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Innovation key to post COVID-19 survival of PR, say stakeholders

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The COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world has created intractable layers of social and economic problems. Several industries have released figures suggesting how much the novel virus had cost, and would very likely continue to cost them, financially.

Data recently released by KPMG Nigeria indicated that 94 per cent of businesses in Nigeria have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 disruptions. This has affected the way and manner PR agencies and other marketing communications companies do their businesses.

According to another report by Influencer Marketing Hub, more than 69 per cent of brands have decreased their Ad and communications spend since the pandemic hit the world in the first quarter of 2020.

What this means is that a lot of companies are inactive, as there are no new product launches, relaunches nor refreshers because people’s movements have been restricted and businesses have reviewed downwards, expenditures on marketing and related aspects of their operations, more especially, briefs going out to PR companies are few and far between.

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Out of the more than $4 trillion the pandemic is expected to cost the world of business, a significant chunk can be traceable to the portfolio of Public Relations (PR) companies. It looks very likely that as brands and businesses continue to rationalise their costs, PR businesses will suffer.

What are the obvious fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic on this industry? Will new dynamics ensure the industry survives or remains relevant even as the virus continues to ravage the world?

Bolaji Okusaga, Managing Partner at Precise Reputation Design, believes “business leaders face huge challenges right now: deciding when to reopen, how to reopen, and how to structure, tap and measure productivity despite the fears of a global pandemic that has not just slowed growth but has actually resulted in a recession. Some had told their employees to resume, but afraid that hurried resumption may have a negative effect, they are postponing for another two weeks just to wait and watch if the numbers of new infections actually reduce on a sustainable basis and test their preparedness for the new workplace protocols that they are trying to provide. Amidst all these, providing a safe environment for employees, partners and customers remain at the core of their concerns. The real demand here is about redefining their business model and changing the way to tap and measure productivity beyond the daily routines we’ve all been used to. COVID-19 is truly a reset button on globalisation.”

Recent forecasts have indicated that industries will perish and no new workplace dynamics after the pandemic. For instance, experts have argued that the work-from-home thing that many visualise as the future will be difficult, if not impossible, as the investments in “monitoring and control” will far outweigh the cost of bringing people to the office. Small and medium businesses, and those others that have no business renting offices might save some money and adjust to the home-office routine.

But as the world is headed to new normals in the way life and businesses are conducted, the public relations outfits responsible for managing brands will be more challenged.

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Experts have canvassed redefining business models post COVID-19 for survival, and some businesses are already rolling out ideas to tap and measure productivity beyond the daily routines.

PR professionals have done great jobs in identifying the bumps on the post-COVID-19 highway for brands except their own industry. The industry seems like physicians who can neither treat themselves nor their close relatives because it is believed that their personal feelings may unduly influence their professional medical judgment, PR appears to also be waiting for others to define its role in the business value chain of the future and the prognosis is not good for the industry.

The managing-director of Indigo Limited, Bolaji Abimbola told The Guardian that PR agencies do not just sit and wait for briefs for clients but engage in creating the briefs and share innovative ideas with clients, and also find opportunities for companies within the crises.

According to him, “we are also evolving from consultation point of traditional media, to bring more of the digital media. This pandemic has reshaped the practice of PR and we will continue to evolve. For instance, we have been working from home in the last three months; we no longer spend hours in traffic to meetings, as are now done virtually.”

But these meetings are not coming at a low cost, and for Abimbola, “It is amazing that people think new media is cheap, but the good news is that it is measurable.”

For brand analyst, Ikem Okuhu, “The post-COVID-19 business environment will be lean and nimble and fired by a race-to-recovery adrenaline. This means that speed in decision making, expedited roads-to-market and lots of “thinking and activating on the feet” will likely be the new normal. It will therefore be in the strategic interest of business to revert to the old order of handling all its communications internally rather than engaging consultants,”

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He said communications departments of many businesses have become top-heavy, as the profession grew and the buzzword, “PR as a Management Function” gained traction, a number of companies have elevated many practitioners to very high positions.

Okuhu pointed that communications style has radically changed. Adding, “saving the time between writing briefs and getting agencies to either pitch or respond and then getting approval before engagement is something this season will not require. The market is in a constant flux and the business that is fast and as restless will the one to ride the waves. For the business that wants something to be done as quickly as is required to either keep pace with, or be ahead of the market dynamics, a low-cost in house team will likely be best resort.”

To survive post COVID-19, the analyst advised, “Creating head-turning ideas that trigger footfalls will be heavily sought after and handsomely rewarded. Cambridge Analytica did it. It demonstrated how it was going to target particular sociographic and psychographic communities with emails that would make them not vote for the then Democratic Party candidate, Hilary Clinton, even if they couldn’t be made to vote for Donald Trump. In Nigeria, Dare Art Alade’s company, Livespot Entertainment recently demonstrated it with the Access the Stars reality show.

“Livespot Entertainment is in the activations and not PR business. But the PR value of the project they conceived and sold to both Nigerian Breweries and Access Bank is worth more than a million front page stories. It was easy for Nigerian Breweries to view on a simple dashboard, how many hectolitres of Star Lager Beer would be sold working with Livespot’s idea. Access Bank, on the other hand, was also made to visualise the deposits inflow from registrations into the reality show; the bank also saw the possible incubation of significant credits portfolio deals with Nigerian Breweries.”

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