Steve Barrett on PR: You will emerge from COVID-19 a better PR pro

Times of crisis are never pleasant to endure, but necessity is the mother of invention and experiences forged during tough times will inform careers moving forward.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

A friend of mine who is a paramedic lost two work colleagues this week to COVID-19. It left him devastated and desperately sad, but also determined to carry on fighting the health crisis on the frontline.

It’s a feeling with which an increasing number of people around the world can empathize, including those working in the PR profession. We mourn those who didn’t make it and we support those going through tough economic times, but we pledge to come out the other side stronger, if a little battered and bruised.

PRWeek’s COVID-19 Survey 2.0, the most comprehensive analysis of the impact of the pandemic on the PR industry conducted so far, surveying 280 respondents, equally split between agency and client-side PR professionals. That’s a very credible survey sample from which to draw conclusions.

It shows the experience of losing a work colleague or team members losing family members to coronavirus is something almost 18% of PR pros have experienced. Additionally, more than one in five have team members who contracted the virus, over one in three have family members who contracted it.

Indeed, the scale of - and speed of increase in - loss of life to COVID-19 is such that the number of deaths in the U.S. has risen from 82,000 when I wrote the survey story on Wednesday to 86,571 as I write this today.

I wrote a feature for the PRWeek Agency Business Report six weeks ago when the death toll was below 30,000. When that feature goes to press next week for our May/June print edition, the subeditors will have to amend that number above 90,000. Every one of those statistics is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter. These are harrowing times.

In this same week, another 3 million Americans were added to the unemployment register, making a total of 36 million additional people signing on over the past two months. This trend is reflected at holding company PR firms, where layoffs have been reported at many agencies in the past few weeks.

The COVID-19 Survey also shows the impact of the coronavirus on PR jobs, with almost one in five respondents reporting layoffs at their firms (4.2% of them on a scale in excess of 3%) and 11.2% of client teams (4.5% above 3%). The ray of light at the end of the tunnel is that almost four in 10 respondents reported no change at their companies in terms of staff reductions, so that is something to cling on to.

While the survey shows there is increased demand for health work, crisis communications, reputation management and employee engagement, jobs are going at agencies because, on a net basis, clients are canceling, postponing or reducing work.

Almost one in 10 clients admit to having scrapped retainers, nearly a quarter indicate they have revised them with reduced terms. Over three-quarters of agencies say their clients have reduced retainers, one in five significantly - so there appears to be something of a disconnect in the mutual perception of what are essentially the same events.

Nine out of 10 agency respondents reported clients postponing campaigns, 41% significantly. Eight out of 10 said activations had been canceled, 26% significantly. These are tough numbers to deal with.

And, just to add insult to injury, 38.3% of clients have imposed extended payment terms on their agencies since the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in. When you hear so many brands and corporations talking about doing the right thing and acting with purpose, this seems egregious to me, especially as agency payment terms are typically already stringent.

But PR pros are resilient folk. They make the best of whatever environment they find themselves in. They are scrappy and get the job done, no matter how difficult the circumstances. They retain good humor and deliver wise counsel through the most trying of scenarios.

The majority of respondents to our COVID-19 2.0 Survey (55.3%) expect to return to an office-based working environment in June or July, although 17.6% admit they just don’t know when the return will happen.

Necessity is the mother of invention and we know the world of work they return to will have changed forever. The vast majority of respondents expect social distancing and virtual working to play a big part in the new normal. From a practical point of view that will incorporate deep cleaning regimes, screening protocols and temperature tests.

There will be fewer large-scale physical events and less global and domestic business travel. Virtual pitches will not be the new norm, but there will definitely be virtual aspects to the process that sustain post-lockdown. Every company is assessing its centralized office strategy and property portfolios as workers have demonstrated that WFH can work and isn’t just an excuse for shirking.

One survey respondent described it thus: “We are relying on our company's leaders, the government and our instincts to do what is best for us. I want to make sure when I step back into my office I'll feel safe and get solace in the fact that my building and company are doing what they can to make sure we are healthy, both physically and mentally.” 

WPP agency SJR this week released a survey of Fortune 100 leaders, quantifying their reputation via media coverage, social platforms and other digital commentary based on how they have handled the COVID-19 crisis.

The universal component of the CEOs that appear at the top of this list is effective communication, with employees internally and with external stakeholders including customers, investors and analysts.

The primary role of communications in leadership underlines once again the contribution PR professionals make in guiding enterprises through tough times. Those experiences forged in the heat of a crisis will stand them in good stead when we emerge from this horrible crisis.

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