(OPINION)Public Relations: Essential service during the pandemic -By Nosakhare Iyamu

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The year 2020 was definitely an unprecedented year with the outbreak of COVID-19. The wave of the global pandemic hit and the effect of its reverberations are still felt around the world.

In Nigeria, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are felt harshly on the economy. The initial country-wide lockdown and the dependency on oil exports resulted in Nigeria’s economic downturn. In June last year, the collapse in oil prices coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic plunged Nigeria’s economy into a severe economic recession, the worst recorded since the 1980s.

Businesses in Nigeria have also suffered as a result of the global pandemic. The slowdown in economic activity after the country resulted in a lockdown back in April last year to curb the spread of the virus saw lots of small and medium-sized businesses closing up. The coronavirus pandemic caused a considerable drop in advertising and marketing spend by brands globally, as well in Nigeria. The consumer’s behaviour and thinking also changed with regards to purchasing during the pandemic and this, in turn, made brands adjust by reducing their spending on marketing strategies focused on traditional media.

Still, with the world at a very uncertain time, it is advisable that brands choose to be strategic during this period by also lending their voices consistently. Brands will need to leverage public relations tactics as an essential communication tool to enable them to keep their businesses afloat. During the pandemic, brands must note that they will need to communicate proper messages timely, thus, helping their target public and existing customers make decisions, feel reassured and informed.

Rather than keeping mute, this is actually the best time for brands to communicate. Brands that communicate now will drive how the present and prospective customers think about them in the future. Public relations is that strategic tool that creates the balance for brands seeking to show how concerned they are about health and safety this period while building a positive perception, generating new leads, making sales and keeping the business profitable even during a difficult time.

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With people looking at how to navigate through a harsh environment during the pandemic, and are scared to trust anything new and unknown, here are three effective PR tactics that brands can leverage to survive and thrive.

The pandemic definitely brought its fair share of storytelling. From the first COVID-19 case recorded in Nigeria, the news across various media has been related one way or the other to the pandemic. In order not to get drowned in the constant COVID-19 messages that flood the media, brands must continuously and strategically tell their stories of optimism and confidence during the pandemic. Brands will need to tell relatable and relevant stories that are inspiring and give hope especially in this time of uncertainty and tragedies.

Storytelling: Storytelling is a very instrumental public relations tactic. Stories enable brands to connect with their existing and prospective customers on an emotional level. Humans express emotions and stories connect with these emotions in ways that make the brand memorable. So, rather than sharing the superior functionality of your product or service during the pandemic, share a brand story that portrays optimism and confidence with your product or service as the hero.

Keep it digital: One of the advantages of COVID-19 was the exponential acceleration in digital adoption around the world. Consumers are now leaning more on digital platforms to get informed, make purchase decisions or just to keep up with close family and friends. Companies and businesses across the globe are now changing how they do businesses by embracing technology as a critical component.

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Adopting a digital-first approach during the pandemic for your brand’s public relations is critical to ensuring that your brand survives and thrives. Digital PR is a powerful strategy used to increase awareness of your brand using online methods. It relies on Internet-based strategies such as search engine optimization, content marketing, influencer outreach and social media. In combination with traditional PR, which involves networking with journalists in order to get featured in print publications, digital PR ensures your brand’s messages reach a much broader audience.

Networking with Journalists: The media industry across the globe has been hit severely by the pandemic. Some media organizations unfortunately have permanently closed down. Print media have cut down pages and sales dwindled because advertising spends from brands declined and the public was opting for more online platforms to consume the news. Sadly, some media also had to lay off staff to navigate through the pandemic. Still, the role of the media industry cannot be overestimated in the fight against the spread of the virus and in keeping people informed about what to do to stay safe.

Public relations will always be a relationship business and networking with journalists is critical, even during the pandemic. The pandemic has reduced face-to-face meet-ups with journalists. Physical events have been limited or totally stopped by some brands during the pandemic and this has made the usual media networking rendezvous irrelevant.

Notwithstanding, this is still the best period to show genuine interest in journalists. Brands will need to connect with journalists on virtual meet-ups, social media or just by simply giving them a call to find out how they are doing. This is also the time to show the human touch, brand need to show empathy towards the media. Setting up a social responsibility platform to support the media will go a long way in building the right relationships with journalists that can be sustained.

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The pandemic has definitely made us all start thinking differently. With public relations, the key to surviving through the crisis is flexibility and a willingness to adapt to new ways of working. Media channels are fewer and journalists are more interested in messages that relate to the pandemic; whether it is about working remotely, update on health-related news, news about the economy and new ways of working for businesses, brands need to be part of the ongoing conversation.

Public relations work to strategically place brands positively into news stories during the pandemic. Earned media is the most reliable and the most cost-effective. The pandemic has made the need for information spike and the media is saddled with the responsibility of informing with the right stories that inspire, inform or amuse. PR is a service that identifies a captivating idea for a brand, crafts the messages and finds the strategic partners to tell the story with. This is essential for brands seeking to navigate successfully through the pandemic.

Iyamu is a Lagos based public relations (PR) expert and chief executive officer (CEO), IVI PR.

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