Chantal Cooke Panpathic

Chantal Cooke, founder of Panpathic Communications.

As we take tentative steps to get our businesses back on track, Chantal Cooke, founder of Panpathic Communications, shares her advice on how PR can support your business at each stage of a crisis, so you can take steps to plan for different scenarios.

Do you recall a few months ago when…we were planning ahead, awaiting the budget, keeping a watchful eye on our new government and wondering what the impact of Brexit would turn out to be? And then suddenly, COVID-19 challenged everything we thought we knew about running a business.

For the last few months, many businesses have been fire-fighting: making provision for team members working from home; analysing and applying for the various forms of government help and evaluating how best it can be applied in our individual organisations; projecting the immediate and the longer-term financial impacts; doing risk assessments and figuring out how to return to our premises safely.

Simultaneously, we’ve had new plates to spin at home: how best to look out for vulnerable relatives and friends; learning what two metres looks like; adjusting to one-way systems in supermarkets; unexpectedly being tasked with amusing and educating children—all day, every day.

Each day we are being asked to adapt to changing circumstances in our business and personal lives.

The world is different. But not unrecognisably so. The future we thought we were heading for is different too. But it is more likely to be one with fully stocked pasta shelves than Hunger Games. So, as we get back to normal, or become accustomed to a close-as-we-can-get-to-normal interim period, you and your business need to be fit-for-purpose. And you will need to make sure your customers know it.

The time for PR moving up the list of priorities will vary from business to business. It might even vary from region to region as measures are tightened and loosened. For some, it is vital to maintain profiles right now, for others it is wiser to let the dust settle. But whatever the timing, whatever the budget, sooner or later, you are going to want to get out the message that you are ready to provide services and/or products.  

Should you be focusing on this today? YES! This is why:

People are listening

Inevitably, sales of newspapers and magazines have been down, as people haven’t been able to physically purchase them easily. Sadly, some publications, such as City AM, have temporarily suspended their print editions. Print media is suffering.

However, as many people have a lot more time on their hands, radio audiences have gone up considerably. According to Radio Today: Global says that there has been a significant increase in connected radio listening, with daily reach up 15% and hours up 9%, between 9-17 March. LBC displayed the most notable growth, with its daily reach growing 43% and listening hours increasing 17%.

Online publications have also seen their readership increase dramatically, with the Mailonline editor claiming a 50% increase in visitors to its homepage.

Journalists are listening

Inevitably, businesses have not been focusing on PR in recent months and, frankly, most of the press has been focused on the ‘here and now’ of the virus. However, journalists are well set up for working from home—many already did, pre-COVID-19—so they are looking for relevant content ideas going forward.

With fewer press releases coming in, they are more receptive than usual to those they do receive. Provided, as always, those releases are right for them.

If, a few months ago, you felt that you were a small fish in a big pond when contacting media outlets, these days, if you are in touch with journalists, you may still be a small fish, but your pond is far emptier. You are more of a catch.

Like nothing we’ve seen before

The world being caught in the grip of the pandemic is extraordinary, but we have been through economic uncertainty before (for example, the 2008 financial crisis) and in these circumstances, similar patterns are found.

Amongst the most notable is that businesses that can and do invest in PR at the time of a crisis almost always fare better in the longer term. Analysis of crises also reveals the same three phases.  

THE THREE CRISIS PHASES

Here is what you should be doing at each point of the current crisis and why. Remember that in some regions, you might find you’re at a different phase to the rest of the country, so consider what’s appropriate.

Phase one: crisis is happening

Unless you are at the frontline of the news, there is not a vast amount you can do here, other than offering advice and consolation. Make your contribution relevant and sensitive. For example:

  • If you are a health company with proper insight into what is happening, offer advice on how to keep well in the circumstances
  • If you are an accountant, offer practical advice on how people should protect their finances
  • If you can offer advice on how people can maintain their mental health at a time like this, do so
  • If you have insight into entertaining and/or educating bored children, now is the time to get it out there
  • If you have a product that is particularly relevant do make sure people know about it
  • If you can offer an effective delivery method that others can’t, make sure the people that can benefit from it are aware of it

To be clear, this is not about profiteering. The majority of people are stuck at home in this phase and, if your product or service can benefit them, let them know it is there. If you can afford it, help them out by offering as much of a discount as you can. This is the right time to be helping others as much as possible. Your efforts will be remembered. Make sure your efforts are the type you can be proud of.

Phase two: the end is in sight

At this stage, the end of lockdown and the crisis is close. From a PR perspective, this time is critical.

Planning and activity are on the increase. Businesses are starting to re-open, and those that remain closed are about to put their recovery strategies into action. People are feeling more positive. They are thinking about the next few months and what they will be doing. In other words, the pond is getting busier.

If you have been visible (for the right reasons) during phase one, then you will be in a much stronger position; you will have the profile of a bigger fish. You need to maintain and grow your position, which means keeping up your PR efforts with as much helpful advice-based content as possible.

If you have been quiet during phase one, then it is important to start making yourself visible again. Useful, relevant advice is the best way forward, so you will have been wise to have spent some time during phase one thinking about what people will want and need during phase two and working out how best you can provide that.

Also, focus on positive stories about your business: how you survived and your plans for the future are worth considering. There will be an appetite for good news.

Phase three: the recovery phase

People are going back to work, they have money in their pocket again, and the kids are back at school.

While things are not quite how they used to be (some things may never be the same again), people can live lives that feel familiar and normal: eating out; visiting places as a family; getting a haircut. People are customers again.

And this will see businesses resuming spending their marketing budgets. For those business profiles that disappeared, budgets will have to work far harder to gain traction. But for those that managed to be present throughout the previous stages, they will have acquired big fish status.   

It's about time

Many businesses will be looking at how best to use their war chests (if they are lucky enough to have such a thing), and it is understandable that many businesses may be reluctant to allocate too much budget at this moment in time.

But one resource that is likely to have increased is time. If you have more of it on your hands, invest some of it working on PR ideas: get some practical advice on the PR process and how to implement it.

If you have the budget, appoint a good, reliable agency, and if you don’t have money right now, look to do what you can yourself. Something is almost always better than nothing.

Whatever your business circumstance, use this time to good effect.

Chantal Cooke is an award-winning journalist, founder of Panpathic Communications and co-founder of PASSION for the PLANET, the UK’s first ethically focused radio station.

Contributed by Chantal Cooke
Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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