COVID-19 and the PR Industry: A Year In Review 

Brennah PapaliaPR professionals need to be able to face unpredictability head-on, and this past year has certainly put that to the test. Since March 2020, PR practitioners had to drop everything they knew about their industry and re-strategize. With businesses closed, people working from home, and an unprecedented world health emergency, PR practitioners struggled but adapted to the challenge.

Although hope is now on the horizon with the release of new vaccines and mandates slowly being lifted, public relations has truly changed forever, and the new tactics and strategies that practitioners have learned will leave lasting impacts on the industry for years to come.

With a health crisis being the center of the media’s attention for over a year, it has put crisis communications at the forefront of the industry. Paige Liston, a Media and Communications Manager at Bohlsen Group, explained how this affected her work; “Many of our clients paused contracts or completely changed their scope of work due to how the pandemic was affecting their business….We had to shift our focus to find stories that were still newsworthy and relevant during a time when the news only focused on this topic [COVID-19]. This gave me the opportunity to think creatively and outside the box to offer new suggestions for stories to our clients versus what we had planned prior to COVID.”

Working in PR requires practitioners to be prepared for anything; whether it’s a stand-by statement, a press release, or corporate communication, PR practitioners need to communicate effectively, clearly, and timely, which was especially hard for everyone this year.

During the second half of 2020, many PR professionals had to figure out ways to creatively communicate and advertise to their publics while concurrently experiencing the same feelings of uncertainty and confusion. The “normalcy” of life adopted an entirely new and deeper meaning to everyone in the world, which significantly lessened the impact of everyday advertising, celebrity endorsements, and influencer opinions. A fine line has now been created between opportunistic campaigning and meaningful communication.

Clients have felt the full effects of fewer customers and this has left PR practitioners to brainstorm ways to help their clients communicate their care for society while their business is simultaneously struggling. Nobody wanted to be sold to this year, and though this is not the main function of PR, it is a part of what PR practitioners help accomplish for their clients.  Never has authentic and meaningful brand communication and brand proposition been more important.

Working from home gave everyone an opportunity to reflect on what was important to them, and PR practitioners had to utilize strategies that their publics could identify with. Many companies released campaigns that involved giving back to their communities. By giving their publics a way to participate in their campaigns through online activities, giveaways, and donating to community relief, the PR industry shifted away from “typical” tactics and focused on producing more relatable and heart-felt campaigns.

Hallie Tepperman, an account executive at Lou Hammond Group, shared her personal experience; “COVID-19 has forced public relations practitioners to be more creative and strategic….One [campaign] that stood out to me within my company was from Hawaiin Tropic. The brand invented a candle called “Beachside (Inside)” to help people enjoy the smell of the beach from their living rooms…All proceeds from the candle went to small business owners who had been impacted by COVID-19. This pandemic has forced us to channel our creative juices in a way that would positively impact society.”

COVID-19 pressured big businesses to “step up” as well. Many brands did this by assisting healthcare workers and other essential workers as they became our heroes on the frontlines. Public relations practitioners had to ensure that the strategies they utilized not only aligned with the current state of the world but also incorporated some sort of positive societal impact, as that’s what their audiences needed most this year.

As we move forward from this health crisis and begin to put the pieces back together of the world we once knew, a new world has emerged. People are now aware that they are not immune to crisis or struggle, and their opinions on material things and shallow advertisements have shifted to reflect a stronger interest in activism and authenticity. With so much uncertainty and miscommunication, this past year has resulted in a society that trusts less and questions more. In the PR profession, ethical and genuine communication have always been the top objectives, and these have been especially emphasized since March 2020. This year has proven to us that the Public Relations industry is indispensable.

Although the industry struggled at the beginning with clients pulling back and pre-planned campaigns losing relevance, we have begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel during 2021. A new form of PR has taken over, one that understands the deeper meaning behind “normal” life and the unwavering perseverance of society. The PR industry is on its way to becoming the strongest it’s ever been, and with a new generation of PR professionals entering the job market this May, it will be exciting to see what other strategies are brought to the table.

Brennah Papalia, Content Coordinator for Boiler Communication, Purdue’s student-run agency