How Covid has forced public relations to…

BC – i.e. pre-Covid – the PR manager’s job was to act as a media liaison, needed to hone the ‘voice’ of the company, take the lead on material marketing, building relationships and supporting business results.

Those who specialized in B2B (business to business) public relations focused on driving sales of products and services, while managing their reputation. Working in the B2C (business to consumer) segment often involved issuing “spray and pray” press releases, cold calling journalists to pitch angles as well as hosting media junkets to “build relationships” and secure exposure, which hopefully resulted in a return on investment for clients.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the traditional PR songbook was thrown out the window – landlines went unanswered, face-to-face meetings moved almost exclusively online and events moved are collapsed. Covid has presented many challenges and opportunities for the sector, which has forced public relations into new territory. For most, this means not only taking on a different job, but also taking on different roles.

Natalia Rosa of Big Ambitions says most of the agency’s clients operate in the travel and tourism sector and in a week of lockdown a third of her income was wiped out. But in the midst of this crisis came an opportunity, as the industry needed big ambitions more than ever.

“They couldn’t afford to pay us, so we had to work a lot more, for a lot less money,” says Rosa. “In fact, we have become a bit like a call center for the tourism industry. We had all these Covid regulations and restrictions, but no one was unpacking them to help businesses translate them into their daily lives.

Big Ambitions stepped into that role – and flew. He hosted virtual briefings with experts on issues like TERS payments, business insurance, and more.

“We eventually pivoted to do more communications and industry support type things than media liaison or media relations,” says Rosa.

Big Ambitions, she explains, has always been a bit different from a public relations perspective, as the agency employed ex-journalists, who essentially did “newsjacking” (the practice of aligning a brand with a newsworthy current event). This role has evolved into industry support: “We do a lot of industry communications on behalf of tourism and travel associations to help the tourism industry.

“So we pivoted to doing a lot of virtual events. We spend less time on public relations and the media and more time finding an audience where they are, whether on an associative platform, via social networks or WhatsApp groups,” explains Rosa.

“Our whole marketing mix has changed. It is now intentional.

walk on toes

For Nicky James of Tribeca, moving to the Cloud two months before the lockdown was announced was fortuitous. But, from a planning perspective, Covid-19 turned out to be the ultimate curveball.

“We used to plan 6 to 12 months ahead for our clients,” she says. “Now that’s reviewed every month because we have no idea if that product launch or that event can actually happen.”

Tribeca also no longer works on a traditional “earned model” for print, online or broadcast. Now, when building a strategy, it offers a complete PASO strategy (paid, earned, shared and owned).

“In fact, we’re stepping on the toes of advertising and marketing agencies because we can do what they can do: when we pitch, we say we can do media buying, influencer programs , social media, etc. – the traditional stuff that ad agencies pitch. . So there is a big blurry line between the beginning and the end of PR. »

“Like a big uppercut”

Sylvester Chauke of DNA Brand Architects, PRISM’s big agency of 2021, says that before the pandemic, his clientele included a mix of food and beverage, travel and tourism, entertainment and corporate brands.

“Before, a lot of things were very consumer-driven, which meant reaching the mass market. We noticed an immediate change: tourism was the worst… It was a blow, like a big uppercut,” says Chauke .

Companies realized they needed to review their operations, so money and effort was spent on internal reviews of their market approach. “We have worked with many companies to try to find new approaches and new ways to present themselves. What was quite obvious was that inside [communication] has become much more important, especially in the early stages of lockdown. We saw a lot of opportunities present themselves in terms of internal communications and we realized that customers were also looking for deviations from their traditional ways of doing things,” says Chauke.

“So if they used to work with big agencies in the past, they’re willing to look at a smaller agency now, one that’s able to help them in a simpler, more streamlined way. We get really interesting files and clients.

ByDesign’s Kevin Welman agrees, saying communication, especially in the B2B, non-hotel space has moved beyond survival mode and agencies are better able to strategize.

“Communication is just thinking about business. Now we come back to a place where the longer term planning takes place.

“People think beyond the end of [the first quarter of] 2022 – they look at what could happen this whole year and beyond. Where should we be? What communication channels do we need to put in place to execute the business strategies? Things like that.”

African Insight

Hayley van der Woude of Irvine Partners says the company started expanding its service before the pandemic because clients wanted a one-stop-shop for everything from internal communications to paid PR, social media, digital and creative campaigns. .

“We’ve found that clients only want one main agency – they just want to deal with one person, not the headaches and budgetary requirements of six different agencies.”

Irvine has also expanded into Africa, through offices in Nigeria and Kenya, which opened before the pandemic, as well as a new office in Ghana. These are made up of experts with local expertise.

“Many of the brands we represent, whether they are South African, British or American, want to reach a large audience in Africa, but they don’t necessarily want to have country managers. They need a PR agency with people on the ground in those countries who can give them local insight,” says Van der Woude.

Take advice

For Avatar’s Ethel Ramos, Covid has changed the way relationships are handled and spurred interest in digital-first content.

“There were more requests for videos, e-book type research, and goal-oriented communications. Brands needed to show what they were doing to help society as a whole.

As an advertising and digital marketing agency, Avatar prefers to work with bloggers and digital journalists because they seem more authentic in the way they tell the story and communicate. Ramos says a lot of people think public relations is just about sending out press releases and the like, but, in his experience, the pandemic in particular was about taking advice for clients. DM168

Questions and answers

Mildred Thabane of African communications consultancy Pekuzi Projects

What did you want to be as a child?

An architect.

What would you do if it wasn’t for PR?

Cooking in a small exclusive restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

How did you discover PR?

I discovered PR while working as an online content specialist at a previous agency.

What are you listening to in the car?

All; my tastes are very eclectic.

Favorite visual/performance/musical artist?

Actress Thuso Mbedu is definitely a rising star.

Have you read any good books lately ?

I am currently reading Will be by Will Smith and I appreciate it.

Guilty pleasure?

Gummy bears.

Any creative projects you’ve worked on or would like to have?

I love, love, love the work Ryan Reynolds’ marketing company Maximum Effort does.

Your professional superpower?

I’m very calm.

The biggest weak point?

I have to face my fears more.

What keeps you up at night?

The state of the world right now.

What brings you joy?

My family.

This story first appeared in our weekly daily maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 from Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookshops. To find your nearest retailer, please click on here.


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