The Viral PR Mindset

COVID-19 and the Viral PR Mindset

Jim James

Managing Director

EASTWEST Public Relations Group

The post COVID-era for PR marketing seems to have been fundamentally changed due to the current COVID-19 Crisis. It’s a global crisis, but guess what? It’s not the first. Some of the younger people reading this may be thinking this is the biggest and worst crisis that we have ever had. For those of us that are a bit older, it is something we have experienced before. I graduated out of university into a crisis in 1990. I set up EASTWEST Public Relations in Singapore in 1995 and two years later there was a debt crisis. Then there was 9/11, and there was a dot com bubble and then there was SARS, and you get the idea. Being in a crisis is not new. So what’s important is that we have to figure out how we’re going to adapt to the crisis and decide whether it’s a temporary change, whether it’s game changing. 


1987 Black Monday in October 1997 Asian debt crisis  2001 Horrors of 9/11 2002 Dotcom bubble crashes 2002/3 SARS 2006 collapse of the U.S. housing 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) 2011 Japanese tsunami  2012 MERS 2015 Greek Debt Crisis 2017 Hurricane Harvey 2020 COVID 19…what’s next?

I think the point with COVID is that it’s really a game-changer. So, I’d like to suggest that we redefine COVID, and the reasons for that is that our mindset right now is going to be one of the most important tools and strengths that we’ve got to survive. So I might suggest that you could also rephrase COVID as about being compassionate, about being optimistic, about being values-based, about being informative, and above all about digital. So there’s a new paradigm and what I’d like to do is take you through what I consider this new definition of COVID to your communication strategies.


How to manage your communications so that they are:

Compassionate

Optimistic

Values Based

Informative

Digital 


The reason is because the world has changed, at least for the foreseeable future:


“We will serve what will likely become a forever-altered health, hygiene and cleaning focus for consumers who use our products daily or multiple times each day.  Jon Moeller, P&G COO and CFO

Compassionate

The first one under C is that companies now in this new era need to define themselves and position themselves as being compassionate. It’s central to everybody’s business right now to show that they care, which of course, they should. It’s been a shift from this focus on wealth to this focus on health. That’s a fundamental change. It didn’t happen through any of those crisis that I have lived through in the last 30 years. It’s always been you survive and still worry about money. Now it seems we’re moving to worry about health.

Its the company’s activity to serve the community which they used to see as customers. So previously ‘customers’. Now, it’s a community.

Internal communications are becoming as important as ever and as important as external, because 53% of employees say they’re afraid of losing their job.

If you look at the images below, two ads, one for the company before, the message here is "Products that make you look and feel good". However, now the ads are about “thank you. In this case thank you to the community of people wearing Crocs.

 

This advertisement is from Crocs, thanking people for wearing their shoes. It used to be about how you look in our shoes. Now it’s “thank you” for the service you give to our community while you are wearing our shoes.

Optimistic

The second is Optimistic. Statistics from a census that was recently taken in the UK show that: 39% of women surveyed say that they want brands to give them positive information. What people are looking for is hope. In any crisis, theyre looking for hope. 

As Winston Churchill said,

“a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, but the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”  

This is a dog called Rosie who is delivering wine for a company called the Stone House Winery in New England, USA.


They managed to turn their service into marketing. They couldn’t deliver the wine to the homes, but they had a dog. They got Rosie to take the wine from the car to the kerbside. – And its gone viral! Not only is it in Fox News, Wall Street Journal, The Times; its actually got to the Metro, in England. So, they’ve taken a crisis and gone, oh, I can’t deliver this product. What could I do instead?

Is there anything that you can do today to make someone smile? Because that’s what people need. That’s what people want. That’s what they want to resonate.

Values based

The third in COVID is ‘Values-based’. There’s this sincerity of purpose now that is being expected because people are locked indoors and they’re losing family and friends. A frightening statistic is that a million people die of cancer every year, but somehow that’s become almost accepted as normal. But, people are panicking now. So, what they’re looking for is sincerity of purpose and what does your company do or what can it do to show solidarity with the community and the nation?

“The Pret family and the whole world are in uncharted territory, and it is important that we show solidarity and stand by each other in this difficult time.”

CEO Pano Christou

Here are some examples, the Pret chain of coffee shops are giving NHS workers half price coffee and they are giving them discounted food. The CEO says the Pret family when referring to its staff. We are now in uncharted territory. It’s the first time in my working career that people are saying it’s an entirely new world. BT are offering free broadband for home. The CEO is saying if a customer contacts with money worries related to Coronavirus, we’ll work out what works best for them. I don’t remember there ever being an advert or piece of PR like that. An unconditional price cut. 

“If a customer contacts us with money worries related to Coronavirus, we’ll work out what works best for them.”

Marc Allera, consumer chief executive at BT


Now, what’s interesting is you can see from the Independent news —that there’s even an article about which brands and businesses are supporting the NHS workers. Now, I have tried for 30 years to get the media to publish stories about my clients and it’s a miracle when they actually write your name and give a link to the brand itself. They’ve written an article and included links to people like the taxi company that’s giving free after hours rides home for NHS. They’re getting a link to their company website in the Independent. It’s amazing. It’s never happened before. But it happens if you’re showing sincerity of purpose as a company. ’s interesting is you can see from the Independent news —that there’s even an article about which brands and businesses are supporting the NHS workers. Now, I have tried for 30 years to get the media to publish stories about my clients and it’s a miracle when they actually write your name and give a link to the brand itself. They’ve written an article and included links to people like the taxi company that’s giving free after hours rides home for NHS. They’re getting a link to their company website in the Independent. It’s amazing. It’s never happened before. But it happens if you’re showing sincerity of purpose as a company. ’s interesting is you can see from the Independent news —that there’s even an article about which brands and businesses are supporting the NHS workers. 


                                                    





I have tried for 30 years to get the media to publish stories about my clients and it’s a miracle when they actually write your name and give a link to the brand itself. The Independent have written an article and actually included links to companies like Addison Lee, the taxi company, that’s giving free after hours rides home for NHS staff. They’re getting a link to their company website in the Independent for the price of a taxi fare! It’s amazing. It’s never happened before. But it happens because they are showing sincerity of purpose as a company. The journalists are rewarding those companies which they see are sharing a common sense of purpose with their readers. 


As if this wasn’t enough – the article was updated on the 15th April, some 2 weeks later, and includes the information that ‘The NHS also has an extensive list of discounts available to staff‘ which today I counted close to 100 companies offering goods and services from food to transport to accommodation and beyond. These companies are getting with the COVID Pr mindset and will be building loyalty well into the time when the virus has passed being an ever present danger.


Informative

The fourth attribute is Informative. I spent so many years writing press releases for companies and in doing that theyd say, we are the best. And you say can you prove it as well? We are. We feel like it. We want to say we are. That has changed. Positioning no longer matters. PR needs to be informative.

I’m not sure about you, but I’ve been getting a letter almost weekly from Mike, who is my neighbourhood Sainsbury’s CEO. He writes to 450,000 other people but it is personalized—this is called a “personalization of scale.” This is of course Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsbury’s (about to step down in May) recently awarded some GBP4m in bonuses. I doubt that he is personally licking all the stamps on these, but the CEO of Sainsbury’s is sending personalised letters at scale. This is great PR and I don’t see many other companies taking this v low cost and direct way to engage their customers.


So, are you communicating directly with your stakeholders? And this is one of the other changes; PR has been perceived as just about getting noticed in the broader public, but people are realising there are different communities we need to talk to, and you can appeal to them and talk to them directly through different tools.

Mark Cuban, the investor and star of the TV show shark tank, says "Information is power, particularly when the competition ignores the opportunity to do the same". If you think about it, you’ve got an opportunity now, which is if you’re doing something and you know who you could talk to, you’ve got information you can share and maybe your competition doesn’t want to do that. You can gain loyalty from your existing or potential customers.

"Information is power, particularly when the competition ignores the opportunity to do the same" 

Mark Cuban

Mike Coupe. CEO, Sainsbury’s

What Mike the CEO of a £27b company, is sending me–to my mailbox on a Saturday morning, he’s telling me that they’re ordering more supplies. He’s telling me that they’re going to put more staff in the warehouse. They’re going to set limits on the number of items I’ve can buy. I have never, ever been told by any client what’s happening within their business. 


But now, on a Saturday morning, the CEO’s is communicating directly about what to do in-store. So your PR, your communications, should be informative because that’s how people get reassured. But remember, Information is only power if it gives them some knowledge. So what can you do to help your customers, your staff or your clients to feel that they’re fully informed? So your PR, your communications, should be informative because that’s how people get reassured. But remember, Information is only power if it gives them some knowledge. So what can you do to help your customers, your staff or your clients to feel that they’re fully informed? So your PR, your communications, should be informative because that’s how people get reassured. 


But remember, Information is only power if it gives them some knowledge. So what can you do to help your customers, your staff or your clients to feel that they’re fully informed?      

Digital

Next is Digital because digital creates efficiency of delivery. This is the first time in my life, and in fact the world memory, (bear in mind that smart phones were only launched on January 9, 2007) that you can have personalization at scale and where anyone with a humble studio setup, can broadcast worldwide, with the same quality that used to be reserved for just major studios. Technology is enabling us to communicate across different formats instantly, globally, one-to-one. That’s a real opportunity. 

Digital communications are characterised by:

Diversity
Time shifting
Multi channel
Travels with the consumer
Consumers choose and share.


Now, 79% of adults own a smartphone and broadband penetration is 93%. The CEO of Ofcom, Melanie Dawes, chief executive of Ofcom said last week, “families across the country are going online together this week, juggling work and keeping children busy at the same time.” What’s key about that is everybody has their own device. We used to sit down together and watch the 6 o’clock news. If every child and every adult has their own device, they’re all getting their own news or their own information. It creates a challenge from a PR point of view, but it also creates an amazing opportunity.  



The image on the left shows that there has been a fundamental shift in the last decade in how people are accessing your content. A decade ago 20% were on mobile. DVD player sales have gone down because people are live-streaming. Netflix etc. 58% of people are using a tablet to access what you would like to tell them and they’re doing it as a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, an employer, a teacher, a home-teacher. Maybe its about claiming all those roles at once using the same device.


We are seeing digital radio, we’re seeing smart TVs. Now, among all of these technologies, there are some commonalities. One is the diversity of distribution. Distribution is no longer from the BBC to the home. It used to be one box and you watched their schedule. We’ve all got our own favourite devices, but also access to content when we want it. This is a fundamental shift. Some of my clients that I’ve had over the years were pioneering this technology and actually launched predictive text entry back in 1997 in Korea. So I saw the first ever text entry in mobile phones. Now we have Multichannel, simultaneous time-shifted content. But the other development is that the information travels with the consumer. It used to be that it only ‘travelled’ with the consumer if you bought the newspaper and you took it on the train and someone else picked up a copy of the Metro. That would be how information travelled.


However, now, people will carry information with them. Wearing smart watches for example, it’s even more intimate and this gives you an amazing opportunity for your company. It gives you an amazing challenge, but an amazing opportunity.

The final point about this is that consumers now choose, but they also share. There’s a whole category now of PR in sales, which is about referrals and people giving testimonials. There are social media and key influencer programmes. So, the consumer is now taking your messages wherever they are, ready to receive them on whatever device. And if they like it, they share it, if they dont like it, they tell you quickly. So that’s why people like TripAdvisor are so powerful, they can make or break a brand. 

On the image above from Smart Insights are additional prisms. I added this to show you the wealth of tools available for businesses. The key is not to try and use them all, I didn’t write this to overwhelm you. I just want to show you that there’s a universe out there that is much more than the top two or three which is Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn. There are many that are quite specialist, therefore they create an opportunity for smaller brands, because the big brands dominate the big platforms. So the next point to think about is that when you’re operating your PR. It used to be that you’d send a press release or do an interview and then you get a daily newspaper, or a monthly magazine or see it on the news, people are at a fixed place when they absorb and consume that content; because they sat down to watch TV with their family, or got the newspaper with a cup of tea.


You couldn’t access people at a certain time or place, now that’s changing. What it means is that customers have got a journey and you’re with an audience, possibly 24 hours a day across their whole lifestyle. People are buying and acquiring, they’re owning and serving, and they are researching in real time from anywhere. They’re evaluating and then they’re buying, they’re getting delivery, then using, then maintaining and possibly advocating. They may recommend, or give a bad rating.  I tried the other day to buy a new Logitech HD camera for my sister who is a world authority on light and who is in demand as a speaker, but now these are all sold out on Amazon. The product ratings are so high that products like this become a manufacturers dream product; a convergence of need and spontaneous consumer referrals driving sales. So companies can start to think about when you want their different audiences to see  on their journey. Are they going to work or are they staying at home? Are they beginning their day, are they ending their day?


The message that we give is different and tailored to the time and place it will be seen; you might still see some ads on LinkedIn for a famous Asian car manufacturer. They were still running ads for a showroom promotion about a month ago in the UK. People are in lock down, why are they running an ad saying ‘come to the showroom for a test drive’ when no one can get out? It just shows that they were completely out of touch with what their audience is living through. 


This week one of our team members had a sofa and furniture delivered. The issue was that the delivery men left it on the doorstep. They told him that he should have had an email to explain that they couldn’t enter the house. He’s alone with 2 small kids! He checked the email which was sent only days before the furniture was due to be delivered and apparently it doesn’t explain this – but more over how is he supposed to get the furniture into his home? He’s been waiting 8 weeks for this new sofa. His family are all eating Friday night dinner sitting on the floor again tonight. So the mission of this company isn’t to delight the consumer with a comfortable sofa it is simply to sell a product, drag and drop. The men could have worn masks, or asked everyone to say 2 metres away. This kind of experience then will become folklore and will be shared on social media.

There’s so much content generated by the company itself, and now by consumers, that as a company it’s almost impossible to engage and to reassure and to inform your customers and your allies and your staff without a concerted and concentrated campaign. Companies should think about the complete cycle of events and how they can start to engage with those people on a more consistent basis. 

[We built some tools that we work with our clients on that I think you can use, and that are available free here on our website ]                           

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Summary

I’d like to suggest that COVID requires a new paradigm and if we change our mindsets from COVID being a word of fear, to being actually an anagram for us of opportunities. Our PR and marketing communications can be compassionate, it can be optimistic. It needs to be values-based because that’s what people are buying into now. They need trust that only comes if they’ve got a sense of the same values. It needs to be informative because people need to make decisions now. People need to be informed, and you can do that through digitalplatforms which are ubiquitous and always on, and are increasingly intimate as they are worn. The next evolution is conversational commerce, where consumers and companies engage, purchase and share all from the same device and in real time. COVID will create opportunities to companies to adopt both a new mindset and new commercial opportunities.


Contact me to discuss how we can help you to share your messages in COVID Times.


Jim James

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