It used to be that when things got tough, the tough cut marketing and PR budgets. “Below the line” spending was lopped off the spreadsheet faster than you could say “recession.”
But that conventional wisdom was from a time when PR and marketing worked through one-way channels. They were designed to push out businesses messages through traditional media to customers. Today, brand communications is much more of a two-way street. Customer engagement isn’t something you can turn on and off. In a depressed economy, a business that maintains marketing and communications will bounce back more quickly than one that cuts its budgets.
That’s easier said than done. But there are good reasons why brands should stick with PR and marketing as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, even if in a modified way.
To be sure, the pandemic has changed everything, including how businesses market and promote their brands. In most cases, scheduled campaigns went out the window. So-called traditional marketing gave way to empathetic customer messaging around the impact of the virus and subsequent lockdowns.
A pause in ordinary, pre-COVID marketing has frozen many brands in place. There’s little new product news outside of entertainment, no innovation to announce, and no launches planned unless they’re for antibody tests or the like. Paradoxically, this has made smart PR more important than ever for brands. Here’s why.
In an uncertain situation, communication matters. We’re struggling to reopen, with the virus spiking in new areas just as it settles down in others. Businesses must communicate proactively to employees, customers, and stakeholders about practical matters like business changes, measures to protect health, and the eventual return to business. It’s even more important to connect with customers about intangibles – what a business values and prioritizes as employers and corporate citizens.
Now is the time to ramp up customer-centric measures like community service and thought leadership – which classic PR programs deliver very well.
As many states contemplate reopening, smaller businesses have an opportunity to be creative. Some have already mastered new business models involving apps, customer deliveries, or new products adapted to home consumption. Some cafes and restaurants are using parking lots and sidewalks to build outdoor service opportunities. Salons have adjusted hours and redesigned to accommodate pent-up demand from clients.
Empathy is also a two-way street. The COVID-19 pandemic is unusual in that no one was spared, and no business is seen as responsible for what happened. The crisis threatens the survival of many smaller businesses, so everyone is rooting for recovery. Most people aren’t worried about whether P&G’s brands will survive the pandemic, but they’re concerned about the corner restaurant, or even the tech startup they read about last month. Some of the largest brands in the world have paused ordinary communications, which offers opportunities for smaller brands to stand up and differentiate themselves through strategic PR and marketing.
In times of crisis, change, or transition, leadership is critically important. For most organizations, that means C-level communications is under scrutiny. Even in pre-COVID times the CEO had become a public spokesperson about critical matters, whether for a private or public company. Now, the spotlight shines even hotter for business leaders. A well-crafted executive PR campaign can help convey a business’s core values and future intentions through its leadership.
This is apparent in the many large-company CEOs who have pledged not to cut jobs during the COVID-19 downturn, as well as several who have taken voluntary salary reductions, like Yum Brands’ CEO David Gibbs and Marriott’s Arne Sorenson. The good will generated will pay reputation dividends for their brands long after the COVID-19 crisis has eased.
Finally, many businesses, like most Americans, face an uncertain future. The go-go economy of the past decade has sharply retrenched, and it’s time to prioritize. PR, content marketing, and social media marketing offer a relatively budget-friendly and measurable way to define a brand through its own actions as well as leadership communications. This is particularly true in the high-value sectors of healthcare and crisis management, but it can hold for nearly any kind of proactive PR.
Experienced communicators know that businesses can’t turn PR and marketing on and off in a crisis. Tomorrow’s leaders should use this time to offer empathy, resilience, and leadership in their industries and communities.