According to Jennifer Meyer, founder of Jennifer Bett Communications, it wasn’t long after the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. that she and her team realized that the standard PR model wasn’t going to cut it. With the pandemic being practically the only thing people are thinking and talking about, it was immediately clear that now is not the time for brands to be pitching lighthearted campaigns and activations. Instead, all resources have been shifted to communicating responsibly about the pandemic.
As the country adjusts to the new normal of social isolation, and pandemic headlines dominating every media channel, both brands and PR agencies will need to rethink how they work together and communicate to avoid insensitive missteps.
Several PR reps told Glossy that campaigns, launches and events are on hold across the fashion industry. DTC bag brand Caraa canceled two PR activations and has no plans to host any for the foreseeable future, according to founder Aaron Luo. And brands from Eileen Fisher to Michael Kors have canceled product previews for the fall season.
“We’re redoing a lot of our strategies and communications and messaging to reflect what’s going on right now,” said Meyer. “It’s affected everything from how our clients post on social media to how they email customers, and even how we pitch to the media. The majority of my time the last few weeks — more hours than I think I’ve worked since we launched the company — has been spent on the phone with clients working out new strategies for how to communicate right now.”
Meyer said she has advised every one of her clients to delay any big events, announcements and campaigns, or else they risk seeming insensitive to the moment and alienating customers. JBC has also been in talks with editors, asking them what types of stories they’re looking for and what kinds of things they’re comfortable being pitched.
“It’s not just about the media, though, it’s about the customers, too,” Meyer said. “A lot of brands are coming across as tone-deaf, and I think publicists are, too. We don’t want to be like that. PR agencies, ad agencies and brands all have to understand that, to talk to their customers without addressing the pandemic, to pretend it’s not happening, is irresponsible. At the same time, brands still need to do business, so it’s a really hard balance to strike right now.”
Others in the PR world have echoed the sentiment.
“It’s a little weird,” said one publicist who works for a major PR agency, who asked to remain anonymous. “While it’s overwhelming to see all of this news on coronavirus and getting emails from each brand we’re subscribed to on their policies regarding the virus, it’s even weirder seeing brands pretend like nothing’s going on. For our clients in particular, it’s hard; there are a lot of announcements we wanted to go out with that have been put on the back burner as a result of all of this, which is understandable. None of us are really pitching many campaigns right now. Overall, our clients have been really understanding about the delay in coverage because of Covid-19, though.”
But brands still need to survive, Meyer said, and they can’t go completely radio silent. Instead of going through with campaigns and regular announcements, PR agencies are advising brands to adopt alternative forms of communicating with customers that are helpful in the current climate.
“We have been assisting with both internal and external brand communications,” said Gianna Cesa, evp of Behrman Communications. “That’s everything from drafting announcements to the staff to consulting on executive letters to customers. We’re also pitching stories in response to editor requests for information, posting social media content and so much more. A lot of our proactive outreach has morphed into reactive, ‘What do you need right now?’-style communications. Stories are still being written, and interviews are still being requested. It’s about navigating who needs what to help our brands cut through the clutter.”
Meyer said that some of her clients have begun planning new activations: The Wonder, a members-only family space in Tribeca, has launched a new social media strategy advising parents on how to entertain their children while quarantined together. Air Co., a vodka brand, has begun using its distillery to make hand sanitizer.
“Every brand right now should be taking a step back from a social media calendar and editorial calendar,” Meyer said. “Now is not the right time for sponsored posts and giveaways. We’ve been going through every single email, every post and every communication from our clients to make sure it’s coming from the right place. People are looking for comfort, relief and information, not just an offer for 10% off a sweater.”