Public Relations: Forever Altered by a Pandemic

Typically, right now I’d be drafting a post with tips for the new year. I’d encourage you to start thinking about your strategic plans, how to go about assembling editorial content, and providing steps to implement both. But as you well know, this year changed everything—especially for public relations professionals.

No matter how much we focused on preparedness and crisis trainings before 2020, we never could have anticipated the impact of a global pandemic. Yet, public relations professionals were quickly looked to for messaging, storytelling, education, awareness, and ultimately, driving consumers to take immediate action.

As 2020 comes to an end, it’s important to reflect on the lasting impact that the pandemic has had on the PR industry—and spoiler alert: not all of those impacts are negative.

Communication teams should always have a seat at the leadership table.

In April, at the peak of the first wave of this pandemic, I sat in on a webinar, Covid-19 Comms: Best Practices hosted by Cision. One of the most interesting realizations I had while watching this discussion was quite simple: companies that didn’t already have their communication team at the leadership table were already behind when this pandemic struck.

Communication professionals have a role in brand develop and ongoing reputation management. When any crisis occurs, having this expert at the table almost always results in better decision-making in how to reach target audiences with imperative messages. And when we’re not in times of crisis, your communication teams should always be reporting on how their successes are supporting prioritized business goals.

In a crisis, consumers want to hear from the people and organizations they trust.

This isn’t a new revelation; it makes perfect sense. In turbulent times, we lean on the entities we trust. But the media climate at the start of 2020 implied that consumers were less trusting of companies, especially in the social space. When coronavirus began to spread across the globe, proactive companies immediately turned to their social media channels to drive awareness and educate consumers to help reduce the spread of germs.

While social media is never going to be the sole influence on decision-making, this pandemic provided an opportunity for businesses to leverage their social channels to meet consumers with critical information in real-time. Using reoccurring, live video messages, social icons, and consistent messaging, businesses were able to cut through the noise and connect directly with their audiences.

Newsgathering looks different.

I’ve sat in on a handful of the Public Relations Society of America Hoosier Chapter’s “Meet the Media” events. These events bring a panel of journalists to the table for a question/answer-based discussion. The December event reiterated to me how different newsgathering has looked during this pandemic—and that approach may be here to stay. Through the height of the pandemic’s first wave, media partners were often newsgathering on social media pages. The immediate nature of social posts accommodated the one-hour turnaround time that journalists had in the spring months. But that’s just one example.

Media partners who have been restricted from the field have turned to packaged video and photo files, pre-recorded interviews, and live interviews by Zoom. Though most journalists report a desire to get back to face-to-face interviewing, the five panelists in the December media event all indicated they’d love for PR professionals to continue packaging visual assets and providing them alongside pitches.

Pitching requires even more brevity.  

According to the Cision 2020 State of the Media Report, 25% of the journalists surveyed reported receiving 51-100 pitches per week. Most PR professionals already know that pitches must be timely, relevant, and pitched to the proper journalist/outlet—but what this should reiterate is the importance of establishing a relationship with your prospective journalists.

Take Alexandria Burris with the Indianapolis Star, for example. Alex often turns to Twitter to gather information for her stories. In September, Alex turned to Twitter to ask for personal stories about working remotely during the pandemic. Because I’d already met with Alex and pitched her a few stories, we’d built the rapport where I could reply with 75 characters. Those 75 characters landed me an interview and allowed me to gain a piece of coverage for our agency.

While this year has forever changed the PR industry, it’s done so in ways that allow us to be more effective in our roles and to also better communicate our value to our companies, clients, and causes. Noticing other impacts in your field? Drop a comment below or let’s connect on Twitter @CaseyNCawthon.

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