With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Public Relations field was put under immense pressure. When one-on-one interactions came to a halt, the entire industry, which heavily relies on fostering interpersonal relationships, was threatened. Professionals had to struggle with stress, burnout and the need to adapt to working remotely, and face clients’ reluctance to invest in PR strategies in the midst of a global economic downturn.
Yet, in a June 2020 report by Buzzstream, which surveyed 400 PR professionals in the United States, 73% of respondents declared they remained confident about the value of their work and 59% believed in its effectiveness. But third of them still contemplated a career change, amid a wave of layoffs and pay reduction in PR organizations.
Many companies believe PR is not an essential, or affordable, service at a time of economic uncertainty and global health threat. As a result, the PR and marketing industry has been affected from top to bottom. Advertising giant WPP, for instance, put together a £2bn+ savings plan to recoup losses, after losing 23% of its Chinese revenue due to the pandemic. Freelancers likewise have seen a drop in contracts, and small agencies with few clients are struggling to retain theirs.
According to Buzzstream, 57% of clients have modified their strategies, half of them have reduced their PR budget, and more than a third canceled contracts due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, 21 % of clients have upped their PR budget, which suggests a desire to capitalize on the move to the online world to get ahead of the competition.
The pandemic has brought the world online more than ever before, forcing the PR industry to adapt – a move to the digital that represents at once an opportunity and a challenge for communicators. The lockdown impeded traditional live happenings such as product launches and media events, but PR professionals might turn to new revenue streams, like organizing virtual or experiential events and meetings, or find new ways to distribute content.
Moreover, since the pandemic makes normal marketing seems irrelevant and even self-serving, the industry has had to change the nature of its pitches. Since March, 62% of paid and earned media pitches referenced COVID-19, and 57% talked about business innovation during the pandemic. There has also been a significant move towards feel-good stories, centered around health, wellness, lifestyle, and education – a tactic that can create an image of positivity and reliability around a brand while waiting for the situation to get better. Demand for PR services in certain sectors related to technology (e-commerce and telecom, for instance), pharmaceuticals, and crisis communication has also risen as a direct result of the pandemic. Meanwhile, in the public sector, communication is buzzing about public education and information about COVID-19.
Ultimately, the PR industry as a whole must make intelligent use of new technologies to pivot to the digital realm, convince clients of its value, and direct client strategies to address the pandemic while maintaining their brand on-message.