How brand managers can build lasting relationships during COVID-19

What kinds of messages are resonating, and why is PR such an essential part of your organization’s recovery strategy? Here’s what industry leaders have to say.

How to build relationships amid COVID-19

The true value of PR might be its ability to respond fittingly during a global crisis.

Marketing has been sidelined with directives not to sell to anxious and weary consumers. Corporate social responsibility efforts have seen a huge push—but mismanaging these messages can lead to backlash and reputational damage.

Going dark is also a bad strategy; the data show over and over again that once a brand falls out of the public eye in a crisis, it struggles to regain market share once the panic has subsided. You have to be present but unobtrusive.

A PR pro is the essential crisis Sherpa your brand needs to survive.

We spoke with several savvy industry insiders, who shared why PR is a vital investment for your organization right now and how PR is the perfect antidote to the disruption COVID-19 has wrought on the business community.

Unique value

“More than ever, the source of brand communication is critical,” says Brian Salzman, founder and CEO of the relationship marketing agency RQ. “So many brands have been talking at consumers over the past few months. The unique value of PR is that it enables consumers to feel like they’ve discovered it, on a platform they chose.”

Salzman contends PR is an economical tactic in a financial downturn.

“I’ve had brands reach out to work together after seeing my perspective and my agency covered in the press,” he says, “so during the current moment where budgets are tight, PR provides an opportunity to not only communicate those perspectives, but to show potential clients that you are still open and able to support their business, now and in the future.”

For Anselmo Ramos, founder and chief creative officer for Gut, PR provides the crucial opportunity to stay top of mind during this crisis.

“More than ever, it’s essential to have a full PR strategy for your brand,” he says. “Is it OK to go quiet for a while? Is it all right to sell something right now? If we do something good for the community, how can I properly communicate that?”

Ramos says PR pros are crucial advisors in a crisis, when uncertainty colors every decision.

“Brands have tons of COVID-19-related questions,” he says. “I always repeat what William Goldman said, ‘Nobody knows anything’—and now, this statement is more accurate than ever. But the PR take on it is ‘Nobody knows anything, but PR has a pretty good idea.’”

Christine Prins, chief marketing officer for Saatchi NY, says PR’s unique value right now is the third-party validation attained through earned media placements.

“Right now, it’s extremely important to share your experiences and showcase you’re adapting to weather the storm,” she says. “Clients need to know how you’re thinking and how you’re pivoting to tackle their challenges. The ROI on your PR efforts is also unique, because it typically results in a sense of third-party validation that isn’t as readily apparent when utilizing other marketing channels.”

Ramping up in a downturn

At a time when many are shrinking their marketing and PR budgets, savvy pros know that the converse is a better option.

“I think it’s important to sustain your PR and marketing through a downturn,” says Prins. “Having the right voice through a crisis needs to be part of your business continuity plan. Both internal and external audiences need to know how you’re thinking and that you’re continuing to adjust and adapt as a situation changes.”

You might want to adjust your tone or tactics—but that doesn’t mean you should stay quiet. “Those who make efforts to stay relevant in the right way typically emerge stronger, earlier,” Prins says.

Heidi Modarelli-Frank, partner and senior VP of public relations for Marcus Thomas, says, “Tough times are probably when public relations is needed most.”

Her metaphor for crisis relations? A marriage.

“When you hit a rough patch, you have to put in more effort to keep the relationship strong,” she says. “The same is true between an organization and its various constituents. When customers have fears, employees are stressed or communities have heightened concerns, we as PR people have to strengthen our sense of empathy and address those concerns. Otherwise, we may end up damaging those relationships, resulting in negative consequences for the organization.”

Salzman says PR is essential for sustaining your leaders’ credibility.

“Credibility and trust go hand in hand, and [that] is arguably one of the key objectives for brands during times like this,” he says. “PR has also been a major value add for my clients, and it has helped solidify my relationships and justify their investment in our partnership.”

Messaging in action

So who is getting it right during this pandemic? We asked the experts to offer their favorites, and here’s what they had to say:

Salzman: “When brands position themselves as tools to do better or to celebrate others, the authenticity of the messaging is much better received. Nextdoor, the neighborhood app, has leaned into the relevance the platform right now, but has not made it about themselves. The stories of both management and individual users have been getting incredible coverage simply because of what the app does.”

Ramos: “I’m totally biased, but we love what we recently did for Headspace. It shows the power a brand can have right now to help those in need. The idea is super simple to say and extremely hard to execute: ‘Headspace is now free for unemployed Americans.’ Now that’s a PR headline in itself. And the merit is all from Headspace.”

Modarelli-Frank: “Some of my favorite efforts during this time were tied to organizations pivoting operations to meet people’s needs during the crisis. For example, Anheuser-Bush announced that it would make free hand sanitizer for hospitals. Before most restaurants were ordered to close, Dunkin’ gave out bonus reward points for anyone using its app to order ahead to keep in-restaurant traffic to a minimum. This effort also was in addition to making a significant charitable donation to help families weather the crisis. In both cases, the organizations provided tangible value to people.”

What are some the brand that you think have exemplified a great crisis response on COVID-19? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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