What happens when all your carefully made plans suddenly become irrelevant? This was the dilemma communications professionals all over the world faced in early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Many organizations found themselves scrambling to create entirely new comms strategies – with little to no budget or resources – amid a new, unfamiliar reality.
What happened next was the subject of the recent webinar, Creating an Adaptable Comms Strategy for 2021. Comms professionals from Auto Care Association, Sojern, and St. Baldrick’s Foundation joined Cision to discuss how they turned the unique challenges of 2020 into opportunities. Below are some of the biggest takeaways from that discussion.
Provide a Unique Perspective
Pitching stories that offered a new perspective on the pandemic became key to breaking through the noise in 2020. Auto Care Association did this by shifting the conversation from themselves and put the spotlight on their clients, pitching stories of customers and clients who were doing essential work. “We helped our customers tell their stories in the right way to earn mainstream media coverage,” said Stacey Miller, senior director of communications.
Meanwhile, St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer research through in-person head-shaving events, pitched stories that showcased how the pandemic and shutdown were affecting childhood cancer and research. Pitching stories that ranged from industry thought leadership to personal stories of how families were coping offered different perspectives on the pandemic, which garnered local and national coverage.
‘Original Data Always Wins’
“In 15 years as a PR professional, I’ve learned that original data always wins with the media,” said Miller, whose team at Auto Care Association pitched stories using proprietary data to prove the auto industry’s resilience and relevancy during economic downturns. This approach helped them position themselves as an industry thought leader and get mainstream media coverage. “If you have proprietary data you can’t get anywhere else, use that in your media pitches.”
The tactic worked enormously well for, Sojern, a digital travel marketing platform, where business based on getting people to travel. “If there’s ever a time we don’t want to promote travel marketing, it’s in the middle of a pandemic,” said Scott Thornburg, public relations lead, of his team’s unique challenge. While Thornburg’s team was unable to do ‘business as usual’, they realized they could offer something no one else had (and everyone seemed to want): Comprehensive travel industry data. They compiled the data into a report and made it available for the first time, for free, to the public – an effort that earned Sojern unprecedented media attention, secured strategic partnerships from all over the world and established their leaders as industry experts.
Continuous, Consistent Messaging Across All Channels
The events of 2020 underscored the need for continuous and consistent messaging – both internally and externally, and across all channels. “At a time when things are changing so fast, you have to communicate more than ever,” said Thornburg of one of the biggest lessons he learned this year. “Err on the side of over-communication.”
At St. Baldrick’s Foundation, where in-person fundraising events were no longer an option, “we had to create a unified message to let our audiences know that we weren’t going to stop fundraising,” said Traci Johnson, director of media and storytelling. Johnson’s team collaborated with marketing to promote their new campaign, “Hope has not been cancelled,” across multiple channels, but with consistent messaging and updates.
Similarly, at Auto Care Association, working closely with internal teams enabled the PR team to understand implications of everything that was happening and its impact on their audiences. They used that information to build a new campaign, “We Are All Essential,” which heightened awareness of the important work the auto care industry was doing to keep people safe and spoke to the moment.
2021: Be Flexible and Focus on the Must-Have’s
If 2020 has taught communications professionals anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. “As we head into Q1, we’re applying evergreen content that we can always use, but we’re also being really flexible everywhere else,” Thornburg said of Sojern’s approach to 2021 comms planning. St. Baldrick’s and Auto Care Association are taking similar approaches to their 2021 strategies, planning their ‘normal’ comms, but staying flexible and leaving room for ‘rapid response’ communications.
But there’s another key element to Auto Care Association’s strategy: Differentiating between wants and needs. “Budgets and resources are strained right now. The world is focusing on must-have’s versus nice-to-have’s,” Miller said. “Figuring out where the real needs are is going to be a huge priority in 2021.”