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Pivoting in the pandemic: How PR can help businesses find a new identity

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The latest ONS figures show GDP shrank by 9.9% in 2020, the biggest decline since 1709. While the statistics are shocking, they’re not wholly surprising given the scale and severity of the pandemic’s effect on the global economy. The social distancing measures have also taken a particular toll on certain sectors – notably hospitality, bricks and mortar retail and tourism.

Despite this, there have been some impressive examples of businesses showing great dynamism, resilience and ingenuity to survive and even thrive in uncompromising conditions.

The past twelve months have seen commercial airlines offer cargo flights, restaurants enter the grocery market, alcohol brands develop hand sanitiser and car manufacturers create breathing aids. There are plenty of examples where businesses have admirably pivoted. But to do it successfully and to make it commercially viable, communication is crucial.

Communicating to uniquely captive audiences 

Since March 2020, the “stay at home” message many governments promoted during the pandemic led to a rise in traditional and digital media consumption.

In September 2020, media measurement company DoubleVerify analysed the digital habits of more than 10,000 consumers across France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the US. Its report found that global daily online content consumption more than doubled on average since the start of the pandemic, from 3 hours 17 minutes to 6 hours 59 minutes.

The research revealed that almost half of consumers (48%) used social media platforms more, TikTok’s soaring popularity making it 2020’s most downloaded app globally. Ofcom’s Media Nations 2020 report found that demand for news programming helped the public service broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4) achieve their highest combined monthly viewing share in more than six years. Meanwhile time spent listening to radio through digital platforms also increased versus 2019.

This increased media consumption, from news to entertainment across every medium creates extra opportunities for brands and businesses to communicate with stakeholders. The pandemic therefore created opportunity for agile communicators. But how can PR be used specifically by those businesses which are transitioning their operating model or offering?

Firstly, to maintain market share and awareness in the minds of consumers. Consumers might be forgiven for disengaging with businesses that are operating in sectors which have effectively been shut down due to social restrictions. Under tricky conditions, it’s easy for brands to simply remain quiet and wait patiently for their sector to reopen. But doing so can be damaging to brand awareness earned over the years. 

Take Brewdog for example, whose pubs have lain dormant for much of 2020 and the start of 2021. The progressive brewer has launched giveaways in its home delivery boxes to incentivise purchasing and reward loyalty, has turned bars into vaccination centres, and pivoted production lines to manufacture hand sanitiser.

Brewdog is always on the front foot with bold marketing but its lockdown communications have been sensitive, timely and practical. The move is one example of how brands can remain front of their consumers’ minds, so that they’re ready to capitalise on growth in demand upon reopening.

When grocery shopping became more risky for many, supermarkets such as Aldi and Co-Op responded by deciding to serve their customers on delivery apps. And, when sales of cars dropped during the pandemic, a number of manufacturers used their engineering skills and factories to turn their hands to producing PPE and ventilators to serve the greater need. Communicating these operational pivots can help to increase positive sentiment and consumer engagement with your brand in both the short and long term.

Using a business’ employees and leadership team to tell a pivot story authentically

If businesses are drastically altering their model and offering, then it can be easier to tell the story and share a new vision through personal voices from within the businesses. 

Offering a leading figure from the business who’s an expert in a particular field can help to add authority and cultivate trust too. Adding a human voice to a corporate brand can help a business show its personality – and this is a crucial asset when businesses are themselves facing challenges as they pivot.

Building someone’s personal profile in the press requires a careful approach, especially in such sensitive times. Earlier in the pandemic, Leon’s CEO John Vincent, responded to messages from NHS workers asking for hot, nutritious food during tricky working hours. As the UK went into lockdown, and with food outlets closed, John Vincent successfully led the restaurant chain’s transition and launched its campaign ‘Feed NHS’.

The campaign raised £150,000 in its first four hours of operation and saw four of its restaurants dedicated to exclusively serving NHS staff. More recently, Vincent was able to use his enhanced public profile to raise awareness of the plight of the sector and urge government support ahead of the announcement of the Prime Minister’s exit strategy from the third lockdown.

On the other hand, Wetherspoons’ Chairman Tim Martin courted controversy over public support earlier in the pandemic when he issued an ill-advised public statement on Twitter which saw him suggest staff should simply find a job at Tesco. It led to calls to #BoycottWetherspoons and damaged his personal profile. 

Transitioning back to normality

As the vaccine roll-out continues to gather pace – with over 18 million now vaccinated – hope of a return to some sense of normality is building. As parts of the economy begin to reopen, businesses will in the main to revert to their original operational model while also remaining flexible around the omni-present virus, and clarity of message across media channels is key. Communicating exactly how businesses are re-opening, when, and the safety precautions being taken to re-open is vital to increase customer confidence and ultimately drive sales.

The Bank of England’s Chief Economist recently likened Britain's economic recovery to a 'coiled spring' with £250 billion of 'accidental savings' amassed, there is plenty of potential for brands to capitalise on this year - and PR could be the key to unlock it.

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By Mimi Brown, Head of the Entrepreneurs & Business division at The PHA Group

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