Positive spin: How the PR industry is surviving lockdown

How have the recent lockdowns in various parts of Australia and the continued Greater Sydney lockdown affected the PR industry? As an industry that usually thrives on face-to-face business, Mumbrella asks a variety of PR leaders just how they are approaching the situation and what it means for the future of the industry and their businesses.

Maz Coote, founder and director, Coote Connex PR


What has been most apparent with the lockdown version two has been the human element. During the first lockdown the new remote work rhythms created a sense of novelty that got us through a tough time. Second time round,  that novelty is now gone and our focus is on daily progress towards positive attitudes and forward progress with our clients. One initiative we have introduced is a fortnightly lunch and learn that we run for our team and our 50 odd clients across the group.

Last week we had journalist Jessica Ridley lead a masterclass in presenting skills, and next week we have Olympic team nutritionist Peta Carige leading a 101 on using fuel as food in the home office. Coote Connex are arranging these sessions for external businesses also – and we find they work really well for team morale but also putting a spotlight on up-skilling in areas that are useful during these pandemic conditions.

We have also introduced shorter working hours on a Wednesday and Friday so there is some relief during the week to get outdoors and really work on that mental health piece.

Operationally the pandemic has had different implications and advantages across our group of agencies and whilst lockdown 2.0 feels harder on a personal level there are a lot of advantages to this lock down versus last year. I think most creative agencies in our space would agree the industry had a strong last quarter 2020 and a strong first half 2021 so there is still a lot of momentum in the market going into this lockdown – and also the lengthy closures are quite specific to NSW so for our clients impacted, that impact is more limited. It was positive seeing Melbourne and South Australia come out of their lockdowns swiftly – we want as much of the population resuming normal consumer behaviour as possible.

In terms of our client portfolio in the PR agency, for those clients we look after in the service space it is more challenging for them however again we are seeing a real ease at mobilising into lockdown friendly strategy based on the work already done last year.

Fitness Playground one of the clients we look after have a really comprehensive online access program, Raw Salon lead by celebrity stylist Anthony Nader have launched an online store. There hasn’t been the time lag of 2020 where businesses needed to put the strategy in place to adapt. The digital team are seeing a focus from clients wanting to use the time to assess and refine their SEO strategy and also are seeing increased spending in Instagram and Google advertising to target an audience more engaged with their devices again (mirroring last years trends!).

We are helping our clients navigate the best use of their spend across the next quarter, looking at event and activation spend being redirected into digital campaigns.

For Coote Connex, in a ‘post pandemic setting’ end of last year and the first half, we were seeing a real appetite from brands wanting to invest in Expert Voices for their products – for authenticity in a market that was more aware of health and wellness and had more time to invest in understanding the products they were using better. We expect that trend to continue. Key to coming out the other side stronger is going to be the wellness of our teams and it is mine and my partners top priority during this time.

Brett Galvin, founder and director, The Mint Partners


This lockdown feels very different to last year – it’s also a lot longer, but somehow there is less darkness around it. All of our clients and team have seen what the other side looks like, outside of lockdown, so we know that there is an end in sight.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was collective grief, our global client base went on hold and local businesses didn’t know what the future would hold. But we have seen globally how the vaccine roll out and effective management can ease the long term burden, which has seen more people stand the course. Of course it has been terrifying to see the country’s two biggest economies go into lockdown, that is not good for anyone in Australia, so the fall out may be more of a long burn for that.

Early on, to help combat the long lasting impact of COVID, we have offered paid leave to all of our team if they choose to go and get vaccinated. We felt that this was a small way for us to contribute to the community and support our team through ensuring they are still getting quality time off, rather than using it to wait in a vaccination hub queue.

The biggest area of concern that we have for our team is around mental health. It’s easy at a time like this to focus on what is right in front of us, so we have been doing a lot of work around future planning, re-looking at our strategy, our purpose and our values to ensure there is always something for people to work towards. We are looking at how to future-proof our talent pool, too, so as we dig into what support looks like, we have implemented a number of changes to our policies including our Parental leave policy, which now has a raft of inclusions that will make the transition into parenthood, and then back into the workforce a little gentler.

With this in mind, we are doubling down on culture to make sure our team feels supported, seen and heard, and making sure we are coming together, virtually, as an agency so that we don’t lose that connection.

We are doing this with our clients, too. Looking at what differing stages of lockdown looks like, the effect on consumer / brand connection and the patterns of people. It is vital that brands, venues and places have a method in place to continually engage with their consumers.

The news that Sydney will be locked down for a further 4 weeks is frustrating and sad for everyone involved, so it is important at this time that we work on lifting everyone up, but also being real in terms of how we are all feeling. Different people feel in different ways, at different times. We have seen great success in getting people to talk about where they are at during their different stages.

Compassion for our team and our clients will get us through. Now is the time for businesses to show their grit, innovate and iterate, and for us to also help tell that story.

Sophie Muir, founder and director, Maven PR


The challenge for us at Maven PR is that a lot of our clients work in industries that have had to close their doors during the lockdown. While some are able to pivot to online mediums, this doesn’t work for all our clients’ business models. The evolution of this particular outbreak has been extremely difficult across so many different industries. Which is why we work with our clients to find the best strategy to suit their current economic situation or business challenges, especially in the current COVID crisis.

At Maven PR we work with all our clients to create agile strategies to pivot through any crisis, so at the moment it’s essential we consider the ‘COVID-safe’ option when planning campaigns, which is exactly what we’re doing for all our FMCG clients we work with, who are currently planning campaigns in the lead up to summer. For many of our clients we have two to three versions of a strategy that we’re working through to allow for all possibilities.

However, when it comes time to execute these strategies – most of which will be in the next six weeks – a clearly defined pathway from the government on the rollback of restrictions will assist in implementing the right one for the restrictions we’re working within. For example, we can’t start planning a large event if it’s clear that venues will still be running on limited capacities for six weeks after the lockdown ends. Not having any knowledge of when the lockdown will definitely end and what the restrictions will look like after makes it really hard to plan.

Probably the biggest challenge for the PR industry is getting media cut through right now. Almost all we’re seeing in the press is COVID-19 related content, so it’s harder than ever to generate client coverage, unless your client has a quirky COVID pivot, which a lot of the time is up to us to assist them in developing. It’s also about identifying unique stories, be it expert content, human interest stories/case studies, or working with media outlets in a different way by partnering to create live streaming content for their social channels, for example. We’ve been working with our clients on a lot of non-traditional ways to generate brand reach, such as brand collaborations on social media, be it interviews with a like-minded founder on another brand’s Instagram or product giveaway collaborations. We use a tool called Collabosaurus to facilitate a lot of these partnerships. This is also a great way of sparking creative PR campaign ideas too.

Gemma Oldfield, founder and director, Inpress PR


It goes without saying that almost every business and the majority of industries in Australia have taken this lockdown even harder than last year – mentally and financially. I work on my clients solely with the help of contractors from time-to-time and choose to only work with clients that I am passionate about and enjoy working with. I also contract to other PR agencies which I really enjoy, this however throughout lockdown has come to a halt which has been difficult for cash flow.

When businesses are struggling, public relations and marketing are usually the first to go which is really tough. For my friends who are also in the PR industry, we almost find ourselves sitting on the edge of our seats everyday wondering if our clients are going to pause our retainer or cancel it all together. Our industry is stressful as it is and the impact of the crisis, has of course been significant.

I believe that it’s important throughout this time that PR’s chat with their clients to come up with alternative ways that they can pivot and create meaningful and newsworthy angles to keep relevant and front of mind. This includes sending weekly pings to the media on new offerings and stories, using social media and influencers to create further awareness to campaigns, offering incentives, drive social media campaigns, pitch the founders personal profiles to the likes of Business Insider etc if they have a great story to tell on how their company is adapting etc. I think ultimately it is important for us as PR’s to be that someone that someone your client can talk to and trust – even if that means having to cut down the monthly retainer while we are all going through this. PR is about relationships so its important we have great relationships with our clients and guide them in the right track throughout these hard times.

The long-term issues of being in lockdown for the PR industry is of course dependent on the growth and success of other industries and our clients being able to also pivot their offering. A good example is my client The Blonde Butler – an event catering in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs which has come to a halt – so they are launching another arm of the business “Baked by Blonde Butler” – personalised baked cakes which act as an edible gift card. They will be launching next week and our PR launch plan will be focused around “giving back to the community” which I feel is really important at the moment. People want to be together with their friends and family. If you can send something to a loved one that is heartfelt and lighten their day – even if it is in the form of sugar it is important.

It’s important to remember that the PR industry is strong and I am confident we will always recover. It’s all well and good to know how to send a press release out and hope for the best, but brands needs PR professionals to lead and execute them in a strategic and objective direction, that will see long-term results.

For me, authenticity, honesty and truth has never been more important. We also all need to be willing to up-skill so we can offer our clients support on things we may have never had to before. I find that I’ve had to learn how to become more adaptable with clients and spend more time to figure out a plan B if we do get sent into another lockdown after this one; this includes crisis management plans and looking not just into the next six months but the next year or two years. Ive learnt to hope for the best and be prepared for the worst when signing clients and planning campaigns. Change is always inevitable and massive, but we have to remember – we are some of the best managers of change! My advice; to take each day as it comes, be flexible and be kind. We will get through this.

Dionne Taylor, founder and director, Polkadot Communications


This lockdown is a completely different story to the first lockdown. In March last year we were faced with so many challenges and changes; a complete change in the world, uncertainty (of everything), a challenging and shrinking media landscape, it was the first time we ever worked remotely as a team, we lost one-third of our business overnight, some team members had the pressure of home schooling, and generally, everything else, mostly our mental health was a challenge as a result.

By comparison, this lockdown is completely different. We made a conscious decision not to build up clients in categories that were so easily vulnerable to another COVID outbreak. In the first lockdown we saw some of our clients thrive (online food delivery, pet category, tech and finance), simultaneously all of our travel and hospitality clients were turned-off overnight like a tap. When we rebuilt the business we spent more time assessing the longevity of the prospective client, the threat to future lockdowns and the general vulnerability level of their industry. I’d never say never, as we loved working with travel clients, however the majority of our clients were overseas including The Empire State Building in New York and The Mulia Hotel in Bali – both of which Aussies cannot get to right now. When the borders are open, we will recommence with them. Moral is different this time, and we are better skilled to working remotely. There’s an expectation that everything is going to be different and sometimes difficult, and we have been welcomed into the homes of our team members and clients, which, has actually brought us all closer together. It’s not uncommon for some of us to have our kids on our laps or our cats walk across the keyboard.

Thankfully this lockdown we haven’t had financial struggles compared to the previous lockdown where we qualified for JobKeeper. I attest this to strong relationships with clients in non-volatile industries. We haven’t (yet) needed to shift our strategies and execution for other clients, if anything, it has given us opportunity to be re-engaged by former clients whose businesses have thrived during these challenging times. Some media that was paused last lockdown has been reinstated, our landscape has grown, and now there’s more journos to talk to.

I personally don’t see a huge negative effect should the lockdown be extended. We will continue our Zoom meetings, catch ups, and keep celebrating the wins, keeping the team’s morale high (a cocktail making kit certainly helped) discussing the challenges, supporting one another and keep our clients informed and updated. After all, it’s the best that we can do.

Caleb Yorke, founder and director, Publique Agency


What a lot of people don’t understand, is that with each lockdown that occurs it severely impacts the PR industry. We have events rescheduled (sometimes for 12 months) or just cancelled with no new date in mind. And that is just the event side of the agency.

Publique Agency has now gone through five lockdowns in Victoria, and as part of our business contingency and continuity planning, we made the decision to make an expansion to Sydney, where up until the 2021 Sydney lockdown, there were zero deaths and a small lockdown that occurred in 2020 (in comparison to Victoria). This formed part of our “fail-safe plan”, where we could essentially jump state and continue to operate the business in its full capacity where there were less restrictions and a less likelihood of being shut down or in a lockdown scenario.

The financial implications of each lockdown are long-lasting, even after the lockdown. We go through a recovery period. We have clients cancel retainers and projects, we had clients on reduced retainers ranging from 30% to even 100%, where we still provided services to them completely pro-bono in a “We will take care of you today, so you can come back to us and take care of us tomorrow.

Consumer, or should I say commercial confidence becomes decimated through a lockdown, especially in Victoria where we have sustained so many. The financial implications will last for a long period of time, and sadly just like the media and print landscape, the PR industry will also see agencies close down for good.

There are a few sectors that do well during a lockdown, and like any crisis – there are winners and losers. While Publique Agency is a lifestyle and corporate agency, we service clients from the beauty sector, to childcare centres, bridal houses, retail clients, hospitality clients, and fitness clients. All of which have at some point had to partially or entirely shut. We’re lucky I guess, in the sense that we cater to all industries, so we can move over into another industry that is thriving.

However, in a lockdown scenario, signing a new client isn’t that easy over a Zoom call when people want to see you face-to-face, they want to get to know you. All PR professionals work very closely with clients. So any new client really wants to know who they will be working with and that there is a synergistic relationship that fits within the culture of both businesses.

Publique Agency luckily has been able to be sustained financially, we went through our budgets, trimmed any fat where possible and unnecessary expenses, and I have personally continued to put my own money into the business while foregoing my salary to ensure everyone, including our suppliers gets paid. But it can only be sustainable for so long, and with very limited government support, and no JobKeeper, it is becoming increasingly difficult or should I say almost impossible for any PR agency to know or plan for the future, when we don’t get clear, concise communication from our governments, both state and federal, to know when we can resume working at pre-pandemic levels. It’s very much a waiting game, and somewhat, you have to take one day at a time.


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