From shock to acceptance: how PR professionals are managing, and leading, during COVID-19

If last week was about shock, this week is about acceptance. And real leadership: political, business and moral. More of that in a moment.

For those of us fortunate enough to be healthy – or lucky enough to have a desk job far removed from the Titanic efforts of key workers in healthcare and other public services – it has been a week of getting used to WFH, video-con and working in jogging pants.

We must accept many comms professionals and journalists are indeed in a bubble (suddenly a different sort of virtual bubble) but hopefully we strive to connect; to understand and affect what is really going on. That, after all, is our value.

Having talked to many comms leaders this week, they are working extremely hard to this end.

The first thing one notices is the sheer number of hours that comms directors and agency bosses are putting in. Most report starting very early in the morning, a stream of relentless (sometimes unnecessary) calls and finding it hard to actually stop working well into the evening.

I’m learning that there are three main phases for businesses managing this ever-evolving crisis.

Disruption

The first is managing the initial disruption; the ‘shock phase’, if you like. Companies have been trying to cope with a completely different operating environment. If you work in-house, or if you have clients in certain sectors, then everything suddenly changed. If you work for a pharma firm, the pressure is on as never before. If you work for an airline, the planes are grounded. If you work for an automotive firm, people have stopped buying cars, and you may have stopped making cars. If you work for a restaurant chain, well…

And businesses have transformed internally. Agency chiefs spent much of the past week getting their heads round the technology that allows small businesses to operate in this newly atomised scenario. The smart ones, by the way, had already invested in this tech.

As one consultancy founder told me: “It’s not just video-con; it’s the use of organisation apps too. Who knew that you didn’t need to waste so much time travelling to and from meetings and the workplace? Also decision-making is changing. Shorter chains of command, greater decisiveness, agility and ability to pivot campaigns to the new paradigm.”

Personally I’ve been really encouraged that company owners’ first thought has been the comfort and wellbeing of their staff. It seems to me a warmer, more caring business environment than in previous downturns.

The second phase is the unique type of medium-term planning necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis. I’d call it the ‘protection phase’. 

This stage is coping with a period of several months after which, hopefully, the peak healthcare crisis and social restrictions will begin to abate. We are right at the end of Q1 2020, and this next period takes many businesses into a new financial year with revenue targets that have to be completely re-forecast.

It was a symbolic moment when, earlier this week, the world’s most iconic consumer brand, Coca-Cola, suspended all UK marketing activity for Q2, with Q3 ‘under review’.

For many comms department and PR consultancies – and, indeed, media companies - there will be a medium-term hiatus in spend. Firms will try to ride this out, but we are already seeing ‘discretionary’ expenditure frozen.

Businesses are now only hiring business-critical staff and it’s obviously a pretty challenging time for freelancers, who unfortunately represent a more easily turned-off variable cost. But companies are trying to preserve cash, and protect their existing workforces.

Nevertheless, marketing and communications activity remains busy. The comms director of one hotel chain told me: “Yes, most of our properties are closed, but we are keeping on our agencies. There’s lots of work as the media are desperate for stories. There is a general demand for content, for connection.”

Spend

There is, of course, the critical question of whether, for clients, PR agencies fall into that awful category of ‘discretionary spend’. The evidence so far is that they do not.

One leader at a large PR network confided: “Clients are actually asking for more advice, not less. Yes, clients are cancelling events, but they are instead spinning activity into other types of comms that are appropriate to these times.”

From talking to agency bosses, most remain optimistic that comms programmes are now seen as pretty essential by organisations, particularly during a downturn.

And then there is the third phase – let’s optimistically call it ‘the recovery phase’ – which is arguably the most difficult of all for executives, because the longer-term future is more difficult to call.

Most leaders seem to be planning for a number of different scenarios, the most optimistic of which is a V-shaped recession, which includes a fast recovery in the late summer or autumn/winter of 2020.

In many sectors there will inevitably be a spending/revenue downturn in the medium to long term. And on average, PR professionals appear to be planning scenarios of drops from five per cent to 30 per cent for the next financial year, depending on how quickly the recovery materialises.

One of the big questions here, of course, is the longer-term protection of one’s resource; and in PR operations, this predominantly means people. And it is here where that word, leadership, really comes to the fore.

Suddenly the world seems awash with chief executives delivering Churchillian addresses to staff, sometimes by email, sometimes by video. Don’t get me wrong, this is generally a good thing. At least most CEOs don’t hide, as they used to in previous decades.

But it is important that when bosses address staff they actually say something; that they provide honest details and tangible solutions.

We are seeing the Government and its scientific advisers go through the same process. Boris Johnson may be learning the hard way that reassurance fails to work without hard facts to back it up; Matt Hancock similarly. But the consensus is that Rishi Sunak is more of a natural in this sense.

Former government comms boss Alastair Campbell gave some excellent advice on this last weekend.

Staff and salaries

Back to the private sector, back to PR, and some companies have already guaranteed that they will not lose any people and their salaries will not be cut. This is a promise that Matthew Freud made earlier this week in a dramatic memo to staff.

It is a big call to say to staff that things will be fine. It’s an even bigger call by Freud to suggest things will actually end up better.

To some extent it relies on deep pockets (that cash thing again). It’s also a process rather than a one-off. The reassurance will need to be re-emphasised week by week as the crisis develops.

If firms can indeed protect and motivate their staff at this terrible time, they will emerge with even better reputations than before. These could be leadership campaigns that will dominate the Harvard Business Review for years to come.

All in all, the business mood feels more upbeat than it did a week ago, despite the very long road ahead. I hope you feel the same. This is not to lessen for a moment the awful tragedy and hardship that many people are enduring. It’s something we should spend time considering every single day.

On a personal level, I hope you are coping OK, that you are connecting with people in different, maybe better, ways; that you are learning and adapting to this new reality.

And that occasionally you are able to go outside and notice the spring sunshine. Please stay safe and stay positive.

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