PR Round Table Discussion — Working Through COVID-19 and Beyond

May 27 2020

by Carolyn Sutton

PR mavens + TSC members and Summit alums Carolyn Sutton, Heather Adams and Jennifer Jenkins offer insight, tips and takeaways on working with influencers, clients, media and their teams during COVID-19.

Carolyn Sutton | Carolyn Sutton PR | President

How have you adjusted working with influencers during this time?
Our influencer partnerships are often like friendships, and we’ve been treating them as such throughout this time. We actually have been leaning into influencers more as they are able to help us tell our client’s story from an immediate standpoint and share what our clients are doing or the impact they are making at this time. Plus, influencers truly showcase the human connection of a brand story.

Influencers have been and will continue to be important and valuable partners now more than ever. But partnering with the right influencers + brand ambassadors for the right reasons for the long-term is also crucial. Rather than focus on creating new relationships and expanding our reach outside of our network, our strategy is connecting with current relationships for partnerships and collaborations. 

Similar to our media contacts, we have stayed close to checking in on each influencer partnership, determining each individual situation before reaching out to connect and creating humanistic synergy.  

What steps have you taken to adjust your long-lead national media relations approach?
Our team continues to pitch and connect with our national editor contacts. At the onset of shelter-in-place orders, our team was in the process of launching a massive press launch for two of our clients, which included product shipments to magazines in New York City, Birmingham and Des Moines. We immediately halted and reevaluated our approach as March was completely a month of transition for all, and shipping massive press boxes was not an immediate priority.

Rather than track down addresses for each contact and continue to push forward with sending product samples, we pivoted to a virtual approach to connecting with media contacts for online and long-lead outreach.

Zoom has obviously proven to be incredibly valuable and a daily essential. And it’s allowed us to create virtual press meetings and debut products via a virtual press launch. So either we’re recording media messages via zoom – hellos and zoom desk sides – or we’re working to schedule time to talk face-to-face.

We are full swing Holiday Gift Guide now and pushing forward as usual– but without the press packages of the past until requested by the media contacts.

How has your approach to media relations changed in the last 8 weeks?
In the immediate moment with the news of the changing landscape, we began a proactive approach of reaching out to our clients the first part of March to get an understanding of upcoming changes, messaging and daily updates for each client as they began to navigate the challenges and the impact on their business. As each week has progressed with changes happening by the day and even the hour, we stayed in close contact with our clients to truly be their ally in the approach to this business. We have shared news with the media when it was news to share– not to try to be part of the conversation but to have our clients be the conversation.

On the onset, our team put immediate communication plans in place to prepare and get ahead of the dialogue. We literally pivoted all plans and messaging to help our clients stay nimble and adjust. We are working with our clients continually on social media messaging, strategic social media content, website/email communication and media outreach adjustments, and it continues to evolve week by week.

Heather D. Adams | Choice Publicity | Founder & CEO

How are you guiding your clients on key messages during this time of crisis?
You cannot over-communicate in a crisis. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Lack of communication breeds distrust and insecurity. Now is not the time to go behind a curtain. Evaluate messaging for sensitivity. You don’t want to appear tone deaf or like you are capitalizing on a pandemic. Ensure your messaging is relevant. Determine the target audience for every piece of communication — internal and external — and anticipate their questions and the way they’ll receive this information. Survey your clientele to determine their most pressing needs. Being proactive is key here. Your tone and heart should come through clearly in everything you share. Customer confidence is non-existent right now, and they need to hear three things from you: safety, how you serve them and trustworthiness. Now is the time to reimagine the way you are serving your clients. Pivoting both your messaging and services to serve their current felt needs is critical to your continued relationship and their loyalty. 

What are your suggestions for brands/companies that have big campaigns going on right now? Do you change the date? Do you push forward? If so, how do you recommend companies change their strategies when it comes to these launches?
This truly must be taken on a case by case basis. One of our clients, Jen Hatmaker, had a book release during this time. The launch date did not move. We pivoted our messaging to media and developed new angles that connected to the current climate. Launch week looked very different. Her “Today Show” interview, for example, was done virtually one week and aired the next, rather than our original plan for her to be LIVE in studio the day before release with a pre-tape at her home weeks prior. We began to utilize her bandwidth for tons and tons of podcast interviews. A part of her book launch was a LIVE event with Brené Brown. That transitioned to a webcast where, ultimately, more people could attend. Another client, a non-profit, lost their ability to fundraise essentially overnight because all of their major events for the remainder of the year were canceled. We immediately strategized ways to leverage their relationships, raise their visibility to new audiences and engage existing and potential donors. Highlighting and educating these audiences to the effects of the pandemic on the communities they serve was critical for engagement. Those fundraising events can’t continue, so we have to reimagine our call to action. People are stuck at home and on social media at record rates. Can your event or campaign transition to fit this current trend? Be flexible, nimble, able to pivot and pay attention. Every day looks different. The plan on Friday afternoon might not make sense by Monday morning. Ultimately you have to re-evaluate your campaign. Should it move forward? What is the pressing need it serves? This is the time to bear in mind that we are in a marathon, not a sprint. We cannot operate in triage indefinitely. Innovation will win! 

How has your approach to media relations changed in the last 8 weeks? Lead with kindness and care. Check in to see how they’re doing. Treat them like a human being. Don’t just reach out to them when you need something. Share a sincere compliment on recent coverage or how they’re navigating the challenging season. Ask how you can serve them best. Pay close attention to what their outlet is covering and how. Do NOT pitch something that doesn’t make sense for them. Don’t try to connect everything to COVID-19. We’re finding that many media contacts have more availability, and we’ve been able to schedule more direct calls with them to discuss their current needs. Accept a no gracefully, and ask what is working for them instead. Inject warmth into your communication. Extend a tremendous amount of grace. Essentially conduct yourself the way you would any other time you’re engaging with media with 10 times more sensitivity. Enhancing and deepening your relationship with media can be a result of the way you navigate this season. 

Jennifer Jenkins | JJPR Agency | President

You suggest shifting thinking from growing revenue to growing mind share and market share through communications. How can small businesses put this into play?  
While small businesses should always be attentive to profitability, we have to shift our thinking right now and be very sensitive to the economic, public health, social, government and information crises that have stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic. We can focus on growing mind share and market share through our communications in several ways. Analyzing the attitudes and behaviors of those we serve by looking at how people are feeling, where money is being spent on, what matters most to people and where they are getting information can help us determine the best messages to meet people where they are. We can also do some forecasting about life after quarantine – 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and 1 year later – and develop scenarios around what we might can expect from our employees, customers and vendors to create value and open doors both now and in the future. We can seek out opportunities around those attitudes and behaviors, anticipate needs and adjust our communications around those needs, find ways to engage, educate and enlighten through our brands, and place humanity and connectivity at the core of everything we do.

What apps are you using for your new Work From Home team?
Our team has a few apps that we absolutely love and have been using for a long time but are reaping their benefits more than ever right now. Slack is an app we couldn’t live without– we have channels set up for each client to streamline communications and often use direct messages for quick replies to cut down on internal email. The ability to set a status is one of our team’s favorite features so we know what everyone is working on in real time. And who isn’t using Zoom right now? We have used it to make presentations but are finding it’s a great way to keep our team connected right now with brainstorming sessions, full team meetings and client meetings. We also use it for fun too, like our standing virtual Happy Hour via Zoom each week. We also created a JJPR Work from Home playlist on Spotify where we all contributed to the list– it’s my absolute favorite because the playlist has a variety of music genres and you never know what song is up next.

How has your approach to media relations changed in the last 8 weeks? 
For us, we have tried to be very mindful of media resources. Many reporters are working overtime to cover for others who may be out on leave or are shifting to cover different topics than usual. So we are asking first and foremost how they are doing, what they are working on and if our clients’ stories are of interest right now. We are offering up more guest columns than ever because information and online content is in high demand. Also, because the news cycle has been changing even more rapidly, we check and double-check the relevance of stories daily before pitching and are finding tie-ins to breaking news more than ever before. With our world in need of direction, leadership and hope, our team is finding unique and creative ways to position our clients as industry thought leaders with articles sharing valuable information during this time as well as in relevant feel good stories that provide lighter, uplifting human interest angles to break up the heaviness around us.

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Carolyn Sutton View More Blog Posts from this Author

Carolyn Sutton | Omaha, NE | began her PR career right out of the gate with a coveted internship in Dallas, which started her 16 year passion for public relations. In 2009, Carolyn experienced the joy of motherhood, which motivated her to start her own Public Relations firm, Carolyn Sutton PR, from years of lifestyle consumer PR experience.

Carolyn Sutton PR put clients in the spotlight by launching brands, driving publicity and media coverage, creating collaborations and creating influencer partnerships. The Carolyn Sutton PR team work with brands and clients they are passionate about and believe in their mission. The team is media and influencer obsessed and are constantly combing magazines, online media and Instagram for the latest and the greatest. Carolyn Sutton PR truly believes in one-on-one time with the client and absolute efficiency to keep budgets and objectives in check. Being called "the little engine that could" and "a PR miracle" keep Carolyn ticking and focused to drive the best client service possible.

Whether Carolyn is pounding the pavement in NYC at media tours, driving to Des Moines for Meredith meetings, launching a toy company in NYC with a "Playdate in the City", orchestrating a gala for non-profit organizations or simply tackling a stack of magazines searching for opportunities and new editors, Carolyn never tires from the PR world. And, her three darling kiddos and hunky husband keep her busy, too.

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