Agency communications in turmoil during coronavirus pandemic
Clients lost. Pitches canceled. Campaigns altered and clients panicking. With much of the world in lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak, working in ad industry communications has suddenly become a very different place.
Over the past week, PR pitches about new creative work have dropped off a cliff. Campaigns that were due to break in industries affected by the crisis—travel, airlines, restaurants—have been pulled. And highlighting campaigns promoting products not related to the outbreak can seem frivolous or inappropriate. Instead, there's crisis PR: Cadbury, for example, was forced to pull its Easter campaign in the U.K., as it featured grandchildren visiting their grandpa for an egg hunt.
“Has agency PR slowed down? Absolutely,” says one New York-based PR executive who, like some others contacted for this story, wishes to remain anonymous. “And I’d say at least in the U.S. this slowdown has only just kicked in. Just over a week ago we were all still planning for and pitching creative campaigns, new business wins, executive hires, and dizzy op-eds about things like TikTok, DTC startup fails, and Kylie Jenner—even though this pandemic was already very well underway. Once it started to kick in personally for agencies in the U.S., however, and remote 'testing' started happening ... anything existing outside the COVID-19 bubble began to take an extremely distant and necessary back seat.”
There’s also an issue around sensitivity. “No one is quite sure if it’s 'appropriate' to be touting the things that are still very much alive, and thus far, well,” the executive said.
One London PR agency reported the loss of a long-standing client, while others asked that their work be put on pause.
London-based industry PR executive Gabrielle Lott, whose clients include The&Partnership, says it’s “business as usual” since she’s used to working remotely with clients. But she adds: “My concern is the consequent months after this initial period. I’ve spoken with production contacts and things have slowed down, so work isn’t being made … Currently we have an amount of content that needs promoting, but that might dwindle as it becomes apparent that nothing has been signed off in a while.”
Another London PR executive says disappointment has set in “due to the postponement of the supercool and exciting talks and sessions I had lined up at industry shows and festivals. The innovative and creative work I won’t be sending out imminently. Plans I was inspired to make have now melted away.”
However, the crisis could provide opportunities for agency communications.
“This is a good opportunity for agencies to get their house in order, ” says Jane Austin, founder of Persuasion Communications, which works with London agencies such as Adam&Eve/DDB, Droga5 London and AMV BBDO. Austin suggests agencies work on their Linkedin or Medium profiles or look at how to “maintain their culture” while working from home. There are also opportunities in thought leadership, virtual conferences and quick response work. “It feels like we’re more of a newsroom,” she adds.
It's also important for agencies to take care of talent during the crisis, says Austin—which includes not mistreating their communications partners. “It’s not going to last forever, so continue to treat each other well.”
Says another London PR executive with several clients in Asia: “I’m seeing that there’s a real want and a real need for stories of resilience, of hope, of solidarity, kindness, love, humanity and advice on how to create the new normal. So, I’m encouraging my clients living through ‘the peak’ to talk about how they are doing so, to share tips, advice and encouragement to those waiting for ‘the peak’ to come.”
Lott agrees: “As we know from any time of conflict or unease, people need creativity—music, art, literature, dance, song. What we make is a form of expression and that should be celebrated. Life does need to continue, as much as possible, as normal. Otherwise we face a time of real uncertainty in the future.”
The New York-based PR executive believes people will soon want reminders that life will go on: “Soon distractions will be more welcomed than they are questioned.”