace by doing virtual events, online hackathons, webinars, and briefings.

Dilip Cherian, Founding Partner & Group Chairman, Perfect Relations appears optimistic in light of the current scenario. He shares that the operations with clients are smoother as they had anticipated the situation.“On average, we can do 4-5 meetings with clients without any hassles. All partners, clients, vendors have been supportive and have accepted this way of working and everyone is happy”, he says.

In the case of retainer clients too, Cherian says that Perfect Relations is not impacted but one cannot rule out the fact that if the current situation remains, there might be a possibility of a reduced retainer going forward.

Anuja Choudhary, Founder & Director, Wizspk Communication explains that planning & promptness is the key during such times. “Various sectors including Travel and Hospitality, apparel & non-food retail clients are planning the way forward, analyzing the situation with each passing day. Numerous projects and events got canceled or rescheduled, so it has for sure impacted retainers and projects to an extent. 

However, she points out that most brand partners are geared to re-invent and adapt in the current situation.

Rakesh Thukral, Managing Director, Edelman India confirms, “The greatest contribution all of us in PR can make in the coming weeks is to ensure that facts, not fiction, are the basis of decisions. This is a time for communicators to lead.”

Crisis Communication  

Precise communication, reality-checks, and leveraging tools with strategy become the order of the day. Rattan puts forth in the context that communication has to be clear from the senior leadership at this time. There is a unifying and overall communication strategy for all clients.”

Be human. Be kind. Be compassionate. If there was ever a need to showcase EQ for a brand, then this is it”, Rattan explains.

Archana Jain, Founder and Managing Director, PR Pundit, concedes that the PR industry has had to come up with empathic messages and campaigns. “Creative sensitivity is being infused in the communication that is being shared, as responsible branded content is the need of the hour”, she explains. PR firms have also been investing a lot in digital storytelling. “We should all use this as an opportunity to focus our creative energies in mobilizing wellness and welfare communication as well as in renewing hope and confidence”, she shares.

Sahni shares that the brands are right now focusing on communications that benefit the consumers by keeping in mind their needs and concerns. 

For example, if you are working for a financial service brand the focus can be on how people can manage finances to tide over this crisis. HR firms can focus on communicating tips for improving productivity while WFH. Automotive firms are giving instructions on how to maintain vehicles during a prolonged lockdown.

Stakeholder communication is important. With everyone grappling with the situation, brands need to exhibit thought leadership in an altruistic manner says, Lakshmanan.

“At the very beginning, we set up an internal Crisis Management Team (CMT), with leaders from different functions, for employees to reach out at any time – the CMT is available 24/7 during this time. It’s important to be transparent with our employees to adapt to a new normal,” she clarifies.

Also read: COVID-19: Events industry hit hard with hope from H2 2020

Many leaders also point out that further planning with a risk mitigation strategy becomes crucial at this time.

“Crisis communication is a key aspect of smart business planning and something that Perfect always advises their clients on, says Cherian. 

Resonating with the thought, Chaudhary explains that some essential elements to keep in mind to maintain brand loyalty and reputation through PR and Social Media Marketing include quick responsiveness and taking positive initiatives in brand communications, customer engagement and digital marketing. 

Scott further shares that the pandemic has required firms to be very creative, “In some cases, we are holding virtual press events. Many brands see this period as a critical time to show the world and their consumers what they really stand for, so there is a lot of CSR work and activities.”

On another note, it will be interesting to see how in these compelling times there is quicker and greater advancement towards adoption of online/digital news in India, shares scott

Further, Shah points out that this is a good time to focus and rework on the brands’ overall communication strategy and build thought leadership as an expert. Agencies will have to come out with innovative and newer solutions in helping brands reach out to newer audiences, she says.

Way Forward – an Elusive Term?

Owing to the uncertain times many industry leaders deem the future and the way forward as an elusive term. Others, however, aim to continue making a difference by being focussed on the present. A time that is to remain sensitive with communication, the industry seems to be focusing on contingency plans with a solution-centric approach.

Tripti Bhatia Gandhi, Founder & CEO, Detales Brand Communications, highlights working on six months’ plans and using this quarantine period to research and strategize for all their brands. It is aimed to ensure that everyone comes back stronger and better, she shares.

 

Further elaborating on the plans ahead during COVID-19 times, Jain shares, “We are all re-calibrating our business contingency plans to deal with this unexpected downturn; activating necessary short-term cost management measures to handle the situation; while continuing to help our clients with their communication needs”.

Some experts express hope pointing out that every dark cloud has a silver lining and this crisis will awaken professionals to reset the way they think and act. “It’s time to share the load between clients and service providers; between talent and employers, Jain adds.

Many leaders further advise cutting unnecessary expenses for sustenance. “We need to focus on basic sustenance for survival to ride out the crisis”, says Rattan

On a cautious note, Nitin Mantri, President, Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI) puts forth that the only way forward is to step up and support clients in every way possible. “We should be completely prepared for all eventualities and ensure that business continuity plans are in place, meaning we continue to provide excellent service for our clients to count on”, he says.

It is necessary going above and beyond the prescribed ‘scope of work’ during such times is what a lot of people ruminate. While it might be volatile and elusive times of uncertainty, Sahni shares tips to combat a situation with no rulebook. He explains that along with a contingency plan, it is necessary to keep looking at how one can add value to the client capped with creativity & compassion

Hard selling products and services of the client may not be the ideal approach at times like these.

“I also foresee the core requirement of PR shifting from creating buzz to getting new businesses”, says Shah.

Some clients may face a short-medium term dip in business but that shouldn’t bring a suspension in our engagement with clients. We should hopefully move past this crisis with some key learnings like how to effectively manage work from home, time management and new ways of working, summarizes Cherian.

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Aishwarrya Chakraverty
A storyteller and a narrator by heart, vocalist by genes and a thesaurus-bee. Also, an explorer, traveler, and trekker, Aishwarrya has myriads of interests with love for music and movies. Writing is not just a hobby but her first love with a Facebook page on perspectives, channelizing the passion. Got her research paper published with IGI Global US on music. A maverick by nature and a feminist by choice, to challenge stereotypes.

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