'In a crisis, PR is the most critical need'

As ad and media spend plunge, PR agencies remain on the frontline of marcomm efforts as they manage issues such as organisational change, business continuity, and WFH disruption.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, we've seen brands significantly reducing or altogether halting their marketing spend, and this has naturally hurt agency partners. PR agencies are not exempted from this struggle, and issues such as reduced earnings, late payments, hiring freezes, and pay cuts have been reported.

But it's not all doom and gloom for medium-sized or larger PR networks. Jonathan Heit, global president at Allison+Partners, tells PRWeek Asia that while many businesses in hospitality and travel have been negatively impacted, he has seen expanded needs from many of the agency's technology and corporate sectors, particularly in B2B as they face new opportunities and challenges that were impossible to forecast at the start of the year.

"In terms of crisis and issues management, we are seeing more need for that type of work, but it falls into an even broader category, where we are guiding our clients through disruption," he says.

"Our primary focus for these clients is business continuity and scenario planning, stakeholder communications (which includes internal comms), executive communication and training and social impact. We are involved also in technical considerations for many clients that may be looking for support on converting their in-person activities into digital engagement or even on WFH best practices."

Heit adds that more often than not, these new and urgent needs from clients are a pivot or expansion of existing resources.

QC Liang, Greater China CEO and president at H+K Strategies, tells PRWeek Asia that many clients have cancelled or postponed events and campaigns from February to May, and consumer spending and confidence have dropped significantly because of the lockdown and disruptions to everyday life. On the other hand, the agency has received more requests for contingency planning and risk management, suspension of operations, and potential company restructuring or down-sizing.

Simillarly to Allison+Partners, H+K's incoming requests include internal comms as more organisations deal with structural changes and WFH challenges.

"Organisations are looking for independent views and professional support as they are faced with new challenges in employee communication during WFH. The need is becoming stronger as they are struggling between protecting staff health, safety and optimising company performance," says Liang.

"The pandemic has changed the way people live, work and interact with each other. We have also seen many changes in agency-client relationships and workstyles, moving all communications online, mobile and real-time. Timelines and deadlines have become more pressing as the market situation evolves day by day, hour by hour."

As to why PR remains a critical need at a time of reduced marketing spend elsewhere, Liang says that the PR sector is more "weather-proof".

"PR agencies tend to be more valuable to clients during times of organisational change and difficulty, while creative or media agencies are dependent on product rollout and campaign activations," he says.

"In a global crisis, companies need to reinforce their commitment to the market and communities, while protecting themselves against potential risks to their assets and reputation. PR acts more like firemen in this case."

Heit concurs. "PR has always been about direct communication to stakeholders, and in a crisis that is the most critical need. Great creative done right will always serve its purpose, though, and I'm sure we'll see more of that emerge in the coming weeks and months," he says.

Both leaders agree that at this time, brands and organisations should be cautious about the messages they're sending out to the marketplace and employees.

"The overall theme should be tailored to address public wellbeing and highlight their roles as responsible corporate citizens without being self-serving. Meanwhile they should watch their social and environmental compliance, executive behaviors, and employee ethics performance more closely," says Liang.

"They should not over-communicate charity donations, nor should they hijack public events or topics for commercial gains."

Meanwhile, Heit says the top priority for brands and organisations has to be its people. "Anything that pulls focus from that has to have immediate impact on the longevity of the business, otherwise you will find yourself out of step with what's most important. Anything that has a long lead time or window of approval should be done away with, as there is too much risk the window will be missed and your message will be out of sync," he says.

"Secondly, what are they doing for the community that are close to their business or employees? We are seeing brands playing a part in being part of the global and national agendas of Covid-19 by offering support or time. When this is all over, we anticipate brands' customers asking the question "what did your brand do when the world/community needed you the most?".

Post-outbreak, agencies will also have to deal with new challenges that go hand-in-hand with intensified organisational and public fears such as individual health, personal financial security, and the survival of small businesses.

Liang says: "Moving ahead, many businesses will need to recalibrate their strategies and rethink their purpose, while also reflecting what their audiences and stakeholders are concerned about today."

This is slowly beginning to take shape in China where recovery is underway. Liang says, "Companies [in China] are now re-emerging in a social and business landscape that has been fundamentally reshaped by the pandemic. And this has critical implications for their brand positioning, business models and sustainability campaigns.

"COVID-19 has exposed and intensified many social vulnerabilities."


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