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Nine Pandemic PR Trends to Inform 2021 Planning

It’s not exact­ly break­ing news that over the past eight months, every Bell­mont Part­ners client, no mat­ter which indus­try they’re in, has shift­ed their mar­ket­ing approach – some slight­ly, oth­ers sig­nif­i­cant­ly. But what is news­wor­thy are the insights we’ve gleaned regard­ing what’s most impor­tant to keep in mind for 2021.

Each orga­ni­za­tion has been piv­ot­ing accord­ing to its own time­line. As ear­ly as Feb­ru­ary, well before Min­neso­ta report­ed its first coro­n­avirus case, we helped revise or devel­op mul­ti­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tions plans around the pan­dem­ic. And we’re con­tin­u­ing to work with orga­ni­za­tions that are still in the process of revis­ing or revi­tal­iz­ing their nar­ra­tives to reflect the way they’re approach­ing their oper­a­tions and their mar­ket­ing efforts as this all con­tin­ues to unfold.

The work we’ve been doing falls into two basic buck­ets: strength­en­ing foun­da­tions through crit­i­cal block­ing and tack­ling, and test­ing new approach­es – both of which are cru­cial to 2021 planning.

STRENGTHENING THE CORE

After an ini­tial pull­back (in March alone, six of our clients shut down their com­mu­ni­ca­tions efforts com­plete­ly), we saw a mas­sive increase in requests for cri­sis coun­sel from our exist­ing clients as well as orga­ni­za­tions approach­ing us for help for the first time. We shift­ed our inter­nal resources to make sure we could pro­vide the senior-lev­el sup­port they need­ed. We also respond­ed to an amped-up need to engage with and rein­force rela­tion­ships with clients’ cus­tomers and oth­er stake­hold­ers by using mul­ti­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tions dis­ci­plines, from earned and owned to social and paid. Gen­er­al­ly, we’ve seen a major focus on demon­strat­ing thought lead­er­ship and re-estab­lish­ing or build­ing authen­tic rela­tion­ships with audi­ences, some­thing pub­lic rela­tions does very well.

TESTING NEW APPROACHES

We’re con­tin­u­ing to see an increased inter­est in plan­ning and explor­ing new tac­tics. Many orga­ni­za­tions have had to set aside their best-laid pre-COVID plans, and they now need to deter­mine the most effi­cient and effec­tive ways to meet their con­stituents where they are for the rest of this year and for 2021. They’re look­ing for new ideas and a vari­ety of approach­es that can be adjust­ed on the fly depend­ing on what the pan­dem­ic and polit­i­cal land­scape looks like, or what new chal­lenge is lurk­ing just around the cor­ner. We’re see­ing that many com­pa­nies aren’t as bound to the sta­tus quo as they once were, and are find­ing suc­cess as they test new (or new-to-them) meth­ods of com­mu­ni­cat­ing and demon­strat­ing thought leadership.

Regard­less of whether orga­ni­za­tions are try­ing a new tac­tic or rein­forc­ing a tried-and-true approach, we’ve seen a num­ber of trends unfold that will inform 2021 activ­i­ties, including:

  1. Repur­pos­ing con­tent. Across the board, we’ve seen an increased inter­est in tak­ing a core piece of con­tent and repur­pos­ing it for oth­er plat­forms. That’s always been valu­able, but now that teams and bud­gets are often small­er, it’s more impor­tant than ever to slice and dice infor­ma­tion into social media posts, info­graph­ics, emails or web copy. We don’t see that wan­ing at all in the new year.
  2. Vir­tu­al events. While major events we work with, like the Loft’s Word­play book fes­ti­val, shift­ed to become ful­ly vir­tu­al this year (and in some cas­es, sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand­ed their reach), even small­er or more niche events are look­ing at how they can make it eas­i­er for atten­dees to par­tic­i­pate, either in-per­son or online.
  3. LinkedIn strate­gies. Exec­u­tives have been called upon to be more trans­par­ent and acces­si­ble this year, and are find­ing LinkedIn to be an excel­lent way to authen­ti­cal­ly engage. They’re putting more empha­sis on – and devot­ing more time to – devel­op­ing con­tent and build­ing a network.
  4. Dig­i­tal media. We’re see­ing an even big­ger shift toward dig­i­tal, if that’s even pos­si­ble. 2020 brought with it a huge influx in remod­el­ing or at least adding a new coat of vir­tu­al paint to web­sites, or explor­ing extreme­ly acces­si­ble ways to con­nect with audi­ences, like using Face­book Live for town­hall meet­ings. We’ve also seen a sig­nif­i­cant increase in paid social media efforts and cre­ative ways to part­ner with influ­encers and oth­er part­ners in social.
  5. Pod­casts and videos. For orga­ni­za­tions that hadn’t ful­ly embraced com­mu­ni­cat­ing via video or audio because it may have seemed over­whelm­ing, using user-friend­ly tech like Zoom or Microsoft Teams is an easy way to test it out. We’re now work­ing with mul­ti­ple clients to devel­op pod­casts – many of which are pro­duced ful­ly remotely.
  6. Inter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Good­bye, in-per­son staff meet­ings around a con­fer­ence table. Espe­cial­ly since many orga­ni­za­tions are now at least par­tial­ly work­ing remote­ly, keep­ing team mem­bers con­nect­ed is a chal­lenge, so we’ve seen a large resur­gence in devel­op­ing effec­tive – and cre­ative – ways to engage with employees.
  7. Desk­sides. Because they’re most­ly still work­ing from home, edi­tors have been more inter­est­ed in vir­tu­al desk­side meet­ings, espe­cial­ly those that pro­vide plen­ty of sto­ry ideas or resources for their audiences.
  8. Bylined arti­cles. Con­tributed bylined arti­cles and guest posts are also in great demand, and excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ties for lead­ers at orga­ni­za­tions of all types to demon­strate their thought lead­er­ship – while pro­vid­ing valu­able con­tent for often-resource-strapped media outlets.
  9. Mea­sure­ment. Now, more than ever, it’s crit­i­cal to track met­rics to deter­mine a tactic’s effec­tive­ness and how to adjust. In many cas­es, we’ve been see­ing a real­lo­ca­tion of mar­ket­ing bud­gets to focus more resources on met­rics-based and track­able approach­es like paid social and web analytics.

LOOKING AHEAD

The fourth quar­ter of a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year is always dif­fi­cult to pre­dict, and this year, because of the pan­dem­ic, it’s expo­nen­tial­ly more uncer­tain. But while the indus­tries that are still expe­ri­enc­ing the biggest ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the pan­dem­ic, asso­ci­at­ed shut-downs and lack of con­sumer con­fi­dence – hos­pi­tal­i­ty, retail, per­form­ing arts and some non­prof­its – are still strug­gling to sur­vive in some cas­es, we’re see­ing many oth­er sec­tors – par­tic­u­lar­ly B2B – have been able to adapt to the (cliché alert) “new nor­mal” and again begin to devote bud­gets and resources toward marketing.

For decades, PR has often been mis­in­ter­pret­ed as pri­mar­i­ly media rela­tions, and this uncer­tain time has allowed us to real­ly show­case all the diverse tools in our tool­box. And we’ve also been able to demon­strate how we’re espe­cial­ly good at inte­grat­ing mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines, approach­es and plat­forms so they all work togeth­er more effi­cient­ly – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – to serve the over­ar­ch­ing strategy.

If you’re look­ing for an inno­v­a­tive, bat­tle-test­ed PR part­ner to help you both strength­en your exist­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions approach and explore new ways of engag­ing with your audi­ences as you pre­pare for 2021, we’d love to talk it through. Please reach out if you’d like to set up a no-oblig­a­tion dis­cus­sion or brain­storm.

Here’s to a stronger, more sta­ble – and well-planned – 2021!

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