How specialty agencies refocused their PR lenses

COVID-19 upended businesses in nearly every sector and agencies scrambled to adjust in tandem with clients. Specialty firms in travel, tourism, sports, arts and restaurants refocused accordingly.

Northwell Health’s annual Side By Side: A Celebration of Service live event in New York City became an all-virtual event celebrating medical workers on the front lines.
Northwell Health’s annual Side By Side: A Celebration of Service live event in New York City became an all-virtual event celebrating medical workers on the front lines.

Over the past year, Fahlgren Mortine’s travel arm has spent a lot of time maintaining the brand position for destinations — states, cities and regions — while balancing the ethics of promoting travel amid a global health crisis.  

“Our industry is about bringing influential people into market to experience a place or thinking of ways we can convey it — when that becomes not possible, it’s a dramatic shift,” says Marty McDonald, an EVP who leads Fahlgren Mortine’s tourism practice. 

Fahlgren Mortine shifted its focus from storytelling and destination promotion to crisis comms, content creation and virtual engagement. The firm’s top priority is helping destinations plan for recovery and staying “immersed in the information” so it can communicate facts.  

When the pandemic hit, Fahlgren Mortine client Experience Columbus was on the verge of launching Live Forward, a campaign about creating a “vibrant city that people would want to come and visit,” McDonald says. The organization ended up pivoting its business model to focus on the local community.

“We helped them develop a Live Forward pledge designed for local businesses to focus on telling potential visitors how they were accommodating sanitation practices and abiding by those restrictions,” McDonald says. 

Columbus Live Forward campaignFahlgren Mortine helped its Ohio client Experience Columbus pivot its marketing message from tourism to one focusing on the local community. 

Boutique hotel Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese also faced a major challenge in March 2020 when Italy closed to U.S. travelers. Along with international travel coming to a halt, other obstacles its agency KWE Partners faced were a dramatic decline in media coverage on international travel, a very saturated media sphere on “virtual” travel coverage and imminent shift in focus from international to domestic travel among media and consumers.  

KWE implemented a PR campaign that aimed to bring the Roman lifestyle and Italian culture into the homes of affluent U.S. travelers. Comprising content creation, media relations and social media tactics, the campaign offered expertise from the five-star hotel’s acclaimed F&B team. Additionally, KWE collaborated with influencers to create virtual Rome-inspired experiences and at-home activities to conjure up wanderlust and gain attention. 

“We also had to reassure people that when they went to our [clients’] resorts they would be safe and we were following the protocols,” KWE president Karen Weiner Escalera says.

Fahlgren Mortine never gave up on its travel and tourism clients, even when they asked about parting ways or reducing fees.  

“We told clients, ‘We are committed to the future and while we are figuring things out we will work with you and be as flexible as we can be,’” says McDonald. “What ended up happening is federal aid showed up, reserves could be tapped or travelers started to return in safe ways.”  

Asked what will continue to be an issue for the hotel, travel and tourism industries, Escalera predicts consumers will continue to worry about health and safety when going on vacation.  

“This has been traumatic [for consumers]; they’re not going to change their mindset overnight,” she notes.

Sports and performing arts 
Tandem Sports + Entertainment works with NBA stars, so the agency must make sure its plans are aligned with team comms departments and the NBA in terms of scheduling events, initiatives and PR campaigns. That all came to an “immediate halt” in 2020, says Meredith Geisler, SVP of communications at Tandem. 

“We decided to work with the teams and leagues and our clients to make sure they were providing relevant information and initiatives for the media and for their community,” says Geisler. 

For four years, Tandem worked with former Brooklyn Nets player Jarrett Allen on an annual community event called Meals + Math, where Allen would take kids with incarcerated parents to Key Food supermarkets, hand them a $100 gift card and a calculator and help them pick out goods within budget for a Thanksgiving meal. 

“With the pandemic, we couldn’t have the kids gather in the grocery store so we made this event virtual,” says Geisler. “It was as good as it could possibly be without being in person, and the kids got really connected to [Allen] and he felt great about continuing to service the Brooklyn community.” 

One silver lining Tandem has discovered is that with games and travel plans postponed, clients have been freed up to do “fun things” and use their social media platforms “for good.”

For example, in November the Memphis Zoo named a baby giraffe Ja Raffe in honor of NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. The Memphis Grizzlies star found out and Tandem helped him to meet the giraffe the next day. 

“That wouldn’t have been able to happen as quickly or effortlessly if it had been in normal times,” says Geisler. 

Rogers & Cowan PMK had to quickly figure out how to alter an annual event for client Northwell Health that had previously been an all-day celebration with musical artists celebrating the service of veterans. Northwell Health’s Side By Side: A Celebration of Service ended up being a Memorial Day TV special. 

“We pivoted to an all-virtual event that celebrated frontline workers with nurses and doctors and EMTs,” says Shirley Hughes, the agency’s president of brands. 

Additionally, each Monday in May leading up to the special, Northwell Health amplified New York City’s appreciation of essential workers with a #HealthcareHeroes Concert Series featuring Questlove, Gavin DeGraw and Meghan Trainor. PR efforts generated more than $500,000 in publicity value and 30,000 unique page views on the Northwell Health website.

For entertainment-related activations, Hughes says it was “about having the right voice and being mindful about how you are communicating your brand and how you are talking to your consumers in this time and being sensitive to what is happening.”  

Restaurants and bars
The pandemic created huge demand for food deliveries as restaurants couldn’t allow patrons to dine-in. This led to ghost kitchens — cooking facilities that produce food only for delivery and takeout — to explode in popularity. Ghost kitchens could create a $1 trillion global market by 2030, according to Euromonitor. 

Steven Hall, owner of Hall PR, says his firm had to think about the different opportunities available and jumped on the ghost kitchen bandwagon. He helped celebrity chef Franklin Becker to launch two new virtual restaurants in Philadelphia: Shai and Benny Casanova’s.

Hall says he negotiated fees with all clients to ensure they could continue to work with his firm. 

“I wasn’t going to walk away from people just because they couldn’t pay me for a month,” he says.

Melanie Weitzner founded Le CollectiveM in August 2020, which specializes in the food and beverage industry. “We helped to create our restaurant clients’ dining experiences at home and quickly replace revenue to help them stay afloat,” she says. “Regular takeout menus became much more creative with family meal kits, bottled cocktails and larger format offerings.”

Weitzner notes that clients such as Dante and Highway Restaurant & Bar, which was struggling to stay open, made it a priority to feed hospital workers and first responders daily during the height of the lockdown.  

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