Life’s a pitch: How Covid forced public relations into new territory

Life’s a pitch: How Covid forced public relations into new territory
(Photo: EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook)

The PR sector is redefining itself as it moves out of survival mode towards reimagining the way it gets things done for clients – new and old.

BC – that is, Before Covid – the job of the public relations officer was to act as a media liaison, required to refine the company “voice”, take the lead on marketing material, build relationships and support business outcomes.

Those who specialised in B2B (business to business) PR kept their focus on driving sales of products and services, while managing their reputations. Working in the B2C (business to consumer) segment often entailed issuing “spray and pray” media releases, cold-calling journalists to pitch angles as well as hosting media junkets to “build relationships” and secure exposure, which, hopefully, translated into a return on investment for clients.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the traditional PR songbook was thrown out the window – landlines went unanswered, face-to-face meetings shifted almost exclusively online, and events collapsed. Covid presented numerous challenges and opportunities for the sector, which has forced PR into new territory. For most, it’s meant not only taking on different work, but also taking on different roles.

Natalia Rosa of Big Ambitions says most of the agency’s clients operate in the travel and tourism sector and, within a week of hard lockdown, a third of its income was wiped out. But in the middle of that crisis came opportunity, as the industry needed Big Ambitions more than ever.

“They couldn’t afford to pay us so we had to work a lot more, for a lot less money,” Rosa explains. “We actually became a bit like a call centre for the tourism industry. We had all of these Covid regulations and restrictions, but no one was unpacking them to help businesses translate them into their day-to-day.”

Big Ambitions stepped into that role – and flew. It hosted virtual briefings with experts about issues such as TERS payments, business insurance and the like.

“We eventually pivoted to doing more communications-type stuff and industry support than media liaison or media relations,” Rosa says.

Big Ambitions, she explains, had always been a bit different from a PR perspective, because the agency employed former journalists, who essentially did “newsjacking” (the practice of aligning a brand with a current, newsworthy event). That role has transformed into industry support: “We do a lot of industry communications on behalf of tourism and travel associations to help the tourism industry.

“So we’ve pivoted into doing a lot of virtual events. We are spending less time on PR and media and more time on finding an audience in the place where they are, whether that is on an association platform, through social media or WhatsApp groups,” says Rosa.

“Our whole marketing mix has changed. It’s now intentional.”

Stepping on toes

For Nicky James of Tribeca, moving to the Cloud two months before lockdown was announced proved fortuitous. But, from a planning perspective, Covid-19 proved to be the ultimate curveball.

“We used to plan six to 12 months in advance for our clients,” she says. “Now, that gets reviewed on a monthly basis because we have no idea if that product launch or event can actually go ahead.”

Tribeca also does not work on a traditional “earned model” for print, online or broadcast anymore. Now, when it puts together a strategy, it pitches a full PASO strategy (paid, earned, shared and owned).

“We’re actually stepping on the toes of advertising and marketing agencies because we can do what they can do: when we pitch, we say we can do media buying, influencer programmes, social media, etc – the traditional stuff that advertising agencies pitch. So there’s a big, blurred line between where PR starts and ends.”

‘Like a big uppercut’

Sylvester Chauke of DNA Brand Architects, PRISM’s large agency of 2021, says that, before the pandemic, its client base included a mix of food and drink, travel and tourism, entertainment and corporate brands.

“Before, a lot was very consumer-focused, which meant reaching the mass market. We noticed an immediate shift: tourism was the worst one… It was a hard knock, like a big uppercut,” Chauke says.

Businesses realised they had to look again at their operations, so money and effort went into internal reviews of their approach to market. “We’ve been working with a lot of businesses to try to find new approaches and new ways to show up. What was quite obvious was that internal [communication] became a lot more important, particularly in the initial stages of the lockdown. We found many opportunities came up in terms of internal comms and realised that clients were also looking for deviations from their traditional ways of doing things,” Chauke says.

“So, if they used to work with big agencies in the past, they’re willing to look at a small agency now, one that is able to help them in a simpler, more streamlined fashion. We’re getting really interesting briefs and clients.”

Kevin Welman of ByDesign concurs, saying communication, especially in the B2B, non-hospitality space has moved beyond survival mode and agencies are able to strategise better.

“Communication is just a reflection on business. We are now moving back to a place where longer-term planning is taking place.

“People are thinking beyond the end of [the first quarter of] 2022 – they are looking at what could happen this whole year and beyond. Where do we need to be? What communication channels do we need to put in place to execute on business strategies? Things like that.”

African insight

Hayley van der Woude of Irvine Partners says the company started expanding its service before the pandemic because clients wanted a one-stop shop for everything from internal communications to paid PR, social media, digital and creative campaigns.

“We’ve found clients just want one lead agency – they just want to deal with one person, not the headache and budget requirements of six different agencies.”

Irvine has also expanded into Africa, through offices in Nigeria and Kenya, which opened before the pandemic, as well as a new office in Ghana. These are staffed by experts with local expertise.

“Many of the brands that we represent, whether they are South African, British or American, want to reach a large audience in Africa, but they don’t necessarily want to have country managers. They need a PR agency with people on the ground in those countries who can give them a bit of local insight,” says Van der Woude.

Taking counsel

For Ethel Ramos of Avatar, Covid shifted the way relationships are managed and spurred interest in digital-first content.

“There were more requests for videos, e-book-type of research and purpose-driven communications. Brands needed to show what they were doing to help society at large.”

As a digital advertising and marketing agency, Avatar prefers working with bloggers and digital journalists because they come across as more genuine and authentic in the way that they tell the story and the way they communicate. Ramos says many people think PR is just about sending out media releases and the like but, in her experience, the pandemic in particular was about taking counsel for clients. DM168


Mildred Thabane from African communications consultancy Pekuzi Projects

What did you want to be as a child?

An architect.

What would you be doing if it weren’t for PR?

Cooking in a small, exclusive restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

How did you discover PR?

I discovered public relations while working as an online content specialist at a previous agency.

What do you listen to in the car?

Everything; my taste is very eclectic.

Favourite visual/performance/musical artist?

Actress Thuso Mbedu is definitely a rising star.

Read any good books lately?

I’m currently reading Will by Will Smith and I’m enjoying it.

Guilty pleasure?

Gummy Bears.

Creative projects you’ve worked on, or wish you had?

I love, love, love the work Ryan Reynolds’s marketing company, Maximum Effort, is doing.

Your professional superpower?

I’m very calm.

Biggest weakness?

I need to confront my fears more.

What keeps you up at night?

The state of the world right now.

What brings you joy?

My family.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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