Monday 23rd March 2020 – the day the UK’s lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson – feels like a lifetime ago now. Since then, we’ve seen more than one in four workers in the UK furloughed and it has been revealed that the economy saw a decline of 10.4% from February to April. This shrinkage is expected to continue, leading the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to project the economy will soon officially enter recession and contract by 11.5% in 2020.
Unlike the recession in 2008, we have a head start this time – we are more aware of what’s coming and what could follow. If the world avoids a second wave of coronavirus, the OECD predicts the economy will bounce back by 9% in 2021. This is a very different situation to 2008, when the recession was shallower but lasted longer. There is less reason this time for businesses to cut anything and everything they can to reduce expenditure, and more reason to retain staff and services that will be so important later this year and early next year during the bounce back.
Public relations and communications fall into that category. Whether communicating redundancies during difficult times or growth during the bounce back, protecting company reputation at this time is critical – businesses can’t afford a loss of confidence in who they are, what they do, and how they do it. They need to show they’re weathering this storm and, when we come out the other side, they’re stronger than ever.
While the past few months have been challenging, it has been somewhat useful as a test for what comes next. Resources have been stretched, budgets have been frozen, opportunities have been harder to seize – and this is only the beginning of the downturn. If there is one positive, it’s that it provides a chance to take stock, analyse performance and returns, and make improvements before what could be a very difficult second half of 2020.
PR and comms have changed – you should have too
The disruption caused by COVID-19 means that many of the tactics employed by PR and comms professionals, and the manner in which they must be executed, have changed. Put simply, if you’re carrying out activities in the same way you would have done even six months ago, you’re doing it wrong. Whether you’ve had an obvious flop, or a campaign has simply underperformed, the outcomes of a bad idea – or a good idea poorly executed – don’t lie.
If you’re in this boat and you’re disappointed by the results you’ve seen, it’s time to ask yourself some tough questions about what you have been doing right and wrong. With the UK moving towards recession, it’s not going to get easier and it’s better to identify areas for improvement and find solutions now.
The big question: Have you adapted?
This shouldn’t be a yes or no answer. I recommend answering this question by considering the extent to which you’ve adapted on a spectrum, based on a range of activities and tactics. For example:
Social media – Social media giants Facebook and Twitter both reported record user numbers across their platforms during lockdown. Despite this, engagement rates on Facebook fell to their lowest in 2020, and Twitter has followed the same downward trend.
The posts that would’ve worked six months ago aren’t generating the same response now. Brands are having to communicate differently on social media channels, to be more socially responsible while still appealing to customers. At this time, you should be listening and serving, not plugging.
Media relations – The pandemic has decimated newsrooms over the last few months. The publisher of the Mirror, Reach, was forced to furlough nearly 1,000 employees, City A.M. furloughed the majority of its staff, and they’re just two well-known examples – we’re yet to hear of a news outlet that hasn’t been affected in some way.
The effect this has had is to require a major change in approach for most PR agencies and in-house teams. Because there are fewer journalists to pitch company news to, and those who are working are stretched, the competition for media coverage has skyrocketed. There are opportunities out there though, but only for those that have adapted well enough.
Employee communications – Furloughs, pay cuts, redundancies, working from home, redistributing responsibilities, changes to benefits, mental health… has there ever been so many important topics for employers to communicate on all within such a short space of time?
The fallout from poor communication could harm businesses for years to come. Keeping the workforce on side, motivated and unified, while ensuring they’re safe, healthy and, where possible, financially stable, through empathetic and clear communications should have been the priority during the pandemic.
This excellent guide covers this important communications function during COVID-19 in more detail.
Content – Earlier during the pandemic, you’d be forgiven for thinking content marketing should take a backseat. After all, people don’t want to be marketed to at the moment, right?
Well, a number of brands have proved this isn’t necessarily the case. They have established that so long as you seek to connect with audience members for the right reasons, not just to sell, content can still be incredibly powerful and is in demand. IKEA has excelled at this – despite it being unable to sell products while its stores were closed, it released the recipe to its famous meatballs to keep consumers connected with its brand experience. It also shared plans for building home forts to keep families entertained.
So, with the above in mind, do you feel you and your team adapted as well as you could have? That leads us to the next – and most important – question…
Are you prepared for what happens next?
There’s been much talk recently of a return to the ‘new normal’. The reality is that while this applies to the way in which society returns as best it can to business as usual, at this point PR and communications is in flux. With the deepest recession in living memory anticipated this year, what could be deemed the new normal now likely won’t be normal in six months.
By going through the exercise of establishing whether your company and/or PR agency adapted well enough to the pandemic over the last few months, you’re one step closer to preparing for what happens next. When the inevitable does happen, you and your team are going to need to adapt immediately – so, based on what you’ve seen over the last few months, is your PR set-up going to deliver throughout the recession too?
If you’re not confident, it may be time to re-assess and take action to improve before it is too late.