By Jennifer O’Grady, founder of Democracy PR
Sometimes The Sky Falls
In January, as news of a deadly virus from China began to emerge, we began consulting with our clients, on what this could mean for them. We considered their people, their customers, the communities they served. It was all very theoretical. But as the scale of the disaster started to take shape, considerations soon became practical. I created smaller agile teams to provide clients with greater support and accountability. I pushed through payrises. I offered assurances that sick leave would be paid; that parents could work from home if schools shut; and reminded staff of the mental health support the company offered. Most importantly, we reassured everyone they would remain on full pay for as long as possible. We’d be OK.
Being First Can Get You Ahead
In the weeks before lockdown, our outdoor adventure client We Are Adventurers were the first to experience the hit. Bookings from families, schools and nurseries disappeared overnight.
To counter this Democracy produced a daily adventure challenge, generating 80,000 views to date and providing vital oxygen to the brand to give them the best chance of having a business to come back to. And after fellow client East Lancashire Railway elected to close ahead of lockdown we were able to get them out first onto broadcast comms, lifting them above the raft of closures that were due to follow in the coming days and allowing the commercial director an opportunity to launch their fundraising drive to help preserve the railway for the future.
Our strategy and insight team set out what impact lockdown would have on our clients in the short, medium and long term. We triaged each client partner quickly, adapting how we worked with them. We also reviewed how we could financially offer support. For some clients that meant upweighting the amount of senior strategic time, for others that was extending payment terms. The days began to take on a new structure with our media team adopting a 6am – 9pm always on service, while at 8.30am we caught up to review the news agenda and emerging digital trends ahead of a senior leads call at 9am. First point of order – staff wellbeing before swiftly moving into client triage, news jacking opportunities and priorities for the day. The result: Our comms have never been tighter.
Social listening has always been important. We work with Falcon – as a platform it can be slow to get started but overtime it pumps out meaningful insights. We also deep dived into the community groups that have been long established to develop a changing barometer of sentiment. It has allowed us to accurately track the mood of our target audiences and sensitively shape what we say, to demonstrate how to understand their world. This was particularly relevant for the tradesman who had just had their livelihood put on hold and those who could socially distance themselves at work but were frustrated that the absence of PPE.
Money In The Bank
We all worry about if we have enough money to meet our commitments and I didn’t want my team to be worried without need. As the economy began to shut down I offered all team members access to an interest free hardship loan of £1,000 to help them bridge the gap in household earnings. The furlough scheme gave us all some breathing space to really consider what happens next as our Strategy And Insight team worked flat out on medium to long term planning with clients and our Client Services team evaluated and adapted the relevance of everything planned in the short term. We put people on furlough to protect the agency cash reserves and to keep as many people in a job as possible on the other side.
Every member of staff on furlough has their pay topped up to 100%.
The Media Landscape
This has been the fastest period of media change that we’ve ever seen. The declining trust in the press, which was accelerated by Brexit, may never be repaired as circulations plunge. Meanwhile linear TV has become appointment viewing again. The 5pm briefing allowing us to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. No media manipulation involved (although it increasingly feels like a great deal of propaganda). As national press tried to strike a balance between our new reality and balancing this with some positive news, finding a working journalist became increasingly difficult. And companies, by and large, initially stopped talking. Journalists began to rerun surveys and stories from months ago in a bid to plug the gap. The start of the week was always filled with hard news, the end of the week was opening up to more good news stories and the agency amplification team were able to step in with a steady stream of news from our clients.
PR Is Firmly At The Table
COVID-19 has flipped the traditional pecking order that PR usually experiences in the marketing mix. Advertising was pulled, airtime donated. People and brands woke up to what mattered. Data emerged showing people suddenly cared more about how you treated your staff. PR has always been about managing a brand’s relationship with its many publics. Democracy is named as such because in 2020 a brand’s publics include employees, shareholders, customers, journalists, online influencers, along with the wider community you serve. You’ll never be able to stop every former employee with an axe to grind. But you do have to put in the time and the effort in the good times to build a solid community foundation so that there are positive voices that will help you weather the storm.
Finding The Space Where Only You Can Help
As we began to take stock of the enormity of the effort that the NHS was making on our behalf, some quick-thinking brands made genuine offers to donate goods and services to say thank you. Now we’re at the stage where an NHS discount is expected and it’s stopped being news. Brands therefore need to look deeper now to see where they can truly help. Our client Dulux has been able to directly engage with their retail customer by producing a daily online masterclass that shows how people can use leftover paint to create mini home makeovers. It comes as research shows that a staggering number of tradesmen expect to never return to the trade – decorating, plumbing and heating, tiling. This is about brands offering practical support to help them get back to work. From negotiating payments terms, extending warranty periods, offering a back to work instore credit and developing assets that offer business guidance and insight that is specifically relevant to their world.
Take A Long Hard Look In The Mirror
I’ve always been a fan of the hedgehog principle set out by Jim Collins in Good To Great. This encourages businesses to focus on three simple areas. 1) understanding what your people are passionate about 2) what your company does better than anyone else 3) understanding where it’s good at generating revenue. With social distancing forecasted to consider for many months to come, it’s time for everyone to look hard and consider if their business model would allow us to generate revenue ever again. Or is now the right moment to consider pivoting what you do. Necessity is the mother of innovation. Right now there will be future millionaires ready to step in and fill a gap. Will your business work? Could you do something else?
The Workplace Will Never Be The Same
I wasn’t set up to work from home in the long term (and certainly not with three young children and a husband). But the tech hasn’t failed so we’ve made it work. We’ve never been an agency that’s encouraged presenteeism. I don’t need people to work late, I just need us all to work hard and then go and have some fun. Google hangouts – an experience that always felt like a poor substitute to a face to face meeting – is now a daily window into a world beyond my own. We’re an agency with no geographic boundaries. We work with clients in London, Scotland, North Wales and the North West. There’s no doubt that video conferencing can get business done, but I look forward to seeing my clients again for the social element that won’t be built without face to face time.