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How the PR industry is switching gears to meet the pandemic challenges head-on

While crisis communication is a forte of the Public Relations industry, keeping the communication channels up and running during the pandemic period has been a challenge for all businesses. For the PR industry, the challenge has been two-pronged – keeping their business operations robust at a time when the entire team is working remotely, while at the same time also handling the communications mandate for their clients when business margins are squeezed.

And amid all the pandemic chaos, there has been an almost overnight shift to digital. This has called for being extremely nimble-footed, thinking out of the box and charting a course for a business ecosystem that has no previous templates to go by. Managing the workforce working remotely and bringing all in sync has been a challenging task, especially when employees are taking care of family members affected by COVID-19.

Meeting client expectations has perhaps been the biggest challenge for the PR agencies. With the entire ecosystem getting impacted, clients, too, are under a lot of pressure, and hence, their demands and deadlines have become tougher. This, in turn, has put more pressure on the PR teams. At the same time, media organisations are also working under tough conditions and hence, face severe time constraints. Thus, this has made it all the more tougher for PR agencies to crack the digital code to deliver their clients’ news and messages across the right channels.

The pandemic times has also seen greater use of social media. Thus, PR agencies need to be all the more vigilant about social media conversations and managing brand reputation in an increasingly troll-centric digital landscape.

Elaborating on the challenges faced by the PR industry today, Kulpreet Freddy Vesuna, Founder & Managing Director,  Impact Public Relations Pvt. Ltd. , said, “There are numerous challenges which we are facing, including:

  • Cash flow management: With the pandemic coming in, there are delays in payments from clients, few clients have also paused the services leading to cash flow issues.
  • PR operations: Majority of the team members are dealing with some COVID-19 situation among family & friends, leading to absence from work and also distraction. Coordinating with the large group of teams virtually is a challenge.
  • Communication and trust building has been an obstacle due to the shift from person-to-person to digital in this pandemic. Keeping an engagement balance with the client has been difficult.”

Highlighting the pandemic disruptions and challenges, Abhilasha Padhy, Co-founder & Joint MD, 80 dB Communications, said, “It’s true that the pandemic has impacted businesses and markets around the world. There are organisations that are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. However, we’re lucky that we have been motoring through these times and have come out on the other side. Like every other business, last year was quite uncertain for us and we have had to rethink certain things and shift gears. While it’s too early to predict, we have noticed that PR is grabbing a lot of eyeballs and companies are noticing us for our capabilities.”

Speaking about what proactive solutions PR agencies are adopting for virtual and ongoing communication, Ruby Sinha, MD, Kommune Brand Communications, commented, “The last year has been a challenging time for both companies and agencies. The transition from face-to-face meetings to virtual communication channels with clients was initially a challenge, but also a great learning for us. We stretched ourselves to be more proactive with clients and flexible in our communication approach. More than pitching for new businesses, our focus was on doing good work for our long-term clients and trying to be an effective communication partner and trusted advisor in the true sense.”

Continuing further, Sinha said, “Don’t we all know that PR can not only create buzz for brands, but also that PR will give brands the business momentum when normalcy resumes? In PR consultancies, teams are used to a collaborative way of working. Ensuring teams communicate effectively and keeping them motivated virtually has been a focus area. Also, with people working from home, work timings stretched beyond normal office hours and drawing the line between personal and professional life has been a challenge many a time. In the second wave of the pandemic, with the numbers going up exponentially, ensuring that teams are there to support each other without letting the ball drop in terms of client work has been a key priority for us.”

According to Tarunjeet Rattan, Managing Partner, Nucleus PR, the pandemic also made all brands realise that their reputation is not something that they can compromise on. “It opened up a lot of new avenues of work for PR professionals and acceptance of the same from the brand world for it. Brands who saw value and appreciated it, did not hesitate in revisiting expectations, reworking strategy, deliverables and cost accordingly. In fact, most of our clients appreciated the work we put in especially during the pandemic and rewarded us for it. The new pitches have a new plan of action and bear no resemblance to the PR pitches from a year ago,” she added.

Rattan noted that the pandemic has accelerated a decade’s worth of growth in the industry in one year. Today, both brands and agencies are very willing to explore newer mediums of communication that reach out to their target audience.

“We have evolved to the needs of the new generation and we are adapting new tools like digital marketing, influencer marketing, influencer engagement webinars, live shows, Twitter Spaces engagement, Insta live shows, to name a few. Our engagement has moved from print to digital and social media. On the digital front, clients are seeking digital integration in terms of social media platform handling. We provided integrated services to our clients that includes digital marketing, SEO, Influencer engagement & marketing, creative designs, live webinars, etc. Our team members have upgraded their digital skills,” Kulpreet Freddy Vesuna said.

Strategies have played a wide role here, be it communication strategy, digital media strategy, or marketing strategy, everything took a new path and formed a new brand reputation for all the brands. Revising expectations was never a plan of any consultancy or agencies, the pandemic made them do this.

Speaking about how 80 dB has revisited the client expectations set and reworked on their PR strategy and deliverables, Abhilasha Padhy, said “In normal circumstances itself, we have clients that approach us with certain expectations that they believe we can fulfill. For instance, when customers are looking for ways to engage with brands that care about them, we have relooked and tweaked how a particular brand is perceived. We have also worked on the relevant messaging that can keep customers interested and engrossed in the brand in the long run.”

“While the shift to digital was a gradual process, the sudden arrival of the pandemic has put digital transformation on fast forward. With everything online, brands are also trying to adjust and accelerate their move to the digital world. And we’re no different. As a team, we’re constantly honing our digital skills, learning new techniques and tactics that will help us grow digitally, and working with data tools that can help us make informed decisions,” she concluded.

Elaborating on the initiatives undertaken by the PRCAI, its President, Atul Sharma, said, “In this second wave, there is hardly anybody who hasn’t been affected by this pandemic. Despite everything that’s unfolding around us, we at PRCAI strongly believe that we can win this fight, if each one of us does our bit. As an association, we conducted our first vaccination camp in Delhi and soon we will have Mumbai and Bangalore coming up, providing relief and support as the new normal ushers in. Our #ItStartsWithYou initiative, encourages not only every PR professional but also every citizen to fight the good fight through vaccination, wearing masks, social distancing, hygiene and observing all COVID-appropriate behaviour. Most importantly, this is a tough time for the entire humankind, and we can do with being empathetic, giving each other time to focus on our own health and our loved ones. I hope that the worst is over, and we are already on our recovery path.”

(Edited and additional inputs by Shanta Saikia.)

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