A publicity nightmare

Updated: May 24, 2020, 08:21 IST | Phorum Dalal | Mumbai

With the pandemic becoming the only point of conversation, PR firms talk of the challenge of selling brand stories minus COVID cures

Chef Ranveer Brar, seen here in a file photo, wished to work with health boosting recipes but was clear that he didn't want them pitched as cure for the infection. So, the PR firm worked on a narrative that centred around cooking healthy at home
Chef Ranveer Brar, seen here in a file photo, wished to work with health boosting recipes but was clear that he didn't want them pitched as cure for the infection. So, the PR firm worked on a narrative that centred around cooking healthy at home

Food is easy, but how do you talk about jewellery?" wonders a public relations professional about the challenge of keeping conversation around a client alive during a health and economic crisis. At a time, when the media is fully focused on pandemic news, the publicity and marketing industry is floundering not just to make revenue, but also to stay relevant. Most firms admit to a 25 per cent and more drop in revenue. But the bigger concern is, how to pitch a client without coming across as brazen and insensitive. "We decided to link one of the brands we handle with mindfulness, speaking of how less is more, and therefore, the need for simpler jewellery. We have had to adapt and find unique solutions," she adds, choosing to stay anonymous for the story. But, it's a tight rope. One slip and a firm might end up sounding tone deaf, which costs more than not being heard at all.

Here's a sample. "Isolation Getaway for Longevity" reads the subject line of one mailer this writer received. The Coronavirus infection doesn't have a cure yet, but as Aakanksha Gupta, founder of The Other Circle, puts it, "For now, nothing can save you from Corona."

On March 16, a week before the lockdown, the team at Gupta's seven-year-old firm sent out a top-priority mail to all clients—across F&B, art, culture, lifestyle, e-commerce, start-ups, Bollywood and technology—detailing what could and couldn't be expected from media coverage. "March is a time for closing of books of accounts and April is a fresh slate. Within the first 12 days of the lockdown, most clients paused all future work and plans," says Gupta, who faced the challenge of retaining clients, leading to a dip in cashflow to pay the staff. On how to retell the brand story, at a time when all industries are struggling, she says, "We told our clients to ask themselves, how relevant is my brand? Do we have anything to say or is it wise to not communicate?"

Aakanksha Gupta
Aakanksha Gupta

Wearing a summery dress, with a mask on, to get photographed at a vegetable market, wouldn't be considered, for instance. Chef Ranveer Brar wanted to do health boosting meals. "He was clear that he wanted the content to be communicated such that we wouldn't be discussing culinary tips to cure or prevent disease. So, our communication centred around the lockdown and the need to cook healthy at home," she explains.

The lockdown has also messed with processes and operations. With most journalists and public relations personnel working from home, visits to media offices are no longer possible. Face-to-face meetings with clients have been replaced by Zoom or conference calls. One PR professional spoke about how layoffs in the newspaper industry have also rocked their boat. "An article was all set to be printed, but the journalist was laid off. At such a time, how do you call up, on behalf of the client, to inquire if the story will run?"

Most branding around the city centres around the Coronavirus outbreak. PIC/GETTY IMAGES
Most branding around the city centres around the Coronavirus outbreak. Pic/ Getty Images 

From day one of the lockdown, Flipkart, the e-commerce platform which could only deliver essential items, started sending out activity mailers to shoppers. Anything from riddles to solve to dance performances to upload. This change in tactic is what brands are trying in order to stay connected with customers.

Take Mumbai theme park, EsselWorld for instance. The famous jingle, "EsselWorld mein rahoonga mein, ghar nahin jaoonga mein" has been reworked to a more Coronavirus-responsible "Ghar pe rahunga mein, bahar nahin jaoonga mein".

The Gorai-based amusement park, along with Water Kingdom, has been shut since the lockdown was announced. This Sunday, they have organised a virtual run where part of the R95 entry fee will be donated to NGOs providing daily meals for the underprivileged. Deputy PR official, Gouri Iyer, says, "The park is shut and we are currently closed for bookings as well. We concluded that we are an entertainment destination and we must continue entertaining our patrons. So, we started Instagram lives with musicians, singers and dancers, who came on board purely to entertain. The virtual run, although a tried concept, connects with a genre that resonates with our brand—thrill."

Akshaara Lalwani
Akshaara Lalwani

Akshaara Lalwani, CEO and founder of Communicate India, says, "One may have a brand with a purpose, but the purpose doesn't mean anything, unless it resonates with the audience. Public relations is actually an ecosystem of relationships between a brand and its consumers." During the lockdown, she received a query from a firm in the health sector which claimed they had come up with COVID test kits. "I had to rope in my legal department and a health professional to fact check. Something didn't quite fit, and we turned them down. They got picked up by another agency, but, after some coverage, they had to shut shop as their tests were not licensed," she says. Following a client's want may ensure good money in difficult times, but there's no going back if the agency loses its credibility.

A senior communications consultant, on condition of anonymity, says, "We are facing a pandemic and an economic downturn. Every sector is affected, but the first budget cut is on marketing, PR and advertising expenses. Overnight, 65 cent of the business has been lost and it has been tough to handle. We have grown over the years and we have employees to pay. Our challenge is to retain business as well as get new business. Both are just as difficult right now. We need to forgive brands a little and guide them where we can with our expertise. There is high pressure riding on us as well as the clients to redefine relevance in this transformation phase"

Inputs by Aastha Atray Banan

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