The Changing Face of PR in a Crisis…

…and not just any old crisis!
By Rachael Jackson MCIPR, travel PR and crisis communications specialist

In these turbulent and seemingly apocalyptic times, when nothing is normal and life has been turned on its head, there has never been a greater need to be 'human'. Valuing life, loving laughter, being kind: in how we interact with each other, whether via a screen, through the newfound wonders of Zoom and Houseparty, over the 'phone or through a window…at a safe two-metre distance, of course!
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The Changing Face of PR in a Crisis…

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Gone – for now – are the brash calling cards to buy this, become sexier if you use this, eat this and get thin…it is a time for more sensitive, softer communications and a more empathetic response.

PR has always been about telling stories – and the odd shameless publicity stunt, admittedly! – but we have always excelled at tapping into the zeitgeist and gauging the genuine sentiment and concerns of our audience.

Now, at a time when we are all justifiably concerned and unused to the strange environment of being locked in our homes virtually 24/7, these stories need to take on a more human, person-to-person perspective and tone.

For communications professionals, it is time to move away from the tried-and-tested PR toolkit – the belaboured press release, the formulaic pitch – and delve a bit deeper, to understand what the media and we, as a nation, really want and feel.

Think differently

In these unprecedented times – funny how we never used ‘unprecedented’ much before, and now it’s in every utterance – communicators have to learn to embrace the shift into people stories, not just about a brand, or inanimate goods and commodities.

People will always be interested in people – we’re nosy by nature, after all – and there is nothing more engaging and compelling than reading about others in the same situation, how they have helped to make a difference, how they are keeping it together and how they have overcome adversity.

There will be a place for advertising in due course, but for now, the medium of people-based narrative is where we need to be focussing our communications efforts and resources.

Reassuring, informative, inspirational, thought-provoking…whatever the message is, it needs to be relevant, relatable and a rallying cry to help to get us all through this.

The power of positive

How many of us have found ourselves turning off the news after yet another doom-and-gloom ‘We’re all gonna die’ story? Caught yourself rewatching ‘Contagion’ for the fifth time and reminding yourself that you don’t need to spend two hours with Gwyneth Paltrow et al to learn just how bad things could really get?  

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And so it is with PR.

Be positive, tell the good news stories, get the CSR messages out there…even in the darkest hours, there are still people helping others, companies large and small doing their bit, communities getting together for the rousing Thursday night tribute to our NHS heroes, carers and key workers. 

There will always be the relentless news agenda to feed – and as we know, bad news is good news in media terms – but PR professionals have always been adaptable and able to flex with the changing public mood.

Let’s switch gears, change it up and find the humanity in it all. 

Pause for thought

As many of us are now furloughed, or sadly ‘actively seeking new opportunities’, we have time to think…and there is much to be said for being able to step away, get your PR bearings and maximise your creative potential.

It is about listening more – gauging the tone and feelings of our clients and the media – and adapting our communications to a more human-interest narrative.  

As we know, people love to buy, but not to be sold at…give them the opportunity to dream about happier times, when your product or service will be back in demand, but now is not the time for hard-sell or insensitive marketing.

For travel brands, one of the hardest hit sectors in this global pandemic, it is sufficient for now to sow the seeds of future explorations to come – aspirations of bucket-list destinations and far-flung adventures – without going all-out with tone-deaf promotions in an uncertain and unreceptive climate.

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Know your audience

Find out where your audience communicates and how they interact with each other. Whilst a traditional letter or an e-mail might be the best way to reach out to one group of stakeholders, others might choose to engage with a FaceBook post, Tweet or welcome a WhatsApp chat.

It has never been more important to pivot and adapt your messaging to where your customers are spending most of their time…and let’s face it, with lockdown expected to continue for a few more weeks yet, this is a commodity that most of us have never had more of.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

In PR, we know that the most important role that we ever play is to look after reputation. Our own, that of our clients, our employers, the CEO…you name it, we’ve got it covered.

But as we have witnessed recently, this is an increasingly precarious field, and even the crisis-hardened likes of Sir Richard Branson – the former poster boy of entrepreneurship and the embodiment of British grit and determination – have come seriously unstuck. As for Tim Martin and Wetherspoons, only time will tell whether there is still a thirst for his cheery, no nonsense pub offer post-COVID-19.

Always remember that you have to live by what you do and say, and a reputation that has taken a lifetime to build – to nurture, cherish and grow – can come crashing down spectacularly within minutes.

So, be decent, be kind, be empathetic…and most of all, don’t tell the world’s most powerful nation that detergent is the panacea for all its ills. It isn’t…but telling the truth just might be. 

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