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Conducting Digital PR During a Pandemic: A Learning Curve

by Polly Astill

28 July 2020 9:18am

Written by Saffron Shergill, Digital PR Analyst at Impression

The increasingly unsure times which 2020 has brought means that the way firms were conducting Digital PR was forced to change drastically.

This year has seen the pandemic completely dominate the media, forcing the hand of brands to rapidly adapt their existing marketing strategies to meet the needs of the replacement news agenda. With many companies and PRs at first in denial about the impact Coronavirus would have on their activities, many were slow to react to the crisis.

When the news agenda shifts entirely, we must embrace the changing climate we are facing otherwise it will simply overwhelm us. The phrase “sink or swim” somewhat applies here, where many companies chose to halt their marketing activities entirely, some floated along with their existing strategy and others took the uncharted waters in their stride and continued to pitch new creative stories.

The latter are the companies we want to learn from - those who showed their initiative and focused on securing high quality coverage in ‘unprecedented’ circumstances. These are the forward thinking companies that stood out in the pandemic and put themselves in good stead to survive the recession we now find ourselves in. So from our own experience and the observations of others, we have below compiled our three top takeaways from conducting digital PR during the Coronavirus outbreak.

1. Expect the unexpected

At the beginning of the outbreak of Coronavirus, most of us were completely unaware of how the next few months would pan out. Many individuals and brands assumed the initial panic would die down and that Covid-19 would not continue to line the front pages of every newspaper for the year.

For PRs, this meant many decided to continue with their campaigns and planning as usual. Those who had campaigns scheduled which orientated around travelling out of the UK were not overly concerned, and anyone with a summer festival orientated campaign wasn’t losing sleep because the full extent of the pandemic was not at all clear. This meant many companies continued to plough resources into these areas only to realise later down the line that their campaign was too difficult to pitch to journalists when the time came.

This can be a lesson to all of us on the importance of expecting the unexpected. No one expected the pandemic to take over our lives for such the duration it has, but it certainly did. The implication of this is that many brands were slow to change their strategies because they thought the shifted news agenda wouldn’t last. They thought holidays would still be the norm as we entered the summer and that festival season would still be taking place, so they continued to run with their existing plans for 2020 without adapting them in the slightest.

So what have we learnt? Strategies must be constantly analysed and evaluated to assess how they fit with the existing and expected media landscape. As soon as you see a major shift in the news which does not align with your plans, you must really take the time to assess the way things are forecast to play out and ensure your stories will be suited to the needs of journalists. Assess your options to see if your campaign can be reworked for a best case, worst case and middle ground scenario. If you realise your campaign is in the worst case scenario and most certainly won’t work for the time, put a pin in it because you can almost always rework it for a later date.

2. Reactive PR opportunities are plentiful

Whilst your existing strategy may require adapting or a complete overhaul during a changing media landscape, that is not to say you cannot still be picking up coverage along the way.

As a big fan of reactive PR myself, I cannot stress enough the importance of checking out the upcoming opportunities in the news which you can utilise to secure relevant opportunities for your client or firm. For example, the pandemic revealed a gap for a number of different industries to offer their perspective on various aspects of the lockdown and how it would impact our lives. Businesses could comment on their sales figures, psychologists could provide insight on the impact of being in lockdown, lawyers could comment on increasing divorce rates and fitness trainers could provide expertise on how to exercise without equipment.

We secured coverage for Eventopedia in various wedding publications when the Government announced that large group gatherings were banned within the UK. Getting this client to comment on the cancellation of weddings and provide unique advice for readers who had their event planned meant that we were able to provide something of value to journalists that they could add to their stories.

We also tried out data-led reactive campaigns such as this feature in Forbes, where our client Feel Good Contacts estimated how much music artists could make from moving all their concerts to online shows. By monitoring live news and spotting an opportunity within the media, we were able to push our client to the forefront of the conversation around live music during the pandemic and secure coverage in a high authority publication.

Alongside this, we engaged in reactive thought leadership, positioning our clients as experts within their industry on the events occurring in real time. For example, for our Employment Law client Richard Nelson LLP, we offered advice to HR publications on how HR managers can aid their furloughed employees. By contacting these publications directly and offering them relevant tips, we were able to secure relevant coverage and an article opportunity for our client which was very much in line with the news agenda.

3. Don’t ignore it: staying on top of the media landscape

For many brands, Coronavirus seemed to be something that could be ignored at first as we continued with our normal strategies. This meant many were not quite following along with the news or seeking out ways to adapt to the needs of journalists during the pandemic.

The biggest learning curve to take from this is to ensure you clasp at every opportunity relevant to your brand. Keep up with the ever changing media landscape and seek out opportunities to secure coverage with reactive PR. Don’t be afraid to take risks and be brave with your reactive work because it is with unique and creative content that comes reward.

With any story, you should ensure you have tapped into the expertise of your brand and worked out how they can add value to a conversation. By following the news closely to see how the events are unfolding, you can make sure you don’t miss an opportunity which could fit with your brand or client.

You should also seek out advice from others when you are unsure of how your strategies will work during a saturated news agenda. The pandemic saw a significant number of webinars and blog posts released in the industry with advice on how to stay on top of the pandemic and adapt to the news. Taking the time to invest in these resources and learn from others is incredibly valuable, especially in circumstances where really, we are all a little lost.

Remember, the same rules don’t apply during a pandemic so don’t be afraid to throw your rule book out of the window. Just because you park a campaign you have been working on for a few months doesn’t mean you won’t be able to reuse it later down the road. Adaptability is key.


Digital PR