PR for a Virtual Economy -- A shift in mindset & action

May 14, 2020 Beth Monaghan

Contractions force creativity and efficiency, and we’re already beginning to see how COVID-19 will change PR. It has me thinking back to InkHouse’s roots, which are firmly planted in the 2008 financial crisis. That contraction forced us to begin fresh. We decided to assume nothing. It helped us see how data could build credibility and how social media could catapult new experts into awareness. Back then, it pushed us to integrate media relations with digital media, a novel idea at the time. And by doing so, we reinvented how we secured the reach and influence our clients needed to meet their business goals. We plan to do it again. 

COVID-19 has flung us all into another contraction and with it, overnight digital transformation. We’re now operating in a virtual economy in which everything must be done from a distance, preferably a digital one. Some sectors are paralyzed, while others are growing faster than ever. This pandemic is affecting how we live, where we work, how we shop, how we travel, and how we consume information. PR must pivot to address a new virtual mindset. 

Today, we’re introducing our PR for a Virtual Economy toolkit, which already includes recommendations about how events, media strategy and social media tactics should adjust. We’ll be adding more content over the coming weeks, but today, I take a look at this virtual atmosphere, and examine what it means for how PR programs should engage with audiences. 

Emotional drivers have changed.

Fear and pride are the most powerful drivers of just about every decision we, as humans, make. Marketers study these well, but suddenly, the things that worry and fulfill your audiences have shifted. For example, whereas an employer may have found pride in providing the most enriching office environment to build culture, she’s now finding it in bringing people together -- from home. Maybe that’s driving more cloud storage and collaboration software purchases. We have new heroes to root for and villains to fight against in almost every market, and to effectively reach any audience, we must begin by re-examining how your audiences’ mindsets have changed. 

→ HOW TO ENGAGE: Don’t lead by touting the top features of your product or offering. These have never been the real reasons your audiences decide to make a purchase. Re-examine your personas, re-order your audience prioritizations. Who’s going to buy your offering now and why? How will it help them feel more secure, worry less, and maybe even regain some opportunities for pride? In other words, how can you help them? Our ability to convince is rooted in our ability to meet people exactly where they are and that requires a very human connection. (And if you need help, we’d love to do a QuickStart storytelling workshop with you.) 

Building community requires security.

It is true that controversy breeds interest. It’s the science behind the headlines that get the most clicks. But this is not the science of relationships. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it doesn’t foster trust, which is the foundation of any community. And today, people are scared enough already. In fact, the headlines would have us all believe that the nation has been divided along impervious political lines, primarily driven by fear. However, Americans are not as divided as it may seem. A report (COVID-19: Polarization and the Pandemic) from More in Common reveals that almost all of us (90%) believe we’re in it together. We also share a fear about the economy (79%) and our family’s health (63%). 

→ HOW TO ENGAGE: Hold the fear and politicized tactics for another time. Right now, the voices breaking through are those of reason, security and comfort. Listen first to what your audiences need and then be a convener. For example, I recently joined the first Boston Business Journal Leadership Trust virtual meetup with other CEOs and it provided me with an opportunity to connect to others who shared the same challenges I am facing. That’s community building.

Trust and credibility are everything.

Audiences are having a hard time knowing which content to trust, and it’s not surprising. On Twitter, false information spreads further than true information, and at six times the speed (according to Renée DiResta of Stanford in a recent piece in The Atlantic). “It does not help that online information channels are heavily personalized and politicized, governed by algorithms that reward certain and extreme claims over correct but nuanced ones,” DiResta said. A close eye on your social media program and its influencers is a wise move right now. And it serves as a reminder about who people trust. We’re seeing the media’s resurgence (and, notably, the local media) as a source of round-the-clock information -- where people go for facts. This means media coverage is also gaining importance in establishing your own credibility. 

→ HOW TO ENGAGE: Lead with facts and expertise. Let those two guiding principles help select your social media influencers, your owned content and your spokespeople. 

Reach and impact are different online.

When the world went virtual, we were all concerned about reach. How would offline events perform online? In many cases better. We’ve been seeing audiences expand exponentially when they go digital (here’s one example from the Oktane user conference). Even the film “Trolls World Tour” brought in more in three weeks on demand than the original “Trolls”’ did in five months in theaters. The question before us is one of engagement. Are you as engaged in front of a screen at home as you are in person? Probably not. 

→ HOW TO ENGAGE: The opportunity will be in discovering how we can bring real-world connections to digital platforms. Online, these will require more orchestration because the chitchat of casual conversations won’t happen on their own. We’re going to need to craft online meet-and-greets, break-outs and discussions. And we’ll need to facilitate following up on those after the online event is over. Look for ways to be a connector for the audiences you convene, both during the event and after. It’s a good time to get professional about your email marketing segmentation! 

In the coming weeks, we’ll be covering all facets of PR in a virtual economy, from trends in the sectors we serve, what innovations we expect to see growing out of this contraction, to media Q&As, social media trends and more. Explore our PR in a virtual economy toolkit, and if you haven’t already, subscribe to our newsletter.

Topics: PR, Strategic Communications, COVID-19, Digital Transformation
Beth Monaghan

Since the early days working around her kitchen table, Beth has grown Inkhouse into one of the top independent PR agencies in the country. She’s been named a Top Woman in PR by PR News, a Top 25 Innovator by PRovoke, and an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. Beth designed Inkhouse’s signature Storytelling Workshop to mirror the literary hero’s journey and to unearth the emotional connections that bind an audience to a brand or idea. She also uses narratives to build Inkhouse’s culture, most recently through two books of employee essays, “Hindsight 2020” and “Aren’t We Lucky?”

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