In a world of uncertainty and constant disruption, businesses (both big and small), are increasingly looking to external guardians for their brands. Courtney Devereux explores how public relations practitioners are positioning themselves as agents of necessity and why the external comms sector might be better placed to help brands navigate crises.
Public relations (PR) – for the most part – has become associated with the glitz and glam of events where goodie bags are well-stocked with freebies and champagne flows freely at flash brand building exercises. However, PR agencies are turning their backs on outdated perceptions, and instead have truly shined as guardians of brands and the conscious of corporations.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement, Facebook’s feeding of fake news, the disruption of Covid-19 (the Warehouse Groups’ faux pas comes to mind) and economic recession have all brought into sharp focus the need for businesses to have effective plans in place for managing a wide range of crises. Despite marketing budgets having been culled across the board, brands are seeing increasing value in crisis management communications – both internal and external.
Crisis management has long been a vital tool in PR agencies’ toolbox – making them indispensable for many businesses and brands. The adaptability, experience, and strategic communications insights an agency offers is often difficult to replicate in-house during times of crisis. But, with so many agencies offering these services, how do marketers ensure they are getting the most out of their external comms agency of choice?
The Calm in a crisis
“The first few months of the pandemic were like a freight train hurtling towards us,” says Claudia MacDonald, Managing Director of Mango Communications. “I’ve been through the GFC in 2008 and I knew that because PR’s fees are among the smallest, we’re usually one of the first to be cut, especially as activations and some campaigns got put on hold basically overnight.”
MacDonald says that coming out on the other side of Lockdown was like a cork coming out of a bottle, as clients realised how much ground they had to make up.
“There were clients who then came to us with a new need for issue management or a crisis plan, and more importantly advice on how they should talk to their staff and consumers […] Even though many companies have an in-house PR person, one person is not enough in this situation […] A lot of our clients came to us and said, ‘we really need to be over-communicating now, what can we do?’”
MacDonald acknowledges the importance that was placed on them as communication specialists, as crowds in a crisis grew hungry for information from brands. This meant most agencies were able to show their true worth, moving past events and activations and helping to save brand reputation overnight.
“Whomever you’re wanting to talk to, whether it’s your staff or customers, the need for communication is stronger than ever. The other thing was the need for transparent authenticity, people needed to be able to trust what they’ve been hearing with so much fake news and misinformation around.”
She says this sudden need was a huge boost for the PR sector, as brands realised how important having a proper crisis comms team in place really was.
“PR is one of those areas of communication that does that really well. Mostly because we can adapt tone depending on the audience and advise clients whether it was the right time to be going out with a message or not.”
MacDonald says the Lockdown strengthened the way that their clients looked at PR, highlighting their ability to protect a brand and its reputation.
“One of the things was that brands realised PR can actually understand what is going on in the market and advise on when the right time is and what the right tone is to do something that seems meaningful rather than crass. There was such a fine line over what people were putting out to their audience.”
Mango Communications made a conscious decision in 2019 to broaden their offering, doing so right in the nick of time for the high-pressure demands that would be made of them in 2020.
“Now we promote that we can do the full gambit of PR – everything from marketing communications to corporate comms and issue management which we’ve always done but have now strengthened. All the way to digital, social, and experiential which work hand-in-hand with media relations.”
Undertow Media was in a similar position. With Greer Bland, Managing Director, saying they were lucky they had been on the path to diversify their offering shortly before with a mix of corporate and consumer clients.
“I think that PR has always been able to adapt and be nimble and that is probably one of its benefits. The majority of what we’ve been doing for quite some time is finding that news angle and that short sharp digital and social angle and making sure we’re being thorough in our storytelling. Covid-19 really drove this, as mass media was basically out of reach for about four months, but we had the skills to reposition and still be able to reach audiences for our clients.”
Undertow Media adopted a shared risk model with most of its clients and worked closely with them to be able to maintain their brand without going quiet when the information was being demanded. According to Bland, this communication meant the agency was able to provide substance and meaning for the brand during Lockdown.
“Marketers now didn’t have visibility on long-term budgets, so it was about focusing on shorter, more targeted campaigns. Primarily in radio, social, digital, and the podcast space… No-one is putting a year plan of marketing together at the moment… For us, it’s now about coming up with ways we can meet objectives.”
Yet, what Undertow was required of wasn’t just making sure brands were still heard and respected, for some of their essential service clients, it was more about helping them communicate their corporate responsibility to the community.
“Our client Countdown did well over Lockdown, but they needed to quickly show that they were looking after the community and could be trusted in times of change. So that went beyond Covid-19 planning and went into goodwill plays. That is where their investment in PR really comes into the foreground because you’re able to show your expertise, which also allows them to halo against their competitors.”
This reputation building has become an imperative, as ‘cancel culture’ and a new hypersensitive consumer has brands walking on eggshells.
“Corporate clients are always going to need strong, always-on, reputation trust-building communications, but consumers are demanding more of a social conscience, so now corporates will need to invest in campaigns that will show that they’re meeting those needs of the consumers.”
Strengths and Weaknesses
For Bland, the pandemic helped to highlight a lot of the strengths of PR, as the agencies were able to help brands make a decision on how they were going to communicate and from there mobilise teams to get that message out there.
“It’s probably more important than ever to be building a reputation in this current landscape… This has shown that PR has always been really nimble and it has shown brands that their reputation is the only thing they really have. Having experts who have been helping influence people in how they perceive you is key.”
For a lot of agencies, what they are known for in the way of events and activations were cancelled overnight. This meant agencies were finally seen for what they have been changing to for years, full suite and service offerings past just media communications.
Kelly Grindle, Director of Integrated Strategy at We Are Pead, says parts of the business suffered, yet Pead’s structure which includes social, communications, and all things digital meant certain parts flourished, albeit unintentionally.
“Like all agencies that operate in the consumer space, initially we took a fairly big hit in terms of events and activations that were basically pulled overnight. Luckily for us, one of the benefits of being a full-service agency is that while some parts of the agency suffered, other parts of the business such as social, corporate and digital content production flourished.”
Grindle says the pandemic highlighted that PR agencies are more than just media comms, and in a time of uncertainty and sensitive consumers, they are best placed to know how to talk to an audience.
“PR agencies can do many of the things that ad agencies can do. Arguably I’d say we can sometimes do it quicker and more efficiently. It’s a common saying, but the message of PR has not changed – the channel to deliver it has. Originally, we were focused on media relations – but now there are social, digital, and live event components, so we have to be experts across these different platforms and channels.”
For Grindle now, the battle is continuing to convince key decision-makers that PR needs a more prominent seat at the table, even if that means taking a more aggressive approach.
“There is a perception that PR still means media relations, and it’s something that has frustrated me for years. PR is any form of communication between an organisation and the public – we’ve just pivoted very strongly towards media because that has been the dominant channel. But PR is much more than that. We can answer those questions around digital strategy or social strategy, it can shape culture and change opinions, we’ve moved far beyond placing stories in media.”
For MacDonald, she thinks the pandemic caused a necessary shakeup in the industry, even if just to change how PR is perceived.
“I do think our ability to do everything has always been there, it’s good clients have been reminded of the broadness of PR. It’s made people realise there is more to PR than sending out kits of fluff. There is a lot more depth to it.”
Bland at Undertow concurs with MacDonald, saying PR’s evolvement will continue as brands start to see its true strengths.
“PR used to be about spitting out information and getting eyes on the same message. Now you’re crafting messages for numerous different audiences and platforms and that will become even more of a focus.
“We have always changed with the times; PR and its people stretch and shift with society and have become far quicker to respond because we don’t have those overheads slowing us down […] We are best placed to be able to capitalise on this uncertain and unpredictable future that lies ahead.”
This article was originally published in the December/January 2020 issue of NZ Marketing. You can subscribe to the magazine, here.