How PR can help businesses transition in the pandemic

Even in times of prosperity, businesses have to constantly adapt. Whether it's a change in the competitive landscape, new technological developments or economic factors at large, businesses constantly need to stay on their toes to survive let alone thrive.

How PR can help businesses transition in the pandemic

Even in times of prosperity, businesses have to constantly adapt. Whether it’s a change in the competitive landscape, new technological developments or economic factors at large, businesses constantly need to stay on their toes to survive ‘ let alone thrive.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a new challenge for businesses to adapt to – one that is unique in its scale and severity, and one which has created a particularly cut-throat economy regardless of how big or small your business is.

The global crisis practically shut down entire industries as the UK suffered its worst annual slump on record, with the economy contracting almost 10% last year according to the Office for National Statistics. These harsh trading conditions were an acid test for many businesses who faced with the prospect of pivoting and adapting or failing.

In the face of this challenge, businesses have shown impressive innovation and flexibility: from conference and sports spaces transforming into healthcare centres to hotels offering catering services for homeless communities. But pivoting is one thing, making a success of it is a completely different challenge – and PR can be part of the solution.

Capitalising on an engaged audience

With much of the world in lockdown consumers were eager to stay connected and informed, consuming more digital media – and news – than ever before. US consumers spent 215% more time online on mobile devices than 2019, with the same study by Nielsen revealing a 60% increase in the amount of video content watched globally.

The report also shows the rise in ecommerce worldwide ‘ online purchasing rose 90% in some countries at the start of the pandemic. Within the space of a few weeks, the pandemic created a new opportunity: a highly engaged digital consumer base who were willing and capable of shopping online.

Amazon saw a 37% increase in its earnings in Q3 2020 but businesses that aren’t digital first or which hadn’t adapted as well to the digital economy ‘ large bricks and mortar or independent retailers for example – were forced to catch up with their more technologically advanced rivals or fold. With the increase in content consumption businesses in all sectors also found they had a more captive audience to communicate to, giving loyal customers and new audiences engaging video, blogs, offers and viewpoints on the future. 

Maintaining and growing brand awareness

Brand awareness can be a challenge at the best of times in a crowded market. But this task can become even more difficult to navigate if your sector is effectively shut down.

The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, recently predicted UK households will have amassed ‘accidental savings‘ of £250bn by July, predicting the economy would rebound like a ‘coiled spring’. The FT also reports a global GDP growth prediction of 5% in 2021, to be unleashed by ‘pent up’ consumer savings.  Many brands have lost out over the past twelve months as a result of reduced consumer spending during the pandemic, but those that have maintained a strong brand presence and stay front of mind of their consumers will be best placed to make the most of this surge in spending in 2021. On the other hand, silence through 2020 may end up hampering some brands’ bottom line well beyond the pandemic. 

Telling a corporate story through a compelling personal voice 

Individual voices are a great way to share a business’ narrative and vision, especially in times of hardship such as the pandemic. It can help to make a brand more relatable and accessible to consumers, enhancing its personality. More personal viewpoints can also help to improve consumer understanding of tough decisions, which can be crucial in challenging economic times ‘ buying businesses breathing space when it’s most needed and demonstrating transparency.

At a time of crisis for the UK labour market, with unemployment rising to 5.1% in January ‘ a five-year high ‘ and with over nine million workers furloughed, the recruitment industry was faced with challenges of its own. But, rather than shy away from the limelight, REED, Britain’s leading recruitment  firm launched its ‘Keep Britain Working’ campaign ‘ an initiative to protect jobs and preserve livelihoods during the height of the lockdown period. The campaign pledged support for employees and jobseekers, pooling innovative ideas and creating and sharing job vacancies. Led by Chairman, James Reed, the campaign achieved support from business leaders up and down the country who articulated their business’ standpoint and commitments to supporting the workforce through passionate broadcast and national media interviews. It generated widespread positivity towards the organisations involved and helped the business adapt its offering at a time of high pressure. 

But in transitional, high pressure situations mistakes can easily be made. Sports Direct CEO, Mike Ashley illustrated poor operational and communication decisions when he personally made illegitimate claims that Sports Direct was an essential retailer at the start of the pandemic. When this transparent ploy failed and its stores were forced to close, online prices shot up by up to 50%. The opportunistic and self-centred actions of the retailer were not in the spirit of the national effort to fight the pandemic and both Mike Ashley and the business’ operations were widely criticised. The way the business communicated throughout was misjudged and in fact drew attention to their unethical operations.

Thanks to the vaccine rollout, the threat to life posed by COVID-19 is declining, but its effect on the economy is long lasting. The impact has been so severe that businesses have been forced to pivot in extreme and admirable ways. Those that have communicated these pivots clearly and positively, and were in touch with national sentiment have enjoyed the most success at a time when many other businesses have suffered. And, by remaining in the public’s eye, these businesses will be best placed to unearth the greatest riches when the summer goldrush begins.

Mimi Brown
Mimi Brown

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