How professional services PR & Communications has changed in the post COVID environment

Public Relations (PR) has always been an essential component of the marketing mix and, some would say, more important than ever given the world in which we now operate. How do you view the changing nature of the discipline as we move on from recent events?

PJ: As direct face to face marketing initiatives were cut off by lockdown and working from home, and then moved online, traditional PR i.e. communicating clear messages to specific markets and shaping staff and workers’ opinion has become more important. To reassure clients and markets that they could immediately adapt to secure remote working and to update staff on all aspects of their jobs and roles, professional service firms increased their exposure to “old school” internal and external comms.

With other marketing tactics not available over the past year, media relations and external communications have had to step-up and have, possibly, reclaimed their position. Is that a fair analysis?

PJ: Strong repeat messaging has helped marketers in all environments make the webinars, podcast and ZOOM call the main communications tools internally and then slowly externally with clients to ensure business kept moving and indeed grew during lockdown. PR and comms teams developed new messages to keep clients engaged on the implications of COVID and lockdown on their businesses and the wider economy as governments focused on crisis management and the legislative process slowed to a halt.  

With large percentages of staff physically away from the office, internal communications (always a challenge to get right) has assumed even greater importance. What lessons do you feel have been learned going forward?

PJ: Internal comms became a lifeline for many WFH as the only method replacing meeting chat, office gossip, water cooler meetings and more informal information exchanges. Workers, cut off from their normal sources wanted to hear how their firm leadership was dealing with the crisis and the impact on the business. Frequent negative rumours or media speculation about the impact of COVID and what business leaders were planning needed to be set in context for each form and workflows, new technology protocols needed to be worked through and embedded   

How do you think PR and wider communications (will all audiences) might change as restrictions are lifted?

PJ: It will take time for marketing budgets to return and when they do, they may be divided up differently. There is no doubt there will be a return to face to face marketing be it lunch with a prospect or a seminar but much will still be managed online as more time effective. Conferences and launch receptions will return but will take time as people remain anxious in crowds and so planner will need to be sensitive to formats and re assuring delegates. Again for PR’s, internal comms is key to reassure those slowly returning to work and messaging will have to be planned carefully with firm leadership.   

And what about the role of social media in that (awful phrase) “the new normal”?

PJ:  It’s all about ROI – PR professionals are great at coming up with creative ideas for pitches and campaigns that get clients’ messages ‘out there’. But firms are demanding more. Their budgets are being squeezed and they need greater reporting in the form of tangible returns on their investment. This isn’t anything new, of course, but it will invariably accelerate the need for PRs to assume much of the functions more commonly associated with digital agencies (amplification and SEO, for example) in the same way that these agencies have increasingly been introducing a PR element to their service offering.

CSR will assume ever-greater importance as will the way business is judged by both new and existing clients. The need to tell clients what their advisers are doing and planning for a post-COVID environment is non-negotiable isn’t it?

PJ: Another likely output from the current crisis will be the rise in the number of PR professionals giving away their secrets. Clients aren’t looking to be sold-to, they need guidance, support and answers to the challenges they face. So, those agencies that give their insights and expertise away, in the form of blogs, white papers, video content and more, will be the ones that win many more new fans rather than those that keep their cards closely guarded.

We talk about the move to hybrid working elsewhere in the issue. Does that fill you with joy…or dread?

PJ: At Brackenbury, we now all have the option to work from home on an ongoing basis. The transition has been successful and we achieve more for our clients. However, we meet face to face as a team once a week at our City offices and this has been a great success. I do think the return to work for large companies or indeed law firms is not going to be a simple as many of the numerous press articles on the subject from sudden experts would have you believe. Major financial institutions and large law firms are not in the end going to have the workforce dictate the future of the business despite how publical user friendly they wish to appear. This will present another major challenge for PRs and marketers advising leadership on internal and external messaging and keeping clients reassured that their work will be handled as they require.

And, finally, what gives you cause to be positive as move on from events such as COVID and Brexit and into the future?

PJ: Global economies have been shaken as never before. Even in wartime, the usual comparator, governments have not taken such drastic powers to themselves to control the movement of people and effectively close down international travel. PRs in professional firms are going to have to consider over the next couple of years how to communicate with new clients groups as technology, healthcare, retail and many other winners and losers in the Pandemic need access to professional advice to manage the changing fortunes of their businesses. Overall and without too much cynicism, professional services firms have done well in the last 18 months as they have recognised their clients’ needs and responded with speed and reassurance. 

This blog is part of an interview with Paul Jaffa of Brackenbury by the editor of Centrum, the Professional Services Marketing Group’s magazine and is reproduced with their kind consent.