Navigating PR in Times of Public Crisis

To say the very least, 2020 was a year of challenges. We lived through/ are still living through a public health crisis, a civil rights movement, a historic election -- I know I wasn't alone in feeling like my day job needed to take a back seat to history being made, and luckily, my bosses agreed.

I remember feeling conflicted, at least for a second. On one hand, I felt incredibly lucky to have kept my job throughout the pandemic when times were financially tough for so many businesses. I felt an obligation to maintain productivity and output for the sake of my clients that believed in my team’s value enough to keep us on through budget cuts. On the other hand -- who gives a sh*t about a new SaaS product release when… *gestures broadly*. 

PR is a job reliant upon relationships with journalists, many of whom spent 2020 on the front lines of hugely significant movements or real, life-threatening danger. I couldn’t in good conscience continue to pitch business-as-usual. When I spoke to my VP Monika Hathaway, she got the words out before I did, letting me know leadership echoed our sentiments: open up your ears to what’s going on outside our client bubble and pump the brakes on all non-urgent matters. 

I cringed watching reporters tweet about publicists that didn’t take this approach. It was not only tone-deaf in each moment, but undoubtedly did lasting damage to agency-media relationships.

I remember having a frank conversation in June with Andrea Kayal, CMO at Electric. Andrea is an incredible partner to have as a PR person. She wants us to drive coverage that creates value, sees the significance of numbers-backed KPIs, but above all, is a good person. When I told her we needed to pause our traditional outreach efforts in June following George Floyd’s murder, she responded to my email almost instantly. “Of course you do,” she said. “Keeping the spotlight on racial inequity today and everyday is a moral imperative, and if you ever have to decide between highlighting news for Electric or making that happen, you have my unconditional support."

While you might think any decent human would have this response, you’d be wrong! Not always because they’re bad people -- I try to remember, businesses are hurting. That means executives are being kept up at night, trying to keep the lights on and not make job cuts. So on some level, I would’ve understood a client feeling a resistance to their publicist telling them outright I’m going to stop doing the job that you pay me to do. But luckily, my clients are human beings first. As hard as 2020 was, I do believe it humanized the workplace. We are not cogs in a machine, and neither are journalists.

So, since 2021 seems to be off to a rather chaotic start -- I recommend the following to PR professionals navigating this:

  • Carefully vet your partners - as people, not products.
    Work with clients that share the same morals and values you do. The best long-term partnerships are not driven by the sexiest technology or largest funding round, they’re a product of like-minded individuals collaborating to drive meaningful coverage.
  • Don’t be an a-hole.
    Simply put, read the room! This shouldn’t be hard, but I’ve been the entry-level employee feeling like I had to take direction I didn’t agree with -- especially for young PR people, this can be much more difficult. Speak up for what you feel strongly about, and if you can’t (because who are we kidding, power dynamics exist) DM me. I’ll help you draft a pre-pitch disclaimer to the reporters you’re being forced to email.
  • Read the news outside your clients’ industries. 
    We’ve all had days where we’re so entrenched in a project that we barely make time to breathe, let alone scroll the news, but you have to find the time. Block off 20 minutes of every day to browse today’s major headlines and make sure you’re not skipping merrily along through a minefield.

Now I know a lot of these suggestions can feel impossible at the wrong company, so to that I say, N6A is hiring. Smooth, right? 

Posted by Kayla Perkins