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Tap the value of online PR during crisis

Tap the value of online PR during crisis

The winds of change started howling over the world with just a tiny virus which was named as COVID-19. The breeze turned into a storm and the transformation became so irreversible that some even went further to start referring BC and AC as “Before COVID-19” and “After COVID-19”. There, at the heart of this transformation lies the digitalization of businesses. The trend of digitalization and the shift to metaverse is re-establishing the value of business functions. And one such significant reallocation is taking place around the equilibrium of brand identity, which can be defined as a sum of efforts and funds allocated between marketing, advertisement and public relations (PR). The weights of these 3 independent variables are changing, and the destiny is now favouring PR. Actually, it is not exaggerating to say that it is the shining moment of PR. PR and especially online PR can turn the disadvantages of crisis into advantage if also used for offence – not only for defence – and here is how…

Winds of change

According to a McKinsey study, COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point and transformed business forever. A survey of executives1 conducted by the same company reveals that companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years due to the COVID-19 crisis. And the share of digital or digitally-enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years2. They also state that the funds allocated to digital initiatives has increased more than anything else.

This time, however, the efforts of digitalization was not only a part of cost reduction or making the most of the supply chains and inventory management but also to a larger extent to keep the interaction alive with the customers that were separated from the brands behind the walls. And it did succeed in this respect. 

While the average share of customer interactions through digital channels constituted 20% of interactions through all channels in 2017 and 2018, it increased to a crucial amount of 58% by 2020. The number was much higher in North America with 65%. Hence, digital, without a question became the most attempted way of interaction with customers (Figure 1). 

Average share of customer interactions that are digital (%)

Figure 1 

The increase in the digital interaction and time spent online did however had some consequences on the communications scene. The news of any event or development at company or on larger economic scale is spreading with a snowball effect, if it starts rolling out on susceptible grounds or synchronizes with the waves of interest. This is why, at the core, investing in online PR becomes more and more rewarding and below are some basic facts validating it.

PR delivers maximum impact with minimum cost 

The rise of any type of crisis with economic and financial implications for the companies drives the urge to cut off marketing and advertisement budgets. With those budgets under pressure PR enters the stage to reach target audiences. Cost of PR has always been relatively lower compared to marketing and advertisement campaigns but now in the digital world it is getting much lower especially when its impact is measured in terms of the rate of cost per coverage. You have to pay for every bit of exposure when it comes to adds but your press release or shared post can sometimes echo with a wide repercussion in digital media and platforms organically. In addition, there are now online PR services which enables you to limit your PR spending on campaign or even press release bases. 

While the cost of PR is decreasing - especially with pay-as-you-go models such as the one offered by online PR service B2Press - the benefits of PR is increasing relative to marketing and advertisement campaigns. As the survey data of the Atlanta-based ARPR with 115 tech sales professionals reveals web traffic originating from media coverage outperforms other sources. Traffic from earned media is 56% more likely to complete a goal (i.e. registrations, subscriptions and downloads) and the related sessions lasts 33% longer. Since your PR content spreads out more organically (in digital context) and gets a third-party validation each time it appears on a media outlet, it builds trust and becomes more SEO friendly. All of these prompt consumers to search your brand more on Google, which does not go unnoticed by the Google algorithm! Overall, we now know for certain that Google algorithm is inclined to give more weight to organic online mentions and search which is most of the time is an extension of digital PR efforts.

The media outlets and the media networks has evolved significantly even when compared to the financial crisis of 2008. There are definitely more journalists, bloggers, authors and influencers contributing to many more media outlets than existed before and the coverage potential of your press release is increasing parallel to it.  

PR Builds trust and brand loyalty 

With the pandemic and the increase in time spent online people became more skeptical of advertising. They approach adds with caution and tend to believe more on what they read or see on their preferred media outlets or influencer channels. Thus, to build long-lasting and genuine relationships companies are investing in online PR and earned media. After all, trust is central to building relationships and it is a company’s most valuable asset.

To build a genuine and trusted bond with target audiences is more of a job that falls in the field of PR cause each organic appearance of your story or mentioning of your brand is also perceived as a third-party validation. Delivering regular stories and highlights through a digital PR channel will start to position you as an opinion leader in your active field and will turn heads of consumers as well as journalists turn to you in times of crisis for enlightenment and assurance.

It is also important to secure and take advantage of this position as a leader to strengthen your bonds with your target audience by showing empathy and acting first with a relevant PR campaign showing your support for the case. The below online survey results (Figure 2 & 3) from the research and advisory firm Forrester’s March 2020 “Consumer Energy Index” and 4A’s research services (via Suzy - a real-time market research platform) are examples of this in the COVID-19 period. 

The first survey reveals that people demanded to hear about what actions brands were taking regarding COVID-19 and they mentioned that it was reassuring to hear from the brands they know and trust. The results from 4A’s survey goes deeper in analyzing the relation between brand action and consumer behavior and it finds out that when consumers understand how a company is changing their products, services, or experiences to protect customers from the threat of COVID-19 “they would trust that brand to keep them safe in the long term (34% of respondents)”, “recommend this brand to friends and family (33%)”, “prefer this brand over others (30%)” and “buy more from this brand in the future (27%)”. 

Consumer sentiment on brand communications

Figure 2

Forester's Consumer Energy Index Online Survey

Figure 3

These data prove that digital PR can help companies fortify brand loyalty during the times of crisis. In addition, this will become more and more important with the increasing sensitivity of consumers towards the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria after the pandemic. 

PR is the best tool both for defence and offense

Surely, creating crisis communication plans for different scenarios, forming a crisis response team (identifying the key individuals who will serve as spokespeople, liaisons, and decision-makers) and establishing a chain of command for crisis times are indispensable parts of a crisis communications strategy, especially if you consider the false news is traveling 6 times faster than truthful news on digital

But even if the news is false or misleading, the best thing you can do is to ensure that your digital monitoring systems are efficient, and your crisis communication strategy is ready to implement. Monitoring the sentiment around your brand and mentions of it has become more important after the COVID-19 crisis which accelerated digitalization. Creating social media & PR alerts using media monitoring platforms to prevent a negative tweet from becoming a full-blown crisis for example is something all PR teams should be prepared for. 

However, during a crisis the duties of a PR team should not only be oriented around defending company reputation and implementing crisis communications. While these are important enough to preserve brand value, PR can be used to create added value for your brand in many ways during a crisis. The monitoring process should not be limited to identify negative mentions but also to catch the breaking news and trending topics with hype potentials to make use of newsjacking.  

Crisis periods can provide more opportunities for newsjacking since consumers as well as journalists are craving for more info during times of uncertainty. Hence, monitoring the media and social platforms and identifying the trending topics and hashtags can prove very valuable if this is used by PR teams; to synthesize and contextualize relevant content to increase brand engagement and used for newsjacking. 

The hard thing here is to detect the potential trends that may have a ripple effect and act before the ripples turn into waves. To ride the wave of the hype you should have a keen eye on trends and you should be able to swiftly create relevant content to make sure you can distribute it sufficiently in advance. This way, journalists and influencers can craft their stories and follow up with you for additional questions if they need.

It is not too late to jump on the digital PR train

Crisis are difficult times, but they can present an opportunity for companies to highlight their mission, values, and commitments as well as displaying their agility, creativity and spirit. Both the in-house PR teams and the PR agencies have proved their worth during the pandemic by continuously; employing crisis communications plans, distributing press releases, setting interviews, spreading out content as much as possible to stay connected with, lift up the spirit of and expand collaboration among the customers as well as the employees. The companies which invested in digital PR came out of the crisis stronger. However, it is still not too late to get on the digital PR train since the value of it will continue building up parallel to the extension of metaverse and the increase of customers’ ESG sensitivity.


1The online survey of McKinsey survey was in the field from July 7 to 31, 2020, and garnered responses from 899 C-level executives and senior managers representing the full range of regions, industries, company sizes, and functional specialities.

2McKinsey looked at the past results for the degree of digital adoption reported in each of these areas of business operations. Based on the average percentage of adoption in each survey, they calculated a trendline to represent the average rate of adoption in 2017, 2018, and just before the crisis, which respondents were asked about in the 2020 survey. The acceleration time frame was calculated form the amount of time it would have taken to reach the current level of digital adoption respondents report if the pre-crisis pace of change had continued.

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