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Keep calm and carry on communicating

I started my career in investments PR during the start of the global financial crisis, over a decade ago. As a bright eyed, bushy tailed grad, with a penchant for issues and crisis comms, it was an exciting time to start, and probably solidified my desire to stay in the sector. This crisis feels different; and I don’t think it’s just because the role I’m playing now that I’m further into my career is obviously a slightly different one. Before, there was a sense of the crisis building, and of course it was one wholly created by the financial sector, which changes things for us investment comms professionals.

There was little to no warning of the Covid-19 crisis. Looking back at some of my clients’ investment outlooks for 2020 – which were written only a few months ago – ‘global pandemic’ was definitely not a risk scenario any were planning for.

But here we find ourselves, back in fire fighting mode, as markets have plunged and continue to show some of the highest levels of volatility in decades. And we are doing so all while navigating working remotely and, for many, other changes to our personal circumstances too.

While still in the midst of the crisis, there is now a sense that this may be the norm for some time. As communicators we need to try to find time to pause for thought, adapt (or possibly rip up and totally re-think) those nearer term plans that were probably only signed off a few weeks ago.

There is a risk in pausing for too long though. Now that the initial phase of the crisis is over, stakeholders want and need to continue to hear from brands. I’ve seen some fantastic client communications from asset managers – and the best ones are those that are transparent and hit an honest and empathetic tone. It shouldn’t be any different for media relations. As one senior markets journalist I recently spoke to put it: “Don’t pull up the drawbridge and not do anything - you still need to speak to your audiences; just take more care and be selective about how”.

Journalists are in a similar boat to us ‘flaks’ in many ways. They are also trying to maintain business as usual (as much as they can), while having to adjust to remote ways of working and not having as easy access to their usual tools and platforms. Like us, internal calls and meetings have to happen more than usual now that they lack the ability to shout across their desks. The regular coffees with their contacts aren’t happening anymore, and while I doubt any will have time for ‘virtual’ introductory meetings, there is a gap to be filled in helping to provide the insights and anecdotes they are likely to be lacking as they work from home.

Us PRs are still very much needed – perhaps more than ever – but we also need to be mindful that journalists are navigating advertising budgets being cut, print editions being put on hold, colleagues (and maybe themselves) being furloughed, and the noise of the harder Rona-related news still to cover. As such, they are being pickier about the pitches they do take and have less time and patience for stories that are not well targeted.

We of course need to take the current situation into account when communicating. You can’t ignore the elephant in the room. Journalists are doing their job by covering Covid-19 news – it is still driving markets, business decisions and people’s financial circumstances, not to mention our everyday lives. We need to adapt communications approaches accordingly – in some cases this might mean facing it head on and in others being sensitive to the wider environment.

Tone is key. And journalists are still largely a cynical bunch. As communicators it’s our job to advise and guide the companies we work for on how certain actions and messages are likely to land across audiences. While there are certainly opportunities to communicate, that is quite different to seeing this as an opportunity more broadly. As one editor I spoke to neatly put it: “you can’t ignore it, but don’t try to cash in on it”.

Saying that, this is exactly the time where the personality of a brand can shine through. This might be by simply showcasing the experts in your business to help bring some sense and analysis to the situation or by bringing the ‘softer’ stories to life. In a recent conversation with a broadcast agency we regularly work with it was evident that broadcasters in particular are calling out for a mixture of community hero stories, as well as insights and advice to help people navigate the current environment and move forward.

There is an opportunity to think outside the box about how our companies or clients can carry on communicating, and importantly help stakeholders and audiences when doing so.

Brands will be remembered for how they acted – and didn’t act – during this time.