March 2020. The first days of the closing of the global economies were a moment of huge uncertainty and unbridled fear in decades. But after only a dozen days or so, we began to regain our balance. DPD, Pizza Hut, DHL, Poczta Polska, Carrefour, Lidl, Biedronka, Sugar Powder, Free Now – these are my companies, my heroes. Thanks to them I knew that the world was still in operation. They showed that fear has big eyes and that bread for breakfast will be on the table no matter what. Even in the PR profession there were days when, due to the overload of duties, there was no time for a press briefing and the classic overview of the biggest newspapers and portals. I knew that by the time I got to the office I would have learned everything important from my colleagues anyway.
Nevertheless, it was a fantastic moment for a large number of media. They regained their luster, freshness and credibility, once again becoming the main source of information.
We were afraid of the crises that we knew from our own experience – 2003, 2008. Clients terminated contracts en masse already in the first days after the market crashes, because they were able to immediately assess the scale of losses and develop contingency plans, the practically indispensable part of which was cutting costs of image building and protection. Hard cash only. This time it was different. Apart from a few obvious cases (travel industry, hotel industry, short-term rentals), clients were contacting us to make sure we were up and running, that we were working, because they knew they would need us now more than ever. Everyone wanted to communicate as quickly as possible – we are here, we are working. The biggest paradox? This didn’t necessarily regard consumers. We helped them talk to their business environment, their contractors, their partners and most of all their employees. This was clearly reminiscent of a group of Himalayan climbers who wake up after spending the night at 8,000 meters above sea level and begin gymnastics. First they move their little toe, only to feel the pain of frozen bones in a moment. At the end of April, the same group was already melting snow for tea and preparing to reach the summit, making sales and marketing plans in new circumstances.
VALUES – HOW TO ACT WITH CLASS EVERY DAY
Looking at the last three quarters, the geopolitical situation, the social situation, and the dynamics of the environment, the values and the attitude displayed mattered most. I will never forget an email from one of our oldest clients, an airline whose operations were frozen with virtually no warning. Hey Agency. We hope you’re ok, we know it’s hard for you too, but right now we need your help the most because we worked hard for a long time to build our reputation and image, and without you we can’t communicate effectively with our clients. Since we do not know when we will be up in the air again – perhaps you could discuss the possibility of extending the payment period or a short fee reduction until the situation normalizes with us? We replied unceremoniously: you have a discount and an extended deadline, and we will work the best we can, because despite the bad luck in the aviation industry – you do not give up – that is why we are with you wholeheartedly. The client is still with us today and fighting. We were captivated by your courage and openness – all in an atmosphere of great emotion.
Such behavior is the essence of consistency and coherence – the lines acted exactly as we expected of them and the scale of the negative circumstances only emphasized the nobility, prudence and caution of the brand in making important business decisions. We appreciated the move even more in a moment when other global brands were announcing that they were extinguishing all marketing activities for an unspecified period of time. In the process, we were just one of many target groups. The carrier’s consistent behavior allowed it to remain the same or an even more willing airline of choice by creating a relationship based on an admirable attitude. Many brands have not fared as well and have sent panicky messages to the outside world about rash decisions completely disproportionate to their particular situation. Unfortunately, their reception was unequivocal. Consumers took it as an obvious loss of control, fear and threat of instability – which directly affected not only their sales performance but also their stock price.
BETTER TO LOSE TO A WISE MAN THAN TO WIN WITH…
An important element in such situations is the use of external communication consulting. It is worth cooperating with someone who, looking coolly from the outside, will assess whether what we want to say makes sense. Being in a closed fortress with the same people suddenly makes the horizon disappear in uncertainty, the windows get smaller and the ceiling starts to crush – even though there is no reason to do so. It’s not that consultants raise that ceiling – but they always take a particular side, providing a clearly reasoned perspective. The usual human traits and frame of reference in which you find yourself in the workplace are also not insignificant. It’s hard to convey your own opinion – because the fear of possible failure reinforces neutrality. In most cases, advising on what message to send outside helps to move the wagon, that is the company, in the right direction, because communication must be backed up by actions that create an attitude. This is where values are crucial – they set the direction, and a PR agency must always check whether the concept of action properly fits into this.
Living in isolation has increased interactivity and responsiveness in dialogue. While working on the merger of Telewizja “n” and Canal+ we knew the story of Wizja TV, which in similar circumstances decided to raise fees for subscribers, but the situation took place before the era of social media. The effect? One or two articles in the print press about customer dissatisfaction. In the case of nc+, social media virtually undermined the business premise of the merger.
During the pandemic, this effect was magnified even further. The lockdown virtually eliminated traditional forms of contact with brands, and consumers began to sort of consciously confuse private messages with fan pages and media. During the lockdown, we were dealing with a precision consumer who has little distraction and is much more willing to speak up in public spaces discussing their insights.
Suddenly, the semi-private sphere has become the public world, first and foremost. Moreover, the role of social experts, who have always advised about the washing machine, the cake shop or buying a car, has significantly changed. We began to vet the web en masse in search of objective opinions. Purchase decisions became more thought through, more thoroughly verified. The verification of declarations has increased significantly, so as in the recent case of CD Projekt, special attention should be paid to managing expectations and controlling the scale of the promises. A positive surprise will always be better than the slightest disappointment.
IN SEARCH OF THE PAINFUL TRUTH…
This is why we feel the role of “earned media” more than ever. No matter how precisely we plan our marketing activities, our menace – the negative aspects of a product – will still find its way into consumers’ perception. Bad news travels much faster – and today it practically crosses the sound barrier. Consumers want to know the truth without embellishment, sometimes the slightly worse one – but giving the full picture before making a purchase. Conspiracy theories and caution reign supreme. Despite the fact that already more than 30% of our assignments are paid content, the ones we have to earn are doing phenomenally.
Earned media today isn’t just about journalists. Many influencers choose not to work with brands directly – just to maintain information independence.
Dialogue with them is absolutely necessary despite their innate dislike. An iconic standard has been set here by Kuba Klawiter – a technology influencer who doesn’t localize the products he tests and discusses, and many brands simply skirt his topic without even trying to engage in discussion – but his reach speaks for itself. It displays outrageously well. In cases like this, it’s important to break patterns where we try to hide or omit something and our “obstructionist” looks for a crack in the glass. We help to surprise – to come forward with an open visor and engage in conversation, because we firmly believe that by doing otherwise we are entering a game that we will surely lose.
The pursuit of truth can be seen in our attitudes. Google Trends reported a significant jump in searches for product names typed with the word problem. Marketing efforts are doing a great job of communicating superlatives, but are also slowly learning – much to our surprise – to deal with the more difficult areas of the product. No negative communication – the iron rule of marketers is very slowly transforming into a more elastic, flexible creation. And this is where PR comes in strongly.
WHERE THE MARKETER CANNOT, HE WILL SEND…
Public relations consultants are the ones who enter into the difficult dialogue about advantages versus disadvantages which, under certain circumstances and with certain arguments, can be neutralized or even turned into superlatives. We talk to everyone today. Already several years ago, our work began to significantly extend beyond the boundaries of media relations. Opinion leaders, influencers, business partners, institutions, NGO’s and most of all consumers are now the direct and main field of PR agencies’ influence. We have to be truthful, because these target groups are much quicker to sense falsehood and ask about uncomfortable topics in an extremely direct manner. In the past, the strategy was to avoid uncomfortable issues. Today the conversation starts with them, and we spend most of our working time on developing arguments.
Just a few years ago in PR we were masters of routine. Life was beautiful because we were responsible for Awareness in the purchase decision structure – pushing into the realm of gaffe, every question marketers had about how we could help sales. What’s more – we avoided marketing and sales departments like the plague, leaving that field to our colleagues at Leo, Saatchi, Publicis. When we needed a deeper understanding of the need and the way to reach the client, we said: please wait on the line, I’m connecting with Starcom.
Today we are fighting side by side with them for every client, understanding exactly where we can help. We are there with the influencers who show the latest news, as well as in EURO RTV AGD – when the customer checks what others are writing about the headphones they are about to pay for right before the checkout. At every step, also after the sale, where the service begins. Because the key phrase is also a nice rule of life, which I heard in Saatchi: it’s better to be nice! We build sympathy for products and brands, making sure that brand actions are coherent and consistent, no matter if we talk to a journalist, a customer on a hotline or a representative of a ministry or a foundation. The recipient senses every falsehood and screams immediately – as soon as something is wrong. And if we are to be friends with the customer, it cannot be nice if we want to sell them something. If we are friends, it must always be nice. There is a line of 50 potential friends waiting at his door, waiting for us to high-five him at the right angle, holding his hand. Plus there’s that whole internet thing….
EVERY WORD IS WORTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD
When newspapers were taking declarations to the waste paper pile just after 24 hours it was easier. And today it’s much more difficult to flash your omnibus knowledge during a family meeting when your biggest opponent turns out to be a five-year-old with access to Wikipedia. The same exact scheme has been transferred to our clients, who, like the government, have to account for every sentence they uttered even 10 years ago. It’s probably more difficult, because the consistency of messages in relation to shareholders, customers, offices, NGOs is almost impossible to achieve when you bend reality, wheel and deal and weave. Consumers verify us faster than the media. The only thing that saves us from oppression is honesty, consistency and keeping our promises. But this is never easy.
NOBODY SLEEPS IN THE WOODS TONIGHT
Again, the biggest problem is navigation and difficult decisions – how to tailor arguments, when to speak and when to remain silent.
At MSL when we read a text, or look at a client’s communication design, style, words, arguments – after just a few minutes we can tell where a treasure is buried in the woods, where the wolves hunt, where the bear traps are laid and how to get to the forest ranger. Sometimes we defuse spoofs that someone has set for themselves, unknowingly years before – saying, for example: our brand will never allow…
Fortunately, customers, especially those who have already lost their way once in the woods, always appreciate professional help – a good map or the pleasant company of a cheerful forester. And that’s good, because no one wants their adventure to end in a bloody massacre like in Kowalewski’s charming Polish slasher film (to be watched on Netflix).
GENESIS OF THE INFECTION
And we have to be extremely careful. It used to be said that one dissatisfied person would infect five others with their attitude and create their own mini pyramid of hate. Today, it is much worse – one customer is able to effectively paralyze the company’s communication for days or even weeks with the help of the reach offered by social media, or in fact the possibility of dialogue. It was just such a person, one in several million, that caused one of the biggest image crises in recent years – the potential poisoning of Żywiec Zdrój water. Today we know that she was under the influence of psychoactive substances and simply mixed up the bottles – she kept a hardener for resin in one of them. This does not change the fact that for weeks all of Poland believed that carbonated water straight from the store could burn your throat – despite the brand’s perfect response to the crisis, hundreds of thousands spent on testing samples having the declared composition. It is hard not to notice the analogy to the epidemic. One person and their unconventional meal are the likely architects of the greatest crisis of our generation, which has been making most of the decisions for us for the past several months.
Image has many faces today and has become the epicenter of all communication disciplines. We are like the command center shown in “Było Sobie Życie” (Once Upon a Time… Life). We take care of the balance in the entire ecosystem, which we can call perception in simple terms. We make sure that words are equal to actions and that all moves of the company are an exemplification of its values. The last sentence before the COVID epidemic would have been a mere triviality, and today we know exactly that it is values that are the compass, something constantly showing the direction when the world has stood on its head. It’s an idyllic way to deal with circumstances a company will probably never find itself in. And yet! Today it is the epidemic that dictates the terms, and we respond. The important thing is that this is done an appropriate and pre-declared way.