'This could be our finest hour' - creative PR in the time of coronavirus

The coronavirus has had a massive impact on creative PR campaigning, but what have been the biggest changes and how are creative comms chiefs adapting?

'At times like these, creativity is actually more important than ever' (Picture: ©GettyImages)
'At times like these, creativity is actually more important than ever' (Picture: ©GettyImages)

Arguably no part of the PR landscape has been forced to change as quickly during the pandemic as creative consumer campaigning.

March should be a time of optimism, with spring imminent and a host of seasonal events ahead for creative PRs to latch on to with fun and inventive campaigns.

Hope&Glory co-founder and chief creative officer James Gordon-Macintosh outlines some ways in which things have changed.

All the agency's experiential or events-based activities were dropped pretty quickly after the pandemic started taking hold in the UK, along with some general campaigns.

“What’s more, clients are pulling work where they might be incurring costs now even where campaigns wouldn’t take place for a couple of months," he adds. "There’s a relatively low level of proactive general consumer comms overall as clients and our teams are heads-down dealing with the immediate issues.”

Macintosh thinks brands will switch from being reactive to moving towards making a real contribution in the current, hugely challenging environment.

“The newsdesks are calling out for stories that are corona-led but focus more on business’ observations from their data – whether that’s how data is being used on mobile networks or what customers are buying at retailers.

“The media are also looking for some stories that give their readers a break from all this, and they’re turning to us to help. From that perspective, it’s almost as though it’s the August silly season in the middle of a war zone – quite surreal in so many ways.”

Pivot

Mark Perkins, executive creative director at W Communications, offers some more context.

“We all have elderly relatives we are worried about, families we are separated from, and I'm working at home with a wife who is 24-weeks pregnant and that is something to tap into.

“Many people are now at home, socialising is almost grinding to a halt, and the reality is a lot of families will be separated and isolated for the foreseeable future.

“While immediate media attention is on the famous festivals, sporting and cultural events that are being pulled, even the dynamic of traditional family time like Mothers Day and Easter is going to be changed beyond recognition.”

He adds: “We've done a complete pivot on much of our work, adapted and mobilised as how we can most effectively add value to clients to navigate them through this.

"After lots of self-mockery about floating stuff down the Thames and stunts on Potter Fields, this could be our finest hour."

The Romans founder and executive creative director Joe Mackay-Sinclair also sees creativity as being even more crucial now.

“Creativity has never been more vital to the existential threat facing PR," he says. "When 99 per cent of the news is about one subject, how do you possibly cut through without an idea?

“Experiential campaigns will of course be the first to get pulled but fortunately, PR’s strength lies in its ability to be channel agnostic. Social media usage is through the roof. Despite (or because of) the crisis we’ve never craved conversation and connection more, and that’s got to be a huge opportunity for brave clients looking to weather the storm.”

Isolation

Self isolation is a big challenge, especially for creative teams that thrive on collaboration. This can be difficult to convey through a computer screen.

Kev O’Sullivan is executive creative director and partner at FleishmanHillard Fishburn - and a confessed extrovert.

“I’ve often felt drained and dejected by the lack of human contact," he says. "As a needy collaborator, I’ve truly missed our colleagues and clients. But we’re a resilient bunch. Looking at desk buddies through a screen is becoming weirdly familiar, even second nature now.

“My challenge is communicating a passionate point without my trademark gesticulation and physical movement. Instead I have potentially sounded more aggressive or inflamed than usual. I’m learning a whole new etiquette and posturing that gets the best out of our colleagues. At the moment it’s still a bit ranty-seeming - sorry."

O’Sullivan also thinks creativity can thrive in these circumstances, and clients need big ideas that match their values and relevant products.

“The key is not to appear like creative ambulance chasers," he warns. "And always be empathetic and respectful. Equally, one must accept the challenge that our clients and their audiences are experiencing the issue in very different ways.”

Changing daily

Peter Mounstevens, chief creative officer and managing partner at Taylor Herring, has no doubt his team could work creatively in isolation.

“We are fortunate at Taylor Herring in the sense that we have been set up to work remotely for some time now, so daily conferences and creative meetings are fairly unaffected

“This said, the scope of work on some accounts is changing daily so, like many other agencies, we are now looking creatively at how we can pivot on any existing business that may have involved public events, exhibitions, sports and so on."

He believes people will still seek light relief and entertainment win their newsfeeds – perhaps more than ever.

“As a profession, we are far more agile than other departments within the marketing mix, as such, we are well placed to respond to the challenging climate we are currently experiencing,” he adds.

“Obviously, these are testing times with the situation evolving by the hour. There has been the inevitable adjustment to the new ways of working and actually have ramped up our creative and innovative approaches over the past week,” explains Pete Way, creative director at BCW.

“At times like these, creativity is actually more important than ever and is acting as a bond that enables people to come together. As we have seen from the simple but powerful actions from brands such as The National Trust and Louis Vuitton this week, it can continue to be a really positive force for good”.

H+K Strategies' Simon Shaw says the agency’s creative teams around the world are sharing thinking, approaches to clients challenges, and new ideas in a way that may not have happened if they were in an office together.

“It is changing the ways we engage with each other," says Shaw, global chief creative strategy and innovation officer.

"In Europe and the US,we and our clients might be just coming to terms with the challenges in remote working but in China brands are already working out how to support and engage with virtual tourists, on-line 3D museums tours and cloud exhibitions. Sharing learnings and best practice is important.”

Shaw says brands are changing behaviour to work together with government and society to address the challenges we all face.

“Selling a product or service seems suddenly less important than providing access to the benefits that they potentially provide. I think we all need to be as positive and optimistic as possible; we should not be looking to criticise or find fault in any well intentioned activities but all work together to get through the crisis.”

Purpose will shine through

At Ogilvy UK, PR & influence creative lead Ben Bailey says the agency's first priority is to support all stakeholders during the pandemic. This is followed by internal communications to reassure workers.

“PR people are used to moving quickly. We’re used to responding to consumer needs, and fast. And ‘cultural relevance’ has a whole new meaning today. People are looking for positive news for themselves, and to share with others.

“Some brands will be made because of it, and some agencies will come out of it with an even stronger relationship with their teams and clients.

“Clearly, timing is everything. True purpose will shine through. There’s a new normal in town - and no-one yet knows what it looks like.”

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