Prognosticating PR practice post-pandemic: the new realities that needs preparing for
We had better be ready for it – the world has recorded very significant changes since this COVID-19 pandemic surprised even the most proactive, slamming a gate against the world and altering systems and processes along with it.
Stunned into unsure conjectures, everyone has been making rather confused guesses as to the nature and texture of the effect(s) this disease would leave on the world of businesses and even social interactions when its hurly-burly is done. Perhaps for the sake of grabbing headlines and to appearing to be on the right bandwagon, everyone has his or her ideas of where the world was headed. The unravelling of hitherto unknown California-based Zoom Video Communications and its growth from a little-known $623 million company as at end of 2019 to a $49 billion valuation within the first four months of 2020 has turned even the most ordinary business wannabe into an expert in global economic dynamics.
“The world has changed and cannot return to what it was pre-COVID-19.”
“We are headed to several new normals in the way life and businesses are conducted.”
“Whole industries will perish and there will be new workplace dynamics after this pandemic is over.”
I am sure you have familiarized yourself with these yells coming from virtually every corner of the world over the past two months? Some will couch theirs in very frightening long essays while others, perhaps for reasons of poorly refined ideas, limit theirs to very scary memes and devious infographics. But everyone is saying the same thing. Apart from Zoom Communications that made many suggest business travels and meetings might be adversely affected, most prophets of post-COVID-19 workplace are in repetitive conjectures with little or no specifics.
But even Zoom Communications, the new poster-boy of the pandemic-induced, revised New World Order cannot do everything for us. I said it in a WhatsApp class I led the other day that technology will continue to have its limitations. The human element will always be paramount. Call me a conservative, if you want, but I have not seen a world that would change as radically as “expert opinion” wants to make-believe. For many reasons, the work-from-home thingy that many visualize as the future will be difficult, if not impossible for now. The investments in “monitoring and control” will far outweigh the cost of bringing people to the office. Small and medium businesses, and those others that have no business renting offices in the first place might save some money and adjust to the home-office routine but I cannot see this idea spreading to the entire work ecosystem. At least not in the Nigeria of the next 30 years.
I think at this point, I might save all the extraneous post-COVID-19 divination for another article to enable space for what I actually set out to talk about and that is the fate of Public Relations practice any time the world is able to locate its COVID-19 get-out-of-jail card.
I have read many practitioners in Nigeria and from other countries discussing the issue with a lot of very interesting scenario paintings. Some of them actually look like masterpieces. Having reviewed a lot of viewpoints from Nigerian practitioners (I am always much more interested in what happens in this market), the submission of Bolaji Okusaga former CEO of The Quadrant Company and current Managing Partner at Precise Reputation Design strikes me as the most interesting. Bolaji said:
“Business leaders face huge challenges right now: deciding when to reopen, how to reopen, and how to structure, tap and measure productivity despite the fears of a global pandemic that has not just slowed growth but has actually resulted in a recession. Some had said to their employees to resume today, but fearing that hurried resumption may have a negative effect, they are postponing for another two weeks just to wait and watch if the numbers of new infections actually reduce on a sustainable basis and test their preparedness for the new workplace protocols that they are trying to provide. Amidst all these, providing a safe environment for employees, partners and customers remain at the core of their concerns. The real demand here is about redefining their business model and changing the way to tap and measure productivity beyond the daily routines we’ve all been used to. COVID-19 IS TRULY A RESET BUTTON ON GLOBALISATION.”
I found this the most interesting because it validates some of my own views. Selfish? Well, that is certainly not that bad. But it seems this submission, short as it also is on some specifics, checks some of the boxes on what I believe would happen at the end. That Bolaji talks about reopening the workplace, adopting new protocols for employee and customer safety as well as redefining business models presupposes that he also agrees that we are not yet at the “clock-in-from-home” work environment regime.
I was particularly interested in the last two sentences in Bolaji’s intervention, especially as it relates to:
- …redefining business models
- Changing the way to tap and measure productivity beyond the daily routines we’ve been used to
- COVID-19 being a reset button on globalization.
My position on Globalisation is legendary and well documented. Chapter 10 of my book, PITCH: Debunking Marketing’s Strongest Myths explores this in great detail. But I am not sure whether in idealizing the first two points above, Bolaji reflected on how desperately those factors relate to the Public Relations practice of the post-COVID-19 era. It seems to me that if there is any business that has to plan for a radical shift in business modeling and practice, post-pandemic, it is the PR business.
PR and the looming quarantine
PR professionals have done great jobs in identifying the bumps and craters on the post-COVID-19 highway for everyone else except their own industry. It does seem that like physicians who can neither treat themselves nor their close relatives because it is believed that their personal feelings may unduly influence their professional medical judgment, PR appears to also be waiting for others to define its role in the business value chain of the future and I bet you, the prognosis is not good for the industry.
My prognostication here points to the perishing of as many as 60 percent of the PR consultancies currently existing in Nigeria if, as Bolaji suggested, there is no immediate retooling of business models. Even the remaining 40 percent may very likely recourse to the public sector with all its staid procedures. For an industry that as yet, has been unable to trap as much as 20 percent of the businesses that is due to it, the future does not look good.
There are quite a few factors that is forming this nebulous cloud and we will examine some of them.
The new demands of business
For eons, Public Relations agencies have got away with nebulous measurement criteria for the work they do. We often hear of TOMA, a fancy acronym representing Top of Mind Awareness and which is driven by the incongruous analytics of the difference between the media mentions of A and B. Companies are encouraged by agencies to invest ever increasing sums in pumping media mentions in the hope that heightened message volume would build customer traffic. There is also this more popular one known as the Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) which, as far as I can tell, comes across like the interjection of a jealous second wife when comparing the meal that she prepared with N5,000 to the N50,000 spent by her co-wife. AVE is an “envious” tool that tells clients that, if you ae willing to pay N600,000 for a full-page advert space and we have got you a full-page article, at N150,000, we deserve a round of applause!
While these may have worked, recent examples show they are no longer the way to go and certainly not the road to travel post-COVID-19. A look at the Nigerian banking industry will present an example. I may not have the accurate data but as one who pores through the media on a daily basis, I am sure the PR spend of GTBank is no where near those of Zenith Bank, Access Bank and UBA. But in terms of its standing before the banking public from the perspective of the almighty TOMA and AVE, I leave you to pass judgement.
The business of the future will not tolerate this carryover of yesterday. The model will refine itself as time passes but what is clear is that most businesses will no longer be satisfied with media review files containing comparative analytics of all sorts that mostly solved the problem of ego than it did, riveting customers to client’s shops.
The PR of the future is looking like it will take the form and nature of Project Management, with precise demands and expectations on measurable deliverables. Clients will want to be able to pinpoint the contributions of PR to the evolution/revolution of business and traffic of inventory. This is a far cry from what the relationship was like, PR was pretty much an outsider incubating and helping build healthy relationships between brands/businesses and consumers.
The relationship model below clearly shows where PR stood in the value satisfaction relationship between businesses and consumers. It functioned more like a catalyst, a helper, an adviser, a messenger, a support staff.
The future has long rejected this model. Signs of the change in modelling was first noticed during the 2016 campaigns for the United States presidential elections when the Republican team hired a little-known company, Cambridge Analytica to handle some of its PR. Cambridge Analytica wasn’t a traditional PR company but their methods are target-specific and easily mappable on a dashboard. Although they used rogue means to obtain their sociographic and psychographic data, the anonymous boys behind the company were able to tell their clients the precise deliverable results pinned on timelines.
The post-COVID-19 business will demand something similar from PR for a number of reasons. The world would be on the difficult road to recovery from a crushing lockdown and cost savings and containment would be a lot more important. More importantly for the practice, it appears that technology is about answering the question that was asked by US pioneer marketer, John Wanamaker, who, in the 19th century had pondered that, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Finding answers to this has been a long-standing challenge for marketing. But the growing capability of technology to enable much more precise pitches could potentially reduce the complication in Wanamaker’s riddle, even if does not totally solve it.
PR, as the model below shows, will very likely function differently in the business value chain that is being unraveled by COVID-19. As can be seen, business will expect professional PR to play more critical roles in consumer engagement, transforming same into ideas that business can use to provide better services. PR will be required to help in cooking broader business strategies rather than media strategies alone. Ideas and concepts needed to profitably smoothen the relationship between the business and the market will be a primary expectation. For this, PR will also be an “ideas house” and will earn its money on the strengths of those ideas and how they have impacted ROI.
It is feared that in this unfolding relationship, business will want to, as much as possible, avoid retaining a number of their marketing services providers, including, and especially PR. Revenue might in the future be connected, not to retainers, but to the measurable “naira and kobo” value that your ideas would be able to generate.
If this becomes the case, we are looking at a future in which the average PR agency or consultancy may only be able to service a handful of clients at once because, while they are very likely to earn a lot more per client, there will be difficulty in building a varied number of teams for more than a handful clients per agency.
The conspiracy by COVID-19 to kill the traditional media
Let us face it, COVID-19 has pretty much determined the fate of the print media business. As people cocooned in their homes, unable to go to work and/or socialize, the biggest grabber of people’s budgets became data subscriptions and basic groceries. Even the monitoring of the numbers emanating from the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) became so important to everyone that data had to rise in the scale of preferences of many individuals and households. People wanted to be sure the guy next door hadn’t been infected and that they were still a safe distance from the epicenter.
What this did was that even the depleting community of newspaper readers began to trust their mobile devices a lot more for information. Advertising traffic also nose-dived so much that newspapers began to face their most crushing existential threats during this period, with pagination dropping from an average 72 pages per daily edition to as few as 32 and 36 pages. This has terribly limited the space for traditional PR, and has ushered in a new regime likely to be dominated by nerds and “techsperts”. Business and the demands of the new order is forcing a redefinition of PR and widening its professional confines even beyond the reach of those vested with regulation. In discussing this challenge, I will also reference Cambridge Analytica, an IT company operating with a handful staff in one small office but which was able to successfully execute a near-perfect PR job that determined the outcome of the 2016 US elections as well as the “STAY OR LEAVE” referendum in the United Kingdom which resulted in Brexit.
The post-COVID-19 business environment will be lean and nimble and fired by a race-to-recovery adrenaline. This means that speed in decision making, expedited roads-to-market and lots of “thinking and activating on the feet” will likely be the new normal.
If business follows the algorithmic direction of technology, with its much more precise measurement of results and predetermination of outcomes, the challenges traditional PR could face post-COVID-19 will be enormous. Nobody will likely earn income again based on how many front-page stories and photo mentions. No one is likely to keep his job by means of Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE). It has always been a very flawed means of determining engagement and cannot be effective in measuring leads generation. In any case, the shrinking print media industry has made a revision of PR measurement a lot more critical.
The culprits will always be in the Corporate Affairs and Communications department
I have worked in a number of organisations in my career and I know from these experiences that the easiest fall guys when business is reacting to the stimuli of marketing and economic pressures are the chaps in the communications departments. At staff performance reviews, especially those organized for right-sizing, you often hear questions like; “…those guys in Corporate Affairs, what are they even doing there?”
For professional PR, your colleagues in the Communications departments of many businesses will lose their jobs because their companies will swing into cost-cutting modes, and when that happens, you are likely to be losing briefs.
The truth is that most Communications departments of many businesses have become top-heavy. As the profession grew and the buzzword, “PR as a Management Function” gained traction, a number of companies elevated many practitioners to very high positions. The gains made in the many years of struggling to become more relevant in the cycles of business will very likely be reversed in the coming months and years when businesses begin to pin units, departments and divisions to precise roles and contributions in their aggregated numbers. We discuss the reasons for this in the last point in this article below.
Speed requires a leaner, internal mechanisms than consultancies
Although we argued above that lots of PR people in many organisations will likely lose their jobs, this will not mean that businesses will hibernate and refuse to engage the market after the COVID-19 pandemic. But the way they use communications will radically change.
The post-COVID-19 business environment will be lean and nimble and fired by a race-to-recovery adrenaline. This means that speed in decision making, expedited roads-to-market and lots of “thinking and activating on the feet” will likely be the new normal. It will therefore be in the strategic interest of business to revert to the old order of handling all its communications internally rather than engaging consultants.
It has been argued that this mode is a lot more expensive but remember that we already pointed to the possibilities of business shedding a lot of weight in the communications divisions? It does not mean these divisions would be disbanded. What it rather implies is that businesses will resort to engaging low-level manpower requiring comparatively lower wages for a lot of its communications.
Saving the time between writing briefs and getting agencies to either pitch or respond and then getting approval before engagement is something this season will not require. The market is in a constant flux and the business that is fast and as restless will the one to ride the waves. For the business that wants something to be done as quickly as is required to either keep pace with, or be ahead of the market dynamics, a low-cost inhouse team will likely be best resort.
The depletion of the traditional print media and the democratization of digital communications channels is also an incentive for businesses. Traditional PR thrived in earned media, which is why AVE is very important to the industry. But businesses that wants speed and thinks they should take their destiny in their own hands are already redefining the very ideas behind paid, owned, shared and earned media or what we like to squeeze into the acronym, POSE. A few IT-savvy young men in one basement office are capable of generating all the traffic and engagement needed by a business or brand. And they don’t even have to be good writers. All they need is know how to pump the right information in the right bloodstream of the internet
Granted that this would rob business of the strategic thinking that professionals bring to bear on well-thought-out communications management, but the opportunity costs, which include cost-shedding, speed and control will gain a lot more consideration. Except and unless agencies remodel their businesses and begin to function as “ideas houses” than mere PR agencies.
Creating head-turning ideas that trigger footfalls will be heavily sought after and handsomely rewarded. Cambridge Analytica did it. It demonstrated how it was going to target particular sociographic and psychographic communities with emails that would make them not vote for the then Democratic Party candidate, Hilary Clinton, even if they couldn’t be made to vote for Donald Trump. In Nigeria, Dare Art Alade’s company, Livespot Entertainment recently demonstrated it with the Access the Stars reality show.
Livespot Entertainment is in the activations and not PR business. But the PR value of the project they conceived and sold to both Nigerian Breweries and Access Bank is worth more than a million front page stories. It was easy for Nigerian Breweries to view on a simple dashboard, how many hectolitres of Star Lager Beer would be sold working with Livespot’s idea. Access Bank, on the other hand, was also made to visualize the deposits inflow from registrations into the reality show; the bank also saw the possible incubation of significant credits portfolio deals with Nigerian Breweries.
This is the way PR has to be. And the industry is not in control of the hands of this ticking time. The industry is going to demand for it.
This is the future. And that future is more present than in anticipation.