Die another day: Managing a PR agency at a time of crisis

30 March 2020 | 6 min read | News
Portrait photo of Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

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This article originally appeared in Influence magazine, published by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations

We have been plunged into the midst of an unprecedented situation. It is pushing, pulling, stretching, testing, debilitating, gut-wrenching and heart-breaking in equal measure. The last recession has nothing on what we’re all going through right now, and we are ALL going through it. But this won’t be the death knell for PR agencies like ours. Rather, it could be the very making of our industry.

Vladimir Lenin once said, “There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.” The impact on the economy caused by the coronavirus within such an incredibly short period of time has been nothing short of fantastical and understandably, our industry is fearful for its future.

Indeed, on Monday 23rd March, the results of a survey conducted by the excellent #FutureProof found that 1 in 3 agency leaders fear they might not survive the current crisis, and 81 per cent cited serious financial concerns as a consequence of immediate project cancellations and clients pressing the pause button on all billable activity for the foreseeable future.

However, while the curve will resume its upward trajectory once more it is the way we act now that will determine whether our respective agencies survive the course or suffocate under the pressure of what is taking place.

Few if any PR agencies have been financially unscathed by recent events. But while some very tough decisions are being made in virtual senior leadership team meetings across the country, agency leaders must have one eye on the here and now and the other fixed to the horizon in anticipation for what lies ahead once all of this has subsided.

Current events have completely overhauled the objectives that we set for Clearly PR in 2020. From recording our fourth successive year of double-digit growth and being on course for attaining the once seemingly unattainable £1 million in billings milestone next year, ‘success’ for us is no longer one of financial achievement.

The way we act now that will determine whether our respective agencies survive the course or suffocate under the pressure

Rather, the ‘new’ definition of success is ensuring that the team of 12 incredible people that constitute Clearly PR today, is the same 12 people who will be sat together in the meeting room on that much-anticipated first day back in the office. To achieve this, however, means looking to the past and applying the lessons learned in the context of the here and now.

During the last recession, I was a freelancer specialising in the recruitment and employer branding sector and commissioned by two of the biggest careers websites in the world. Between them, they averaged over 200 million monthly visitors and we produced a constant flow of news and more information than anyone on hiring trends, workplace issues, employment legislation, and job seeking strategies. The appetite for this content was huge, and many hiring and career decisions were based on the details both these global players produced.

But when the bottom fell out of the market, both brands put a stop on such activity in favour of cutting costs. Once the upturn came, however, both brands had fallen out of favour with audiences and subsequently lost significant market share to their rivals who had opted instead to ramp up their engagement activities.

In doing so, these new players remained relevant, front of mind and a go-to provider of choice when positive trading conditions returned. It was they who stood by the market and showed their support even though the chances of these actions generating any revenues at the time were slim at best. Yet they understood that the returns on their time investment would pay dividends further down the line.

It is all very well having clients commit to resuming activity once all of this over, but anything can happen between now and then. Loyalty and trust can be won and lost in a heartbeat, which is why agencies need to ensure they pull out all the stops to stay relevant and front of mind both for those clients they already have relationships with, and those they don’t.

One approach we have taken is to draw upon the collective experience of our 12-person team and channel it in a way that can benefit others. Every day since the Prime Minister advised businesses to work from home, we have committed to producing at least one fresh piece of ‘How to’ content that is promoted across our social channels and website. This ranges from piece to camera videos and animations, to short-form blogs and infographics that collectively have been viewed c.30,000 times within five days.

Agencies need to ensure they pull out all the stops to stay relevant and front of mind

Of course, such metrics matter little. What is important is the intention. I see too many brands, including PR agencies, who keep their cards pressed to their chests. They steer clear of sharing the insights they know could greatly benefit others. And they do so because of the perceived lack of monetary return or a loss of trade secrets or fear that businesses will do away with the need to utilise the services of a PR agency altogether. But they are wrong, and it could be at the detriment of their agency brand, too.

Leadership expert Peter Drucker proclaimed that leaders gain more power, by giving power away to their people. I believe that PR agencies win more influence when they give their information away and our experience proves that. It increases brand awareness of who you are and what you do within each market you operate, it enhances your profile as an employer of choice both for those you want to attract and retain, and it really does develop the new business pipeline.

This is an approach that worked for us when we experienced our own crisis some five years ago, and it will ensure we survive this current episode in time. Our time may indeed come, but it will have to wait for another day.