Business leaders are leaning into their communication role as an essential resource to help them deal with COVID-19. More than three-quarters (81 percent) of respondents said the communication function is “important” or “very important” to their company’s COVID-19 response, according to a study conducted among 300 communications executives and senior leaders in March by the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) and the communications firm Peppercomm to gain a better understanding of how prepared businesses were for the pandemic and its effects.
By Romanita Oprea
While most businesses have been doing their best to prepare for crisis scenarios, something like COVID-19 is unprecedented. Some 30 percent said that their organisation was “very prepared” while 55 percent said they were “somewhat prepared”. However, almost half (44 percent) said their crisis communications plan did not specifically address an infectious disease outbreak. Meanwhile, 10 percent of respondents did not have a crisis communication plan at all.
What have been agencies’ most important communication tools so far during the pandemic in Romania and why? In the case of Porter Novelli Romania, the communication processes had to be moved exclusively to the digital realm, where they were greeted by an overwhelming number of alternatives. Even more so in this chaotic era, the need for rapid reaction and social listening was critical in providing an accurate picture of the situation. “To stay in touch with our clients and colleagues, we have resorted to audio-video communication platforms to connect, share, and exchange information and thoughts, help each other, and even add a little humour to ease the pressure of these unprecedented times. At the same time, brands have been put to the test: catering to the true needs of communities in times of crisis. Purpose became the common denominator in every one of Porter Novelli’s endeavors. Nevertheless, we’ve used the pandemic to reinforce our commitment to this ethos – we integrated this mindset into the agency a year and a half ago and we think our 2019 projects are a testament to this,” said Sorina Mihai, managing partner at Porter Novelli Romania.
In her turn, Lavinia Chican, senior partner at McCann PR, believes that the increased appetite for information and entertainment during the lockdown and the restrictions placed on some of communication forms meant that the whole communication landscape shifted towards a mass-media approach – some modern (social media, streaming services, and the like) but also a significant increase in traditional channels like TV and radio. “We have seen an explosive growth in the need for media relations services during this time – as brands and organisations wanted to answer this new need for information from the public and foster their positive reputation. Also significant was the rise of omnichannel communications. For a long time that was little more than an industry buzzword, but now companies needed closer contact with their public, so social media and messaging have become more important parts of their brand voice,” Chican explained.
Moreover, Alina Damaschin (photo left), creative leader & managing partner at Rogalski Damaschin PR, told BR that during the last two months the agency’s life have been mostly digital, and that all platforms were already there, allowing them to create a completely new working space overnight, with new ways of delivering “normal” services. “The whole communication world has moved to digital. Technically we were prepared, but in real life it was like suddenly deciding to wake up in the morning and start running a digital marathon. In a very short time, it was not just the delivery of consultancy that was digital, but most campaigns have also been fully moved or adapted to maximise their digital potential. For some businesses, it was the natural way of adjusting to restrictions and continuing to sell products or services, while for others, it was the right moment to push their existing available solutions,” said Damaschin.
The same situation was also reported by Raluca Ene (photo right), managing director at Chapter 4 Romania, a company that also saw most of its communication being moved online, prompting the team to focus more specifically on the online tools it had in in its toolkit. “Depending on the client specifics and audiences, we chose the most relevant channels, from social media to online news platforms, blogs or vlogs. The most important, challenging, and rewarding part of our activity, however, was working to reshape our clients’ communication strategies and messages to match the public’s state of mind and expectations. To do this, we listened carefully, we practiced empathy, and took things one step at a time, highlighting information that could be useful and placing the end-user or customer at the center of all communication,” Raluca Ene stated.
As for the services clients have been asking for, Sorina Mihai said that as expected in the current context, the agency’s efforts have shifted onto internal communication projects, as well as crisis management, with a major focus on providing the most accurate information possible about the health and safety regulations imposed by local authorities and dictated by our clients’ industries. Last but not least, pro bono projects supporting initiatives that provided solutions to the COVID-19 crisis have also been part of our work during this time. “One example is Modulab’s purpose-driven initiative to develop and donate autonomous robots using UV-C radiation for disinfection in hospitals. It was great to see the support they received from both companies and people who chose to direct their efforts by donating to the crowdfunding campaign they ran,” added Sorina Mihai.
In Rogalski Damaschin’s case, in the first part of lockdown companies have focused on supporting their employees. Internal communication was key, and it was mandatory to assist people in adapting to a new way of life and work. In the second part of the lockdown, when companies were more used to working from home and the torrent of news and they felt the need to engage their internal audience with more lighthearted news, the agency created some more “relaxed” content. “Some companies have also decided to support people who have been most affected by this period: healthcare workers, patients under treatment, people in quarantine or seniors. Some of our clients got involved from the very beginning either by directing funds to those groups or by adopting new business measures to maintain people’s access to their products or services, and we supported all these initiatives with communication,” said Alina Damaschin. Companies she would like to mention here are Agricola, Heidelberg, Raiffeisen, CEZ, Novartis, and OMV Petrom. There were projects adjusted to better respond to the needs of their target audience, such as entrepreneurs, as well as events organised online instead of face to face. Some of these adapted solutions have been requested by clients, while others were developed by the agency to allow them to have more diverse communication options to choose from. Rogalski Damaschin has adjusted its plans and has created, produced, and delivered things ranging from audio & video content to trainings and online workshops for dozens of participants.
“We’ve always positioned ourselves as consultants and teammates for our clients, so in this period, even more than before, we have been in very close and constant contact with them, jointly deciding on our course of action with each new change in our surrounding reality. It naturally started with adapting the strategy and continuously adjusting our proactive outreach, based on any new measures imposed by authorities and how they impacted people’s lives. On a tactical level, this translated into using the most direct channels to communicate with the end-user and adjusting the content on an almost weekly basis, in some cases. This attention to detail and nuance and a more short-term approach to content creation will likely remain incredibly relevant for months to come,” said Raluca Ene, managing director at Chapter 4 Romania.
And yet, how important is creativity these days and why? According to Sorina Mihai, creativity and innovation have always been at the forefront of what they do. However, being creative has never that straightforward procedure to begin with. And with the pressure of strict rules imposed by local authorities, social distancing measures, states of emergency, lockdowns, working from home, never-ending news cycles, etc comes the disruption of routines and access to resources creatives rely on. „But, I strongly believe that we will use the resilience that has defined us for decades and maximize it in ways that will truly benefit our communities in the time to come. We are wired as creatures of connection, and connection requires communication –– this will not change,” said Porter Novelli’s representative.
Alina Damaschin is even more direct pointing out that in a context where everything is about one single subject, to really stand out, creativity is key. After you got people informed and offered them security, for everything that comes next you still need to make effort to get attention in relevant and interesting ways. “Plus, to adapt to this new dynamic people live in these days, we have to reinvent means of communication. Culture is impacted and changed by creative efforts and the whole dynamic between person, culture and environment is influenced by creativity and adjustments to new external conditions. We need connection perhaps more than ever and this is an opportunity for brave brands to bring some creative light in the storm,” added Damaschin.
Moreover, from Raluca Ene’s point of view, creativity always thrives in times of crisis and assumes a more important role in the strategic approach to communication. “These past months have accelerated a trend we were already seeing, from creative processes that focused more on aesthetics to a deeply human approach, albeit a results-oriented one. Creativity made the world go round and will continue to do so in ways that we can only begin to grasp at this moment in time. But then again, the tackling the risks of an uncertain future is part of the beauty of our job,” said Ene.
“Creativity can be even more important when the box you can move in is small – that’s where you get the truly outstanding results,” concluded Lavinia Chican.
Still, it’s one thing to be confronted with a certain situation and adapt to it and another to willingly choose to stay on that path and continue to use these new tools and practices in the future. So will the agencies decide to keep them for the long term or will they only make use of these tools during the pandemic? For Rogalski Damaschin, digital communication was a significant part of the agency’s communication even before the crisis, and was already on a steady growing trend, but it has now been rapidly adopted by people and it will stay this way from now on. Perhaps it won’t be used with the same frequency as it is during the quarantine, but Alina Damaschin believes they will all make plans to be prepared with products and services which can be offered in a new way. “This period has led to the rapid transformation of some services that needed to be covered from a distance, such as digital health services or live events, discussions, tours, concerts, shows, and so on. It was like a forced two-month “product testing” period that has generated some insights, which can be further transformed into some new products. At the same time, we have to analyse the longevity of these potential new products/solutions, to make sure they are able to engage people for a long time after we return to a balanced normality,” said Damaschin.
In Porter Novelli’s case, Sorina Mihai emphasises the fact that they like to be challenged, so they instantly perceived these new communicating tools as an interesting challenge. And during these past two months and a half, they have noticed that these tools are efficient and have helped ease some communication bottlenecks. “They’ve proven to be less time consuming and transformed ‘traditional’ client or team meetings into a fun and creative playground where everyone is comfortable to both engage and listen. We will definitely keep using these platforms in our daily activities. At the same time, companies, brands, agencies, and consultants are now sharing the responsibility of switching to more sustainable behaviour. Honesty, authenticity, transparency, consistency, as well as simplicity are all key factors to help adapt to the fast-changing pace of communication. In every campaign we create, we put purpose at the core of our customers’ strategy,” said Sorina Mihai.
“One of the silver linings to come out of this period of constant change has been the increased adaptability and speed at which we’ve acted. This period has fast-tracked many ideas and approaches – it almost feels like we’ve lived through an entire year in just 3 months. The next period will not be so much about changing the tools we used to have in our portfolio, but rather about using them in new ways and continuing to adapt our messaging to the new realities of communication,” added Raluca Ene.
Moreover, Lavinia Chican pointed out that some of the indirect effects of the pandemic are here to stay. Much like the work-from-home movement, the McCann PR representative thinks some of the new communication habits will remain relevant even after the situation is resolved, to the extent where we will see a shift from advertising to communications, along with the difference in tools and channels which it brings.