How COVID-19 will impact PR practice and skills

COVID-19 is accelerating the modernisation of PR practice and skills. That’s daunting but it’s also incredibly exciting for individuals and organisations willing to invest in the future.

The CIPR, #FuturePRoof, PRCA and Provoke Media have all polled the PR industry throughout the COVID-19 crisis. We’ve been able to observe the impact of the virus on consumer behaviour and media consumption thanks to data from Brandwatch, OFCOM, Reuters Institute and YouGov, among others.

I’ve included links to all these sources at the end of this article.

It’s a complex story that is enabling us to begin to understand the implication of COVID-19 for the future of PR practice and skills.

In the consumer sector, the entertainment, gym, hospitality, sports and travel industries in the UK shutdown on 23 March when a lockdown was applied. Since that point, the health of the business-to-business market has been mixed. Construction, engineering and manufacturing closed down, but technology and infrastructure are booming.

The freelance PR market shut down in the first week of April as agencies and in-house teams reacted to the markets they serve and cut costs.

In the public sector, communicators have never been busier, as energy is directed to public education and information.

Media relations has been impacted by a decline in advertising and the reduced distribution of newsprint. Newsrooms have been cut back to the bone and journalists furloughed.

Digital media is booming. Events and campaigns have shifted online but we’ve quickly learnt that it’s not possible to replicate physical campaigns or events in a digital space.

Over the past week I’ve started to think about what it means for the future of the industry and skills.

Living alongside COVID-19

The start point is learning to live with COVID-19 and coexist with the virus in a sustainable way. That means adapting using tools such as social distancing, track and trace apps, and personal protective equipment.

The virus has accelerated trends that were already underway not just in our industry but across every sector.

Here are four macro trends that I’ve identified.

  1. Organisations focused on profit as a primary goal have been caught out by COVID-19. A sustainable recovery will need to focus on profit, people and the planet

  2. This is my fourth industry recession. Recoveries always make management teams focus on liquid assets and cash. In practice, this means a focus on the hard operational numbers, combined with data led planning and proof

  3. There has already been a rapid shift to digital and mobile first. That will continue, impacting outdoor, experiential, events, meetings and print

  4. Brands need to own and control their own media to engage with stakeholders. We’ll see an investment in owned media and social channels

We know from tracking the CIPR State of the Profession and European Communication Monitor how PR practice has been changing and its impact on skills over the decade. COVID-19 is an accelerator on practice and a disruptive force on content and media.

Here are the areas in which I think we need to focus our energy in skills and learning and development.

Management discipline

Organisations need seasoned expertise more than ever to help scenario plan for the future.

Investment and financial performance will drive the economic recovery, but this will need to be balanced with Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) performance. People and the planet will also become important organisational performance indicators in the boardroom.

Catherine Arrow recently wrote about the post COVID-19 challenge facing organisations on my blog. PR as a strategic management function is an issue that lies of the core of the #FuturePRoof community.

The ability of PR to navigate complex stakeholder environments gives it an assertive position in this emerging market, but equally this is a space that management consultancies are already chasing.

Planning and measurement

If you work in media relations, COVID-19 could be an extinction event. You should rapidly up-skill and learn how to use the PESO planning model developed by Gini Dietrich and the AMEC Integrated Evaluations framework.

Use data to identify and understand audiences and their behaviour, and to undercover insights. Those insights will lead to better briefs to inform creative and content.

Google has published a tool to help understand search trends during the crisis. Sneeze guards top the list. It’s a good example of a data source and in this instance it serves insights directly.

We need to get a lot more comfortable driving listening and planning tools and could learn a lot from colleagues in marketing where predictive models are the norm.

Media: owned, big social and influencers

The organisations that have invested in their own media have been able to use it throughout the crisis to communicate with staff and stakeholders. This is a big lesson for the future. Invest in building communities, customer databases and influencer networks.

With everyone stuck at home we’ve seen a boom in big messaging and social networks. Engagement and traffic on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok and WhatsApp is up. Radio, television and streaming are also holding up or growing.

The crisis has cleared out the market for Instagram and TikTok influencers but these platforms have seen a boom for any creator that has provided entertainment or information to their community.

Established examples include Joe Wicks’ daily exercises, Martin Lewis’ financial information and Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s disco sing-a-longs. Emerging examples include comedian Victoria Emes and Emily, an English teacher from King’s Lynn, whose English LIVE! sessions attract more than 20,000 viewers.

The disintermediation of media, enabling creators to engage with their communities, is a trend as old as the internet itself. The crisis has fueled growth in influencer subscription platforms such as Only Fans and Patreon.

Content: digital and mobile first

We’ve learned during the COVID-19 crisis that a campaign or event created for traditional media or a physical space cannot be retrofitted for digital. They need to be planned and built from the ground up.

That means human-led, conversational content and consideration of screen time. No one wants to attend a two day conference via webinar.

Digital led creative, rooted in an audience insight, will cut through noisy channels. Original content is in short supply because so much creation and production has been stopped since lockdown. Our local BBC news programme and even the national idents are based on clips from social media.

There’s been a reduction in audio and video production quality driven by broadband and web conferencing. Anyone with a smartphone can shoot images and video. If you’re looking for a place to start learning new skills I’d start with a new form of media content and public information in this time of need.

Workflow: an overhaul of working practices

The PR industry, like many other professions, has had a massive onboarding in virtual working. Everything has moved to the Cloud and I can’t see it ever going back. Offices are an expensive overhead.

The next wave of modernisation will be related to the economic recovery as workflow is modernised by new tools and means of practice. Automation enables us to eliminate manual tasks, while AI will continue to enable us to work smarter in each of the areas I’ve outlined.

Thank you

Thanks to everyone who provided insight into this article via the Marketing, media and PR community of practice on Facebook. You’d be welcome to join us if you’re interested in exploring the future of practice.

References

  1. #FuturePRoof, Updated: #FuturePRoof COVID-19 survey finds urgent Government intervention needed for freelancers, 26 March 2020

  2. Brandwatch, COVID-19 Brandwatch Resource Centre, Accessed 8 May 2020

  3. CIPR, CIPR calls for Government support for freelancers as research shows half have lost over 60% of income, 6 April 2020

  4. CIPR, CIPR State of the Profession 2019/2020, 3 April 2019

  5. European Communication Monitor, European Communication Monitor 2019, 23 May 2019

  6. OFCOM, COVID-19 news and information: consumption and attitudes, Accessed 8 May 2020

  7. Provoke Media, COVID-19 Data & Insights, Accessed 8 May 2020

  8. Reuters Institute, The UK COVID-19 news and information project, Accessed 8 May 2020

  9. YouGov, COVID-19 Public Monitor, Accessed 8 May 2020

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

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Professional advisor for agencies and communication teams, Wadds Inc. Author: #brandvandals, Exploring PR and Management Communication. #PRstack, Share This, and others. Visiting Professor, Newcastle University.

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