‘High gear’: Pandemic means PR pros are demanding more from platforms

Clients want new -- and more critical -- data while agency pros are working from home.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

 In a matter of days last month, work and life as most Americans knew it completely changed. Stay-at-home orders went into effect, and telecommuting became the norm for most of the country. A month later, PR professionals are mostly working from their couches, kitchen tables and home offices. 

The change in scenery means PR pros are “operating on a very different playing field” that requires “a new mode of measurement and thinking,” according to Brian Buchwald, head of global intelligence at Weber Shandwick. 

Technology is enabling this sudden shift. Most office workers can continue to do their work, but with a few tweaks. What does this new mode of collaborating, pitching and measuring look like in practice?

Staying connected

The biggest change is how teams are communicating with one another, their clients and members of the media. With in-person meetings no longer possible, PR professionals are relying heavily on technology to stay connected. 

Allyson Hugley, VP and head of research and analytics at Prudential global communications, notes that while her group had been using tools like Teams from Microsoft, the crisis accelerated that trend. Hugley’s staff is taking advantage of collaboration tools to “manage materials co-creation, file sharing, calls and video conferencing efficiently.” 

After or in between work, these tools are being used to foster camaraderie, as well. Red Havas EVP Linda Descano says her team is using Zoom and Teams to share playlists, host live exercise classes and have virtual happy hours. 

At Hill+Knowlton Strategies, employees are taking the lead on organizing everything from yoga and meditation to Pictionary and even an internal talk show on BlueJeans or Teams, says Sam Lythgoe, global chief business development officer.

Ketchum staffers are using tools such as Workplace by Facebook to collaborate with clients, too. “It’s given us an opportunity to learn more about how we work together and new tools we may not have used before,” says Juliette Terrazas, SVP at Ketchum Analytics.

Information sharing

Many PR teams are turning to a tried-and-true way of communicating specifically about the virus: newsletters. For instance, Domino’s is using email and intranet for COVID-19-specific updates, along with “job aids, guidelines, tools and resources” for their audiences, says director of internal communication Stacie Barrett. 

A weekly newsletter at Havas provides examples of how different brands are responding to the crisis to show clients “possibilities across categories,” Descano says. Edelman is sharing a daily newsletter internally and with clients. Instead of a coverage report, the agency’s transformation and innovation head, Dustin Johnson, explains that it is “heavily editorialized.” Using technology to “get the insights that are most useful,” the newsletter rounds up the most important conversations and articles about the pandemic and distills them.

Meanwhile, Prudential is leveraging data and media intelligence capabilities to “serve as an enterprise intelligence resource” with daily global intelligence briefings. The updates are targeting “business and corporate center leaders focusing on consumer sentiment, media trends and business implications,” Hugley says.

Shifting client priorities

PR teams don’t just need to change the way they do their normal tasks, they also have to account for the changing priorities of their clients. Terrazas says her clients at Ketchum fall into three categories: those whose businesses are essential; those who are providing needed distractions; and those whose businesses are at a standstill.

The first category, which includes healthcare providers, retail and internet providers, “want to ensure their messages of how they can help with critical needs are getting through to the public,” she says. 

Gaming brands or streaming services, which fall in the second category, are seeking to understand how their products are being consumed and how they can best engage their growing consumer base. 

The third category, which includes travel and professional sports, “are more future-focused—they’re looking for insights into what their audiences might expect of them when the pandemic has ended and how their business needs to shift in the meantime,” adds Terrazas. 

Buchwald breaks down client priorities into three overarching themes, looking at timelines rather than industry. He says that companies are looking for a near-term “periscope into the crisis,” providing insight into how it is affecting employees, stakeholders and the general public. They also want a “mid-term blueprint of what early recovery might look like” and finally, a “long-term roadmap” of what the world may look like after it emerges from the worst of the pandemic.

Keeping an ear to the ground

Agency pros say media monitoring and social listening tools are important to understand consumers during the pandemic. 

“Many of the platforms we use remain the same, but the frequency of the need for data, and the questions we’re answering for clients are changing,” says Michael Rinaman, SVP of True Global Intelligence at FleishmanHillard. He adds that clients want to stay up-to-speed on rapidly changing perceptions and actions, which results in “more requests for real-time data that shows not only the frequency of the conversation, but also the velocity and intensity.”

Edelman staffers are using tools such as Crimson Hexagon, Talkwalker, and Cision in “high gear,” according to Johnson, as the teams seek to be “as exhaustive and comprehensive as possible to understand what’s going on.” More than understanding the breadth and volume of these conversations, it is important to be able to “quickly cut through the noise” to sift through the high volume of information that’s being disseminated, he says. 

Hugley’s team at Prudential is using a mix of traditional media-monitoring tools, like Factiva and Bloomberg Terminal, social listening tools such as Zignal and primary survey research tools like Ipsos and Morning Consult, along with machine learning to “analyze and quantify relevant signals in near real-time” for their daily coronavirus intelligence briefings. 

Weber staffers are also relying heavily on third-party data, such as economic and consumer-spending information and measuring everything from emotions and thoughts to what consumers are saying and doing. However, Buchwald says that the most “critical” thing his team is doing is “reading trends and curves vs. day-to-day fluctuations in statistics” to draw a more complete picture. 

“The story is longitudinal, playing out over time,” he says.

More of the same, but better

Ketchum is seeing a significant increase in the use of data to “assess and predict macro changes,” Terrazas says. 

The pace of change is accelerating significantly, which directly affects consumer attitudes and behaviors. The Omnicom Group firm’s analytics team is working with many of its tech partners to better optimize these tools, allowing them to use their tech stack “more fully, at a higher rate than normal, and sometimes more creatively.”

The quickly changing environment is also affecting Weber’s work. 

“We have seen a shift in needs to platforms that provide quick bursts of information vs. those that require a long windup,” Buchwald says, adding that when unemployment numbers, infection rates and local policies change significantly day-to-day, “the opportunity to assess data with recency is critical.”

He adds that platforms such as Memo are enabling Weber to provide clients with “actual data, the good and the bad, so that they can make informed decisions up and down the line.”

Fleishman’s Rinaman notes that more digital conversations during quarantine means that analytics must improve. But measurements need to assess not just text conversations but those happening via image and video, as well. 

“As individuals shift to digital-only interaction, we need to be able to distill the content and emotion of all content to understand what it portends for behaviors in the future,” he says.

However, Johnson has noticed a change in what agencies’ partners are looking for. Clients are less focused on the commercial value, he says, noting, “They’re not looking at how many bars of soap they’re moving.” 

Instead, the focus is on receiving and sharing accurate information, understanding the conversation and coverage and what kind of impact the crisis will have on their businesses. In a literal life-and-death situation, it is increasingly important to understand audiences and what is being said, while combating misinformation. 

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