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PRSA West/Fair Share


The Impact of Covid-19 on PR Agencies

April 21, 2020

We take a look at how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the public relations business in our region, as several agency leaders share what they’re seeing. Joining the discussion are:

  • Stacey Cohen, President, Co-Communications
  • Dawn Dankner-Rosen, President, DDR Public Relations
  • Filomena Fanelli, CEO, Impact PR & Communications
  • Anne Ryan, President, Danika Communications

PRSA-WF: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on your agency? 

Filomena Fanelli: Like many other public relations and marketing agencies, ours has been extra busy, mainly around crisis planning, community-facing news, changes to large events and, of utmost importance, internal communications efforts. I emphasize the last part, because I believe communicators can help businesses better connect with their most critical audience: their own people.

Each of our clients has faced unique stresses, whether it has been a spike in demand, financial pressures, or safety concerns. We are aligning their messages to resonate with stakeholders, including employees, clients, customers, board members, donors, volunteers, and family members of those in their care. I’m proud to say our industry is in a prime position, as experienced storytellers, and message managers, to be of help. While we’ve had launches and events pushed back, we have also expanded client programs so we can readily assist in a broader way.

We have also put the focus on our own team, because if we’re not whole, we can’t be present for our clients. This new nimble way of working and increased focus on deep connection has brought us all closer together as a team, along with us bonding with our clients on a very real, human level.

Anne Ryan: As communications professionals, we are known for our agility and creativity. We are used to helping clients with short term PR fiascos and crisis communications issues and have earned a reputation for operating in truth and clarity. But, make no mistake, not even the most seasoned public relations/marketing pros have experienced a global crisis that’s impacted every country globally and industry like Covid-19.

We are working with our clients to ensure they have the full range of our services available to them, including innovative business continuity plans, crisis management and stakeholder communications (partners, employees, customers). Fortunately, many of our clients decided public relations and marketing was an essential expense; however, several nonprofit clients we were collaborating with on events have had to press “pause” and aren’t sure if or when the “reset” button will be pressed.

As a business owner and leader, I’m often reminded that ‘the only thing that is constant is change.’ The virus has no borders and as leaders start to chart a course to ease the restrictions that are limiting the spread of the pandemic, businesses still need to create stories that inform, persuade, build relationships and impel action for elite travel, leading lifestyle and nonprofit organizations; but more important, we need to stay nimble and responsive and position businesses to be resilient in the face of this and the next global threat.

Dawn Dankner-Rosen: Our firm has become more essential to and relied upon by our clients than ever before. One of our strengths is our ability to act and adapt quickly, which has served us all well, especially with the re-evaluation and re-creation of branding strategies and messaging across the board with each of our clients in all categories. We collectively understand (the DDRPR team together with our clients) that it is so very important now more than ever to emphasize your relevance and your branding with clarity, along with your point of difference so that you are able to rise above the increased competition. Clearly, those who survive this crisis will be the “fittest” and the most able to adapt and revise their strategies, in an almost Darwinian sense.

The continuously evolving Covid-era consumer “temperature” is now very hot for good news and stories about selfless acts and heroism. This trend has created new vigor and excitement throughout all of our media outreach efforts, including many new opportunities for us to share positive information and angles that provide a welcome distraction from Covid-19. 

Beyond this, although DDRPR has fortunately not had issues with any significant contracts, there is undoubtedly a greater client focus on how we affect their bottom line via analytics, measurement and reporting.  Our role seems to have taken on greater relevance as having a direct impact on business – and we are excited about our expanded role and potentially, new programs and areas for us to dive into.

Stacey Cohen: Going through 9/11 and a recession (2008) has taught us all that this is not the time to stop marketing, but it is a time to be highly mindful of messaging, tone and imagery. It’s more important than ever to give before you get, to provide support and to be a champion for your clients, staff and others. 

 When I set up the agency 20 years ago, many advised me to specialize in one core industry e.g., healthcare. My instinct told me to diversify both the client portfolio and services offered. This has served Co-Communications well in that it has fostered creativity and innovation as well as mitigated risk during economic downturns. Our diverse client base includes real estate, education, healthcare, professional services, non-profit and hospitality with the latter category being the hardest hit. While one of our hospitality clients is on pause, we have encouraged others in this category to maintain a consistent drumbeat (e.g., through social media posts). 

 During this unsettling time, it is imperative to understand and address our clients’ fears, priorities and goals. The strategy in place three months ago has largely been put on the back burner. We’ve aligned both strategy and tactics to meet our client’s business challenges, market in the moment, and change lanes when necessary. With our mindset How can we help?, we have even offered to assist writing online curriculum for our education clients (which is outside our normal scope of services).

We have seen an uptick in the following services: crisis management, messaging, social media and virtual presentations.

PRSA-WF: Is there a client(s) who has done something as a result of Covid-19 that you'd like to share? 

AR: Crises are difficult to navigate but can be a place where brands prove purpose, values, and commitment, while also showing agility, creativity, and spirit.

As a non-essential business forced to temporarily shutter its doors, Westport-based Salon Paul Michael quickly responded to customers’ needs with “Style on the Go!” Curbside Pickup, offering complimentary virtual appointments where staff make professional product suggestions and walk clients through styling and semi-permanent dyes that can temporarily remedy roots without a salon visit. Co-founder Ernie Addario felt communicating quickly and effectively to guests, many of whom still have to work remotely, was key. They are now inaugurating a Mother’s Day Make-Over Contest and collaborating with local businesses to celebrate Mother’s Day while respecting social distancing.

Cylinder Vodka was swift to issue messages of support to the hospitality industry by donating 100% of April’s revenue to the U.S. Bartenders Guild Foundation, as well as to a local non-profit established to help Connecticut hospitality workers in need. According to Cylinder Vodka founder/CEO Stelios Stavrianos, they decided to invest in a community building campaign to support bar and restaurant workers who lost their livelihoods but have been instrumental in supporting the brand since its launch.

The travel and tourism industry is uniting to navigate the path unknown. Travel is a way of life for business and pleasure – historically, the industry has been resilient and rebounds fairly quickly, although I personally believe people will adopt a Local & Go style initially, as many states need to rescind stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions imposed by nations worldwide need to be lifted.

DDR: We have been tweaking current branding and messaging strategies for our clients and many of them have created new programs and strategies in keeping with current consumer-business needs and interests.  ACCESS Nursing Services is one client who immediately stepped up to meet healthcare needs head on and fill a void by creating the “ACCESS Nursing COVID Care Force,” which now includes 2,500 nurses that they “deployed” to hospitals, nursing homes and testing sites throughout the New York and NJ Metro areas, as well as Westchester, Rockland and Long Island. 

In addition, we just launched an ancillary program for nurses called, the “ACCESS Nursing COVID Couch,” a weekly support group for nurses to de-stress and share stories as part of a Zoom event each week. Another client, JP McHale Pest Management has launched a Covid disinfecting and sanitizing service, ViroClean , as well as a remote rodent detection system that can detect and eliminate mice without a technician having to enter the home. And, my client for the past 24 years, the Prudential Spirit of Community of Awards, is highlighting this year’s teen volunteer winners who have pivoted their community service projects to ones that can make a difference in the lives of those affected by Covid-19, similar to what was done following 9/11 and the War in Afghanistan.

SC: Since Co-Communications’ relationship with elder law and trusts and estates firm Enea, Scanlan & Sirignano, LLP began in 2011, marketing initiatives have focused heavily on in-person speaking engagements across the New York metropolitan region. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, however, these efforts are being diversified and refocused to accommodate a new way of living and doing business. Emphasis is now on securing virtual educational programs, in-house webinars and supporting weekly Facebook Live talks on estate planning issues related to Covid-19.

Social media platforms are being bolstered with a steady stream of relevant information to keep the public updated and position the firm as a valuable resource in this uncertain time. Similarly, Co-Communications’ media relations efforts have ramped up with targeted pitches that address the importance of advanced planning, now more than ever, as well as specific changes to state-funded programs that are critical for seniors.  It has been fascinating to see how new technology has been embraced across generations and industries.

FF: We have so many wonderful stories that involve clients of ours genuinely wanting to be of service to others during this crisis. One that stands out in my mind is Tompkins Financial. In advance of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing the need for relief for businesses, our client stepped up to offer loan deferment of up to 60 days for all business customers in New York and Pennsylvania, where it has a footprint. Additionally, through its affiliate locally, Tompkins Mahopac Bank, the company announced hazard pay for its onsite employees and a company-wide loan program to support its workers, should they or their spouse face a sudden loss of income or increased health, childcare or elder care costs. This is just one of many examples that make me proud of the companies we represent.

PRSA-WF: How are you and your clients planning for the future, when things begin to open up again?

SC: We are working closely with our clients to pivot their marketing communications strategies. It is important to play out different scenarios “what ifs” that could result during and post pandemic. For instance, many of our non-profits heavily rely on annual galas and signature events to bring in sponsorships and donor dollars. Since it’s highly doubtful that events will come back until 2021, we’ve been working tirelessly with our clients to come up with strategic and creative solutions to compensate for this loss.

We have laser focus on Giving Tuesday (May 5), but with a caveat: in anticipation of a landslide of “asks”, we are seeking to bring umbrella campaigns alive that have a longer “shelf life” well beyond this date. These are uncertain times…and we have to be nimble since what is appropriate right now may shift as the crisis evolves in weeks to come.

FF: One of our agency’s core values is “Look Forward, Think Forward,” so while it’s impossible to predict the future, we are — and are encouraging our clients to do so with us — thinking deeply about what the transition ahead will look and feel like. We are pre-producing communications that can be adjusted in real time and rolled out rapidly, post-pandemic. Preparation is always key and thinking through all of the what ifs and what’s next helps. That whole adage about planning for the worst and hoping for the best holds true.

We also want companies to consider that “business as usual” may feel highly unusual, and even scary psychologically, at first. Clear, consistent communications go a long way in steadying the ship and marketing should be done extra mindfully and skillfully.

One final thought: the best way to positively forge forward is to look at ways to be of help right now. Lifting up others and answering the needs of our communities readies us for the inevitable day when we’ll be together again. What we do now will be remembered for a long time to come.

AR: Thought leadership is like captaining a boat. It requires navigation, control, and purpose.

Having a strong integrative communications strategy in place is more important now than it ever has been. Making sure that you are telling the right story to the right audience at the right time has never been as vital to your brand as now. Businesses that are adept at embracing change and produce factually rich content in storytelling will be able to ride out any storm, and these companies will thrive.

DDR: PR has never been a 9-5, M-F profession and this could not be more true now with our nation captivated by the 24/7 news cycle world we live in. Our work is around the clock and it is our greatest priority as PR professionals to be very flexible and able to quickly transition and adapt to new strategies, messaging and other efforts in keeping with the continuously changing world we live in.

Our agency has moved many of our clients towards a greatly accelerated digital and virtual strategy, which has become an essential skill and service for any PR firm to offer. In addition to virtual meetings, we’ve been having a lot of fun these days creating Zoom events, webinars, podcasts, etc. -- and we have been focusing on the expansion of our clients’ social media and online strategies and visibility via new platforms and techniques, as well as delving deeper into virtual communications, SEO and increasing online visibility and ranking, and online advertising. 

PRSA-WF: Do you think what has happened will change the PR/communications industry?

DDR: I don’t believe that we will EVER return to our pre-Covid personal or business lives.  Our focus on healthcare and better living, along with the desire for more transparency and truth will forever transform how and the way we communicate and interface/interact with one another. On a personal/professional level, the transition to a virtual business life has actually increased my own productivity and broadened my range of contacts and connections. I have heard that this is also true for many of my clients and colleagues as well. We now have far fewer distractions during the day and there seems to be more of a desire to pick up the phone to speak to someone or see people via Zoom, in lieu of the usual quick texts or emails.  

Our “new normal” has actually opened up a whole new virtual-digital world of communications options, strategies and techniques, linked to a greatly increased desire to connect with others; to hear their voices, see them and reach out on a more one-to-one, personal level.  This is surely the time to re-establish connections and to strengthen, build and create new relationships with clients, media contacts and other business connections. Our new way of living and relating to one another via social distancing may prevail for many more months to come, possibly years, so the ability to come closer to those in your business and personal life will determine your success on every level.

FF: The Covid-19 pandemic will change us all, in ways both big and small. PR and communications professionals are demonstrating our value right now and solidifying our future place around the C-Suite table. Many companies were woefully underprepared for the Covid-19 pandemic and will want to reassess those choices once the dust has settled. My hunch is that we will see increases in crisis communications planning, media training and message coordination.

Other significant changes I foresee include more contingency planning for events, a decrease in reliance on galas for fundraising, and a wildly imaginative use of technology and social media for audience engagement. Traditional media will also continue to evolve, and agency leaders will need to be responsive, creative, and open-minded in order to move ahead. 

Last, but not least, the widespread need for businesses to work remotely has caused an increase in accessible marketing, a push back on superficial influencers and a rise in company leaders letting their customers into their hearts and homes, literally. I think it’s a wonderful shift and will continue post-pandemic. More than ever, customers want to see a business’s values on display and put a face to the brands they buy from.

AR:  Crisis of this magnitude ushers in two things – permanent behavioral change and a new wave of innovation to address the change. How we consume and create news has evolved a great deal the last few weeks. We work with media on a daily basis and see that Covid-19 has created an unfathomable “news cycle.” While coronavirus has become an all-hands operation at most media outlets, as viewers watch reporters broadcast from their homes, it’s also a time when media outlets have taken a massive hit.

The New York Times reported Tuesday (April 14) that Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Architectural Digest is implementing “pay cuts for high earners and reduced hours for other employees.” Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 250 local papers, told employees on March 31 it would begin a series of immediate cost reductions, including a furlough program in its news division in April, May and June, due to economic pressures brought on by the pandemic.  The few local outlets, whether television, digital or print are not immune – even as readership and viewership surge.

This is a defining moment for PR/Communications and media industries. The working relationship between public relations practitioners and the media is more connected than ever. Public relations executives excel in storytelling, and are adept at understanding the who, what, when, where and why and how of engaging in the discussion. Agencies who excel at helping businesses navigate, through brand stories, the knowns, unknowns and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, and who produce purpose-driven narrative and quick turnaround campaigns while creating engagement, will continue to be successful. By using our skills and good sense gleaned from years of experience, we can navigate this crisis and prove our worth as trusted advisors. Or, as the note on my desk proclaims: Steady at the helm, you can weather any storm!

SC: PR practitioners will need to develop a new skillset due to the ever-changing media landscape, content demands, and communication channels. Agencies will need to adapt by offering new services that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. For example, the number of virtual events, podcasts and podcast listeners will continue to grow. Booking our clients on podcasts will soon become second nature to us.

More than ever, clients will expect PR to play a direct role in driving leads into the sales funnel. This will require us to shift our mindset and link PR to business goals and demonstrate how PR impacts the bottom line. There will be an increased blurring of the lines between Public Relations, Social Media and other marketing disciplines; the “walls” will continue to come down and integration will be more important than ever.

PRSA West/Fair Share is a publication of the PRSA Westchester/Fairfield chapter. If you are a chapter member and are interested in contributing, contact westfairshare[at]