PR Hits And Misses Of 2020

It’s that time of year — when observers trained in PR and reputation weigh in on the brands and personalities who made news in good and bad ways during the year. But 2020 is different from previous years. Many stories that might otherwise have made news were overshadowed by two monsters — the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. presidential election. Each had legs, to put it mildly, and both knocked an untold number of things out of the virtual headlines. And each had a huge wave effect that spilled into new stories over the year. Here, then, is my list for the PR best and worst of 2020.

The PR Worst

Mike Bloomberg

New York’s three-term mayor soared in visibility – and popularity – when he entered the democratic presidential field in late 2019. Fueled by an advertising war chest that only a billionaire could amass, Bloomberg climbed quickly in the polls, only to fall to earth after a poor debate performance in February. Rivals criticized him in harsh and personal terms over his mayoral record and infamous “stop and frisk” policing policies. At the same time, accusations of disrespectful behavior to women he employed at his namesake company resurfaced. To add insult to injury, he reneged on a pledge to pay campaign staff through November of 2020 even after exiting the race. In reputation terms, it added up to a $900 million black eye.

Rudolph Giuliani

Maybe Bloomberg will take solace in the fact that his problems were nothing compared to those of another former New York City mayor. Giuliani’s image deterioration began years ago, when even allies noticed his odd behavior and thirst for media coverage at any cost. But this year was a doozy. The former 9/11 hero was in the news for all the wrong reasons – habitually butt-dialing reporters, being punked in humiliating fashion by Sacha Baron Cohen, and presiding over the infamous Four Seasons Landscaping press conference. But the most indelible image might be the one of the presser where a sweating and irrational Giuliani railed about a “rigged election” with hair dye running down his face. It was a sad comedown for America’s mayor.

Quibi

It’s almost like Quibi never really had a chance. The mobile streaming service’s biggest mistake wasn’t really in its PR presentation, but it may have been the victim of its own hype. On the plus side, it offered an A-list roster of talent and the pedigree of its founders. Yet Quibi’s timing was exquisitely bad; it was launched as “on-the-go” content in quick bites at the precise time when we weren’t going anywhere. It could have pivoted much more quickly. It waited until summer to enable device support beyond mobile, and in October it released apps for TV-streaming devices. It also hurt that Quibi viewers couldn’t even screenshot shows until late summer. That may seem silly, but meme creation and social sharing for shows could have been powerful, and it all came as too little, too late.

McKinsey

McKinsey has already weathered reputation hits due to its role in the opioid crisis, but the news got worse in 2020.  The most chilling detail? The New York Times broke the news that the storied consulting firm suggested rebates be paid to pharmacy companies whose customers overdosed on OxyContin. McKinsey is clearly taking the situation seriously; it offered a rare apology for its efforts to “turbocharge” profits from OxyContin sales for Purdue Pharma, which has pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to its opioid marketing. For McKinsey, it’s the worst year yet and a sign that only a fresh start and clean executive slate will restore its reputation.

Brand America

The shambolic handling of the COVID pandemic, the nativist retrenchment from the world stage, and ongoing allegations of a rigged election haven’t exactly done America proud. If those headlines were about another country, we’d probably be shaking our heads. I’ll leave it to diplomacy experts to calculate the damage to U.S. “soft power” wrought by the demoralized and decimated state department, but there’s surely a loss of prestige for us abroad. It’s hard to be a role model for democracy, innovation, and efficiency with the track record we’ve earned in 2020. Let’s hope good old American inventiveness and business leadership will help us rebound in 2021.

The PR Best

Healthcare workers

Our frontline healthcare workers, among many others on the front lines of the COVID pandemic, are still under pressure as the virus spikes yet again. Yet 2020 has brought recognition for the thousands of overworked and undervalued staffers in our hospitals and healthcare facilities. The N95-marked faces of those who put themselves at risk to heal others is one of the most unforgettable images of the year.

America’s governors

The administration never seemed to have a clear strategy for managing COVID, and its communications was rife with mixed messages and a disastrous politicization of basic protective measures like use of face coverings. It was left to America’s governors to lead constituents through the crisis, and many proved up to the task. New York’s Governor Cuomo impressed with his clear and coherent daily briefings; as I wrote back in March, what seems like bluster and dogmatism on an ordinary day rises to resolute leadership when people are scared. Ohio’s Mike DeVine brought tough love and real talk to his management of the pandemic in Ohio. Many state leaders really met the moment.

TikTok

Remember when the kids were worried that TikTok would be banned in the U.S.? That didn’t happen, thanks to a convoluted transaction involving Oracle and Wal-Mart. In a strong use of proactive PR to change the narrative,  TikTok GM for the U.S. Vanessa Pappas showed both savvy and PR smarts in her handling of the situation. First, she ignored her own “interim” title and stepped up as US communicator-in-chief, responding quickly to the proposed ban with a video message for TikTok fans as well as regulators. Pappas also called on competitors like Instagram to unite in opposing a download ban as a certain impediment to growth for all players. “We’re here for the long run; continue to share your voice here and let’s stand for TikTok,” she wrote. And while TikTok isn’t out of the woods, its popularity has skyrocketed and its position as a meme maker and platform of choice for the next 15 minutes at least is assured.

Zoom

Bottom line, Zoom was there for us when we needed it. There are better video conference services, and there are certainly more secure ones, but Zoom really delivered when it counted. It scaled rapidly to accommodate surge use, responded quickly to customer concerns, and emerged as the user-friendly leader in a previously commoditized category. Most importantly, its management conveyed concern and took responsibility in the face of technology failures and moved swiftly to correct them. That’s not easy. The human and accessible tone of the brand’s communications really helped millions of new work-from-home teams stay connected, to say nothing of schools and families. Well done.

Pfizer and Moderna

In PR, nothing succeeds like innovation, and first-movers get to claim credit for the long run. Both biopharmaceutical brands earned their status with extraordinary stories of innovation in 2020. Pfizer in particular gets plaudits for the skillful telling of the story of partner BioNTech, founded by the married scientists who are children of Turkish immigrants to Germany and who went on to create the groundbreaking mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. The Sahin-Tureci backstory was a stunning culmination to the race for a vaccine against the ravages of the virus and a real tonic for our weary and cynical souls.

How (And Why) PR Pros Should Use TikTok

There’s a new social media app taking the world by storm. It’s called TikTok. Ever heard of it? 

Seriously, TikTok has been on the PR radar for a long time, and most recently it made news for different reasons. Media interest peaked over the weekend with reports that a deal involving TikTok, Oracle and Wal-Mart would avert a ban of the app in the U.S. The agreement is still tentative, but it’s meant to resolve the simmering controversy about the app as a potential security risk.

TikTok’s users, however, don’t seem concerned. The app has surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat, with 1.65 billion downloads to date, more than 30 million active monthly users in the U.S., and more than 500 million active users worldwide. TikTok is currently the sixth largest social network in the world. 

What started out as a Snapchat-like platform for younger generations of social media influencers and general users for sharing video snippets has grown into an essential platform for marketing and advertising. Whether a brand’s focus is fitness, fashion, food, or anything else, TikTok can connect it to a highly desirable and sometimes elusive audience. 

Why TikTok? 

New and creative social channels should be key elements for consideration in any PR plan, especially for brands aiming to reach a younger audience. TikTok is essential for this demo, as 60% of U.S. users are between the ages of 16 and 24. The app is intrinsic to its users’ lives;  the average Tik Tok visitor opens the app more than eight times per day, spending about 46 minutes on it daily.  

One of the most appealing aspects of TikTok, especially for those younger users, is that everyone is a creator. It’s open to all formats, and there are no distinct guidelines or rules on how the app should be used. Creativity is the only rule. Videos range from singing and dancing, to comedy, reaction videos and challenges. On the flip side, users can find more serious content, with videos focused on topics like politics, climate change, and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Depending on individual users’ personalized recommendations, TikTok plays videos instantly upon the app’s opening, immediately drawing viewers in. This is TikTok’s most central feature – its AI-driven algorithm that shows videos based on user preferences. This same feature helps guarantee that a brand’s videos will reach its target audience – an important distinction TikTok has over other social media platforms. 

TikTok is a powerful brand marketing platform

TikTok makes it easier than ever to promote a brand – reaching the right people in the right ways. Over the last year, it introduced self-serve advertising platforms, including branded hashtags, video ads, branded lenses and much more. Based on a company’s wants and needs, there are a variety of formats to choose from. 

Branded hashtags drive discovery

Branded hashtags encourage users to create videos with a certain hashtag, often accompanied by a specific song or dance move. Videos with branded hashtags are not only available in a user’s normal feed, but also in the Trending section of the Discover tab, making these videos widely viewable. In fact, with TikTok, users rely heavily on hashtags to navigate the app. It’s “For You” discovery page engages far more than Instagram’s “Discover” page, for example.

Pepsi’s #SwagStepChallenge, a great example of a branded hashtag campaign, spread like wildfire on TikTok, as well as on Twitter and Youtube. The challenge became the fastest hashtag challenge using a branded effect to reach one million video creations globally and a whopping 95.5 billion views through user generated content (UGC) on the platform.

Video ads for the win

Video ads are understandably the most common format for ad and marketing purposes on TikTok, with brand takeovers, in-feed videos and top-view videos being popular. Brand takeovers are pop-up ads that typically last 3-5 seconds. They can be videos, GIFs, or images that include links to a landing page. TikTok only allows one brand to take over a category per day, but it guarantees five million impressions, a promise that may well be worth the investment for many. Additionally, brands get immediate attention, as the ads display upon opening the app. 

Branded lenses jump on trends

With branded lenses, brands partner with TikTok to create 2D and 3D lenses for users to “try on” and share. Branded lenses also let companies land in the Trending section of the Discover tab for ten days. According to Prowly, about 64% of TikTok users have tried facial filters and lenses, making it another valuable option for marketers. 

Influencer partnerships spice it up

For any marketer wanting to incorporate TikTok into a brand PR strategy, TikTok influencers are essential. As on other platforms, TikTok influencer marketing ads partner brands with creators to generate and share sponsored content. When the partnership is authentic and the creators are given freedom, these partnerships can be highly successful. 

For example, David Dobrik, one of the most popular social media influencers, with more than 22 million TikTok followers, partnered with Chipotle for its Lid Flip Challenge, a Cinco de Mayo campaign to promote the chain’s free delivery for digital orders. Chipotle discovered that Gen Zers order delivery more than any other segment, making them the perfect audience. To participate in the challenge, users only needed a phone and a Chipotle burrito bowl. 

According to AdAge, in just the first six days of the Lid Flip Challenge with David Dobrik, 111,000 videos were submitted and the promotion garnered a record-breaking digital sales day for the chain, driving app downloads and delivery among the key Gen Z audience.

But Can It Work for B2B?

B2B companies might be hesitant about TikTok because it’s so consumer-oriented, but they shouldn’t count it out. Companies wanting to reach business customers have the same end goal of reaching and forming lasting relationships with their target audiences. So, for B2B companies, how can TikTok help? 

With any brand, it’s important to feel approachable. Stronger relationships can be formed when customers feel connected to your brand on a more personal level. TikTok users want the platform to stay a creative, authentic channel for human-to-human interaction. Do you have a CEO with a unique story? Maybe how he/she established the business, or maybe insights on building a strong culture at work? Sharing tips or short stories in visually appealing ways can engage viewers and make lasting impact. For example, marketer Adrian Brambila shares his success story on TikTok by explaining how he established himself as a marketing leader, and to date, his videos have generated more than 4.7 million likes. 

TikTok is overflowing with innovative, fresh ideas, so brands must be clever with their posts to be noticed. Even for brands thought of as “boring” that is doable. For example, just before the global shutdown in March, The Washington Post began sharing content on TikTok, but they weren’t posting videos of daily headlines. Rather, the outlet shared relatable videos on the daily struggles and adjustments of working from home, incorporating popular trends. They must be doing something right, because the content has generated more than 25.8 million likes. 

Staying relevant, influential and top-of-mind is important for all brands, whether B2B or B2C. Keeping up with content trends is one way of doing that, and some of the best, most buzzworthy ideas online are shared on TikTok. Viral TikTok videos make great templates for high-performing content on other platforms as well – Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. 

With TikTok, B2B companies can connect and engage with more of their audience and show prospects the more creative and personal side of their business. B2B companies not leveraging the app may be missing out on opportunities. 

TikTok: making connections and driving lasting impacts 

TikTok is the first app of its kind. What separates it from other social media platforms is the creativity it affords users. It lets them be both creators and viewers, and exposes them to an endless stream of personalized content. More importantly, the sense of community on TikTok is what draws users in and keeps them coming back for more. It will continue to play a key role in the PR efforts of brands appealing to younger users. If you’re looking to engage with the elusive teen or young 20s demographic, chances are you will find them on TikTok.