Opinion: New 'blue oceans' within the saturated 'red ocean' for PR agencies

The COVID-19 health crisis has turned the business world upside down on a global, unprecedented scale. Doubtlessly, PR firms across the globe have to grapple with loss of earnings that stem from deferment and cancellation of campaigns, advertising and promotion budget cuts and even payment delays. The impact of this health pandemic may also eventually lead to hiring freeze which stunt their expansion plan, and worst case, the rightsizing of agencies. Big agencies are not spared as evident by the shocking news that industry giant Edelman would be laying off 390 members of its global team. Not everyone will be fortunate enough to escape unscathed.

But perhaps this is where being small has its advantages – more nimble and adaptable to any or sudden changes in the external operating environment. Leaner organisations are more agile to pivot and implement customer-centric strategies based on changing, current needs. But every bold-hearted and far-sighted entrepreneur knows that amid adversities, there lies opportunities - “a new frontier” to be explored.

As highlighted in the VUCA framework “volatility”, “uncertainty”, “complexity” and “ambiguity” have become inherent conditions in today’s business world. Such “new normal” is profoundly changing the way organisations conduct business and how leaders take charge of their organisations. The good news is that there are established ways to navigate the VUCA world so long as business leaders are willing to embrace fundamental shifts in the way of thinking as well as changes in the structures, tools and methodologies that have become almost second nature in most organisations.

How are we then as PR agencies, pivot ourselves to survive this pandemic? 

Service differentiation

There’s no denying that COVID-19 has changed the way we live, our perspectives and actions. This is no different for the public relations industry. It has changed the ways we communicate, the channels we use, and the messaging we want to put out there. But one things remains unchanged – and that is the critical need to communicate.

This may sound like a paradox given many businesses are fighting to survive the financial onslaught of the deadly respiratory disease – but there are new ‘blue ocean’ within the saturated, existing ‘red ocean’. The only way to remain sustainable, is to be in the former. Gone are the days where the traditional core competency of PR agencies has been media relations. In recent years (or decades), this role has evolved into a bigger realm of communications.

We need to move beyond that service phase, to drive content that incorporates both branding exercise and corporate positioning of clients alongside their marketing activities across all media platforms (including social media).

A case in point for us, is how we pivoted and responded to the current business environment by providing consulting and employee communications support for organisations, ensuring that the COVID-19 health and safety measures are in place and effectively communicated. Another critical yet demanding area where opportunities are abound for us amid the pandemic has to be issues or crisis management. The task in hand is to focus on helping our clients communicate business recovery measures or develop standard operating procedures during and after the various stages of the Movement Control Order (MCO) period.

With on-ground PR activations or events coming to a halt during the MCO duration, stakeholder engagements needed to continue albeit the limitations. Once a brand is able to demonstrate its value in times of crisis, it has already achieved a big win – and that is building trust and responding to customers’ most pressing needs or demands.

The seeding of these information can come in the form of thought leadership commentaries as well as insights-led content - be it on mainstream media, digital platform or direct-to-stakeholder channels.

As PR practitioners, we need to fully understand and anticipate the change in consumer behaviour. For clients who are or were temporarily impacted by the MCO, the communications focus shifted to how their brands are able to support the communities they operate in, as well as how they can support the frontliners who worked tirelessly combating the pandemic. This should not be merely a lip service, but authenticity and actual effort put in. And we have seen such efforts help our clients successfully engage with their stakeholders. The simple tip to this is to give back in areas that the brand possibly can. One of our education transformation-focused client, for example, established an online community and rolled-out various discussion sessions and workshops during MCO. Our role is to harness these content towards brand building and corporate reputation management.

As for the playing field for PR agencies, recent months and years have seen thinning of the herd in the media landscape, with the latest being the third round of cost cutting measures at The Star, the shutdown of The Edge Financial Daily as well as Blu Inc Media and possibly a second round of retrenchment at Media Prima. As these developments further narrows the earned and paid media space for PR content, communicators can shift its focus to the owned media space comprising website or social media platforms. They can also turn to shared media spaces which allows co-creation of content through partnerships, influencer outreach and user-generated content. The emergence of the various levels of influencers – from nano to micro, or from macro to mega – with their respective digital reach, will certainly provide yet another opportunity for PR activations to tap into. In short, ideation of an integrated communication plan remains as the critical way forward.

And above all else, PR agencies need to continue to formulate strategies that help brands engage their customers and stakeholders to maintain relevance, build trust and inspire loyalty. This hasn’t change for the PR industry, and most definitely will not change.

It’s a general assumption that PR is an industry that thrives when all other industries are thriving. Hence, in light of large corporations and/or multinationals trimming their advertising and promotion expenses, advertising and PR programmes are inadvertently the likely casualties. A contrarian view to this, is that PR emerges stronger with more value added capabilities, as one of the more cost-competitive solution to brand building and corporate reputation management. With enough creativity in ideation and pivoting strategies to support its clients, coupled with the agility present within the PR industry, agencies can display resilience by acting nimbly and swiftly while working towards business sustainability.

In essence, with a clear match between needs and expertise, I am certain that the role of PR agencies (and that of communications specialists) remains relevant, or even becomes increasingly crucial.

The writer is Tan May Lee, partner and executive director of Perspective Strategies.

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