Notes From The Front Line Of Publicity In 2020

Notes From The Front Line Of Publicity In 2020
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In this guest post, Madison Scott (main photo), a publicist at the WPP-owned agency Pulse, casts an expert eye at some of the challenges faced by those working on the ‘other’ side of the media fence…

It’s been a year of pivoting, and a year where many industry leaders have commented on the impact COVID-19 has had on brands. But let’s look at the experience of those on the frontline, or at least the phones. As a publicist my day-to-day is acting as a conduit between media, consumers and brands and let me tell you 2020 has been a minefield of unknowns, a feeling of uselessness and a strong thread of common understanding.

The Unknown

By the time April hit both sides of the trenches were in a ceasefire. For the first time in my career I felt uncertain every time I picked up the phone or sent an email. Redundancies were overwhelming the industry, and people were struggling to stay motivated against the backdrop of a weird new normal. We all wanted to retreat. Brand announcements that usually made the front pages were struggling to cut through, as Australia dealt with the impact of the pandemic, the political discourse in its wake and its competing news cycle. However, on the flipside humorous, light-hearted and sometimes weird stories that would never have seen the light of day were being covered to break up the bleakness of COVID-19 updates.

A rapidly changing daily media landscape and media’s resulting priorities has come with a steep learning curve:; in PR you might do everything correctly from the upfront planning and research, to having all the right media relationships but still be left with a flop. While those 2am “wouldn’t it be funny if we tried…” off-the-cuff stories and social content ideas take off.

The Uniqueness

According to The Guardian, there are now 157 fewer newsrooms in Australia than there were in January 2019. Yet globally views of Facebook and Instagram live stories doubled during lockdown according to Facebook. When it comes to news and content, the culture of consumption has changed and with it so must our approach. An effective strategy for marketers and publicists has been focusing on specific small sub-cultures of audiences or tapping into interesting and sometimes weird emerging cultural behaviours to reach the masses– or what we call the minorstream. With news and mainstream lifestyle outlets monopolised by pandemic news, focusing on niche audience behaviours and trends has allowed brands to cut through. This year we saw KFC utilise TikTok superfans to uncover and promote its secret menu on the KFC app. Straying from traditional campaign tactics, to using the polarising platform and its uniquely prescriptive content structure was a risk. However, by letting TikTok creators lead the creative process, KFC was gifted with highly engaging content specially crafted for the core millennial and gen-Z audience and in turn, sales and brand love.  As an agency, our commitment to this approach has allowed us to continue working in the trenches and in ensuring the stories we tell continue to be amplified.

The Uselessness

I can admit that the quick shift to remote working left me feeling a little useless and a bit of a fraud. Anyone that’s ever had the pleasure (read: pain) of managing me knows I thrive on independence and doing my own thing, simply checking in here and there. I’ve always worked this way, however 2020 shifted this. I wasn’t in an office with colleagues. No one could hear me hustling on the phone and if I hadn’t immediately landed coverage, I was left with the fear that I was dispensable. In an absolute panic I was going to be the next out the door, I started over communicating with my teams and constantly seeking validation on my decisions. It wasn’t until one of my colleagues called me out on it and we had a frank conversation that I realised we’re all feeling like imposters.

So, if you feel an imposter syndrome flare up; call a colleague to remind you of your skills and find yourself a winnable task to smash through. Celebrate the small wins. They count.

The Understanding

From bushfires to a pandemic to the lasting impact of what 2020 has wrought. It has impacted everyone in different ways. It was exhausting, but we weren’t alone. Media outreach turned into hour long conversations shifting between checking in on each other, brand news, and the highlights from the latest Masterchef episode. It’s a truce between pushy PR’s and the avoidant journalist; as relationships strengthened and we remembered we’re all human after all.

It’s the understanding that now isn’t the best time to push your brand on Victorian media.

It’s the understanding that now more than ever we need to be providing journalists with stories that will drive traffic to their pages.

It’s the understanding that consumers priorities have changed, and brand storytelling needs to reflect this with authenticity and in real-time.

And, it’s the understanding to maybe not start emails with “hope you’re well” because in the year we have all had, is anyone?

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Madison Scott Pulse

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