Producers, broadcasters and distributors have ventured into largely uncharted territory as the COVID-19 pandemic upended production activities across the globe. With ‘Weathering the storm,’ Realscreen examines the impact of the disruption upon various sectors of the non-fiction screen content industry — including agents and freelancers — revealing the ways different companies and stakeholders in the business are coping with the changing landscape. Here, we talk to PR professionals about working through a crisis.
This is the final edition of ‘Weathering the Storm.’ Soon, Realscreen will look to the future with ‘Back to Business,’ as the industry moves from the impact of the onset of the pandemic, and readies for a return to work.
Not immune to disruptions in the media landscape, publicists have drawn from an arsenal of communications strategies in recent months.
Often out of the limelight, PR firms and solo agents — an integral cog in the industry’s machine — have juggled the publicity needs of clients as the COVID-19 health crisis left no sector unaffected.
Like the industries they serve, publicists have too been reeling from the economic fallout of the pandemic.
In May, Variety reported that global agency Rogers & Cowan/PMK laid off 10% of its workforce. In June, Chicago-headquartered Edelman laid off 390 employees, or about 7% of its staff, according to the Chicago Tribune. At larger companies — from Fox to ViacomCBS and Disney — publicity and marketing departments have not been spared from the rounds of layoffs reported in recent months.
Lisa Crawford (pictured below), a strategic comms professional based in Los Angeles, started off as a political staffer before pivoting to PR, where she has worked across government, technology and entertainment for more than 15 years. After being laid off by Beck Media & Marketing, she has spent the past few months running her own shop.
“Part of the COVID experience for me has been transitioning from agency status to solo practitioner status and running my own business and adjusting to that. I think that that’s probably a shared experience for a number of professionals,” she says. “Not only in the publicity and entertainment publicity space, but also we’ve seen the impact on journalists that we would normally work with, and economic considerations faced by our client groups. This whole trickle down effect has changed how we work.”
A publicist running their own boutique agency in LA, but requesting anonymity, says disruptions to the “production ecosystem” create a domino effect.
“Four months down the road now, we’ve started to see a shift back to the regular course of business… The big pink elephant in the room is that everybody’s livelihoods are at stake — and I mean everybody’s. Our clients, that translates to us, that translates to the press, that translates to everybody’s employees,” the publicist says. “There’s an ecosystem, where when a piece of it becomes affected, it affects the whole.”
A sub-specialty of communications, crisis PR (by a narrow definition) serves to protect clients facing challenges to their public reputations.
“Our job is to figure out how we support them on the communications front. Even in the case of COVID-19, we’re trained to say, ‘What’s going on for our client in this moment? What do they need? How do I use what I can do to help them navigate and get through it?’ I will say in the case of COVID-19, it definitely goes into the category of crisis,” the anonymous source says. “It’s an ongoing situation which makes it difficult because when a crisis exists on a lot of levels, so do the PR hurdles.”
Responding to clients’ internal and external needs, handling press requests and managing clients’ comfort level in the spotlight are a few of those hurdles, the source explains.
“When you’re in PR, a big imperative for you is to deliver results for your clients. Especially when you’re a retainer-based publicist. ‘What have I done for you lately? What are your press hits? What are your speaking opportunities?’” Crawford says. “Those opportunities declined or shifted and I think the imperative of what we needed to communicate also shifted during this period.”
Crawford explains the role of a comms professional is to seize opportunities to get a client’s message out as often as possible in the “right arenas.”
“Those arenas then kind of dissipated – that’s obviously challenging. I think another thing that we saw was that we all had to adjust our mindset in terms of what was an appropriate result to be seeking, because especially during the early days of the shutdown, we all wanted to read the room. No one wanted to come out with a message or a pitch or an interview or a scenario that wasn’t somehow central to what was going on at the time,” Crawford says.
She adds the past few months have required strategic discussions with clients, and for an “undetermined period” — or until the dust of the pandemic settles — that will continue to be the focus as production resumes.
“They’re doing a lot of careful planning. So the conversation becomes about, how do you support this planning and what kind of communication strategies do you need to have in place?” Crawford says. “We all are drawing on our crisis comms backgrounds, those of us who have them. How can we be prepared for — God forbid — if there is a case on a set? What do we do then? how do we handle that?… This period [is about] being cautious about what’s appropriate from a PR perspective.”
Xander Ross (main photo, right) is head of TV at London-based Percy and Warren, a newly-launched specialist creative industries PR company emerging from Franklin Rae.
Ross, who has worked in film and TV for the past six years, says the value of PR goes well beyond a crisis.
“PR as a whole – especially in the film and TV industry – hasn’t done a good job in educating producers about the value of PR, and what it’s there to do. In times of crisis, PR can be invaluable, but justifying spending on it when the budgets are tight becomes even more challenging,” he says, adding a publicist isn’t just on board to write press releases.
“We’re a consultancy and with that comes saying what not to do as well,” Ross explains. Independent production outfits can particularly benefit from an external PR team, he says.
“We’re talking to producers who have got commissions away and they want to do some publicity because they’re like, ‘Awesome, we’ve got something away during lockdown. How do we articulate that?’ And broadcasters are saying, ‘We can maybe do a press release…’ As an external PR agency, that’s where we add value, and we can say, ‘There’s an opportunity for you to say, f*** yeah, we’ve just produced this entire series in lockdown remotely, we’ve got a commission with one of the major international or domestic broadcasters,’” Ross says. “In terms of moving that conversation on from COVID-19… You don’t want to be known as just the people with advice on how to make a show during coronavirus, but demonstrating the broadest sense of skills and your expertise and how you managed to achieve that during COVID-19, I think that’s a slightly different narrative.”
That investment in PR is two-way street, the anonymous source adds. “We invest in our clients and they invest in us. When things are tough and you’re in a crisis, that’s really when you learn about the true nature of the relationships.”
LA-based Brooke Fisher (main photo, left) put out her own PR shingle about seven years after working in-house at global producer Zodiak Media.
COVID-19 may have thrown a curve ball, but Fisher says she’s found moments to help clients “stand out,” particularly through op-eds or features that focus on navigating the pandemic.
“It did give the opportunity beyond clients just promoting themselves, or their shows,” she adds. “A lot of those thought leadership pieces and the perspectives that were even given in the larger, feature interviews talk a lot about their corporate culture, their teamwork and their resourcefulness. I think that’s a side that we don’t usually get to see. Its usually about dollars and cents, A-list celebrities, premiere dates, promotions. I thought it was interesting they finally got to show the heart of their business.”
Similarly to Ross and Crawford, Fisher says the past few months have been focused on strategic planning that goes beyond the six -to nine-month target messaging a publicist would typically cover.
“We did a lot of prep work and strategic planning as to all their upcoming announcements, and how we wanted to position deals that we were going to announce during this time, because we didn’t want to come across tone deaf. However, we were prepping them for a big summer or fall, just when the timing was right. So there was a lot of strategic planning also with that,” she adds.
ADAPTING TO CHANGE
For the anonymous publicist in this story, the “new normal” hasn’t yet arrived.
“To me, things are moving so quickly and changing so fast….it’s not even that the changes are so sweeping as they were at the beginning of this. The changes are smaller, but they’re still everyday shifts. There are still parts of me that come into work everyday not knowing what I’m going to be facing,” they explain.
Crawford says as the virus becomes less of a threat, and life returns to a somewhat regular cadence, the industry – publicists included – will adapt to a new “cycle.”
“We’re going to have to look around at the landscape and say: How have things changed? How are they better? How are they worse?’” Crawford says. “I think it’ll be interesting for us to understand what parts of publicity were essential in this period. And, what did we really miss that we really need to get back when we’re all able to interact socially again? I think we may have distilled by that point what’s really essential to our industry. What do we love? What do we really want to get back that we weren’t able to participate in previously? But also, what have we learned in this period that we can adopt going forward?”