This is a guest post from Nigel Sarbutts, founder of freelance PR matchmaking service The PR Cavalry.
Clients slamming the brakes on communication doesn’t have to mean that work stops completely. Volatility is opportunity and there is a tonne of high value strategy work to understand and adapt to the emerging shape of your client’s category. If you are waiting to hear what the new plan looks like, you might not be part of it.
The critical first step to help your client shape their future is to organise your own thoughts. The comms agenda needs to focus on four buckets of thinking. They will ebb and flow in importance and sometimes overlap but without a structure, you and your client will waste time and opportunities.
The Here and Now – Triaging what is being disrupted in the business and category, adapting messaging and changing when and how the business communicates with stakeholders – particularly internal ones
The Start of Recovery – Pulling in market intelligence, finding the insight for scenario planning and the creation of comms and stakeholder risk registers to map probability versus impact
Imagining Leadership – Crisis is a leveller and category leadership can emerge from anywhere, allowing smaller operators to punch above their weight in comms
New Everything – Routes to market, supply chains, product and services, industry alliances, regulations. It might be easier to list what hasn’t changed. Each one of these will, in time, require its own comms strategy and tactics. Your goal is to write them.
It’s easy to think that clients have some higher level of understanding that is handed down via the brief but in a crisis, expertise and clear thinking often become separated.
The value of asking better questions has never been higher. Get across the 360-degree business impacts now. If you don’t fully grasp how changes to distribution or supply chain (which is likely to include talent or access to finance as well as goods and services) will affect your client’s ability to operate, your input to plans will be correspondingly limited.
Your capability scorecard – Be honest, no-one has faced this kind of crisis before and even a substantial agency is unlikely to have all the skills required to guide clients through every challenge they face. You need to score yourself and have a way to strengthen where you are weak.
Active listening and scoping – Have you got your listening stack up and running? This might be formal research, paid-for tools or free insight like Google Trends, plus daily news and social searches for comment from industry players.
Corporate stance – As the fog clears, does your client stand for something they can defend under scrutiny if the leadership team turn to you for help?
Innovation and challenge – Crisis makes people defensive. Do you have the skills to create a thinking space where the client and you can shut out the noise to be creative and see opportunity? Can you credibly lead the development of a 360-degree strategy and be known for flawless execution of tactics?
Broader skills – Crisis may produce business model change, M&A or rapid restructuring, which requires niche comms skills. Do you have a trusted partner (perhaps a talented freelancer) to bring in to support you?
This is an unbelievably testing time for all businesses, PR advisers included, be they agency staff or PR freelancers with the pain of rapid, forced change. There is no single route to survive and thrive but the winners in a crisis are rarely the biggest, but the most adaptable.