Millions of Americans have been at home for the last four months. Spectator sports are on hold, many restaurants and bars are or were closed, and “retail,” in many places, means “online shopping.”
For PR pros, this has meant meeting people where they are, capitalizing on trends and shifting strategies to address the changes that everyone has been facing in their day-to-day lives.
For one, Americans are spending a lot more time on social media or streaming content. That means that PR pros are finding their audiences in the usual places, like Facebook or Instagram, but in new places, too.
TikTok may be an obvious answer, but far from the only one. While online gaming has a reliable network of users and fans, Greg Tedesco, EVP of New York digital at Zeno Group, has been noticing a significant uptick since the pandemic hit.
“The usual in-person social interactions are now finding a place online virtually through platforms like Twitch, and some of the most-shared content and memes across social channels are clips of gamer fails,” he says. “This has major implications from an influencer marketing perspective and the channels where our clients should consider buying media.”
Pinterest has been another sleeper hit. “Its resurgence is so logical. People have been stuck at home looking at bare walls and boring furniture and are craving inspiration,” says Mike Grady, SVP of content and publishing at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “These behaviors tap directly into the platform’s strength.”
With limitations on in-person events, if they can even happen at all, and a rise in connecting online, brands and organizations have been shifting to digital events and activations.
“Adoptions of live streaming via social have become their own cottage industry for many different types of brands,” says Nate Jaffee, head of strategy at Praytell. “This includes everything from consumer brands moving their summer festival activations onto social livestreams to B2B companies focusing on using social and livestreaming to promote or host events for client engagement or new business purposes to the early pandemic trend of organizing social livestreams to fundraise for causes.”
The success of these digital campaigns hinges on the ability of PR pros to develop strategy and create content appropriate for the digital space and the times we’re in. John Ratcliffe-Lee, SVP of digital strategy at Ketchum, calls for PR teams to ask themselves two questions. First, what is the direction people are heading in? What is happening contextually in the audience’s lives?
“For example, people were unsure if it was acceptable to post photos of brunch when there are [Black Lives Matter] protests happening,” he explains. “A brand has to think about these things, too.”
Second, juxtapose what kind of campaigns a client had planned with what life is actually like now.
“It’s not just about retrofitting something that was meant for a physical realm, but thinking about how it can exist in a different way,” Ratcliffe-Lee says.
People are also looking for a break from the onslaught of negative news. That’s why Donetta Allen, partner and social and digital media practice leader at Hunter, suggests her clients focus on three types of content: entertainment; educational tips for navigating being at home and social distancing; content that supports causes that matter to a client and its customers.
“While social conversations continue to ebb and flow around hot topics, consistent values-based content and campaigns supported with virtual and real-world activism will help to build brand loyalty,” she says.
Rachael Siefert, APCO’s North America digital strategy practice lead, also underscores how important it is for companies to embody their values, particularly at a time when more people are using online platforms to engage in social and political discourse.
“Everyone is at home and watching how companies are reacting to a year filled with crises and issues that are unprecedented for everyone alive today,” she says. As such, brands are under even more scrutiny and are expected to create content that illustrates their values.
Brands should also provide trustworthy, accurate information that acknowledges the times we’re in. Tedesco notes that early in the pandemic, Zeno “abandoned the status quo and shared messaging tied to safety and reinforcing our evolution to COVID-19. We asked ourselves, ‘how can we provide value to our audiences while still remaining sensitive to the unknown?’”
This was part of a model the agency built that used social conversation combined with other data, such as news coverage and changing policies, to better understand user sentiment and therefore guide its clients. As the landscape has been shifting, Zeno has continued to adjust as appropriate, adapting messaging and content “based on audience behaviors and appetite during the pandemic,” Tedesco adds.
Monitoring is key to this strategy. Jaffee calls content monitoring and social listening in this climate an “indispensable defensive tool.” Monitoring volume and sentiment of comments and mentions of brands can help with crisis mitigation.
It also helps in reading the room.
“There’s increased interest in monitoring how other brands are communicating—and consumers are responding—during turbulent times,” he continues. With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months, Jaffee notes that monitoring can also help with real listening, bringing to light instances of racism and leading them to be addressed.
“Firings, resignations, diversity and inclusion councils and more have been initiated because of social media posts, comments or messages,” he says.
At APCO, staffers are also finding use in more frequent monitoring.
“We need to understand the content that is trending and what is resonating with our audiences in order to develop content that will be positively received and break through in a crowded environment,” Siefert says. “With people online and on their devices more we have seen even faster shifts in trending topics and issues.”
H+K’s response has specifically tackled this challenge by tracking both macro and micro trends, which, Grady explains, is preventing the firm from simply jumping on the bandwagon, instead enabling them to make better, more strategic recommendations to their clients.
“Our clients are looking to innovate, which is great, but we need to ensure anything we create for them is on-brand and in keeping with their purpose,” he says.
Ratcliffe-Lee thinks it’s equally important to go beyond social listening during such uncertain times and look at search trends, as well.
“When you look at search terms and search volume, you’re usually looking at what someone wants to do in the future,” he says. This is particularly important now, as what people are doing or want to do may look different than it would normally. Whereas in the past consumer brands could make an assumption, for example, that Americans would be planning barbeques or picnics in mid-July, that is no longer a given.
Ultimately, adaptability and listening are key. The rapidly changing reality across the country requires PR pros to be even more agile than usual. To ensure that they’re landing on the right tone, content and campaigns more broadly, they must remain aware of audience preferences and sentiments, while remaining true to their brand or client’s values.