Replacing Traditional PR with Thought Leadership during COVID-19

By Kylie McMullan and Julia Smith, Finch Media

If you’re like many PR professionals, you’re probably consumed by stress and anxiety from feeling as though the world – and likely, by extension, your career – is on pause.

Collectively we wonder, “When will the world get back to normal? And, when it does, what will that even look like?” From a business perspective, terms like “adapt” or “innovate” (overused buzzwords at the best of times) are vast understatements, as many companies seek simply to survive the current pandemic. 

While clients are shifting their work structures, one thing has become clear: there is an urgent need to replace traditional marketing tactics with thought leadership. 

Right now, people are looking for guidance. No one wants to be sold new products or patronized by off-key celebrities. They want clear communication, empathetic actions, and leaders who are willing to lean into the crisis to try and normalize an inherently abnormal situation.  

So, what does thought leadership look like right now?

  • Being virtually available: It’s important to create connection points in an isolated world. Some brands have taken the opportunity to connect virtually, sharing knowledge and expertise in helpful and entertaining ways. For example, Leah Alexander, a jewellery designer, is booking complimentary virtual meetings with its stylists. Paul Nixey of Nixey Communications wrote a hilarious blog on the realities of working from home. The restaurant Tocador is selling DIY cocktail recipe kits by donation to raise money for employees. 
  • Offering services in creative new ways. Businesses need to explore the new technological ways they can service their customers. Tight Club, a Vancouver gym, is offering Zoom-based fitness classes for under $10 with proceeds going to support team members. They had 250 participants on their first day. London Drugs is supporting Girl Guides by offering to distribute their cookies online now that social distancing prevents door-to-door sales.
  • Seeking to help instead of sell. Stories of people working together in solidarity resonate. It breaks through the heavy and often negative news cycle. Nature’s Path Organic Foods is showing true corporate leadership by giving thousands of cases of its food to organizations and charities supporting those in need. They’ve also provided employees with food for family members, neighbours and local charities. Petcurean donated 270,000 meals of dog and cat food to support the important work of animal shelters, rescue groups, and homeless shelters that accommodate pets in Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Canada Goose has committed to manufacturing medical gear like scrubs and patient gowns, and countless distilleries are offering to make hand sanitizer.

Now is the time for good corporate citizenship. “We’re all in this together” has become the common theme across all industries. It evokes a delicate balance of pushing forward, exercising humanity, acting with compassion, everyone doing their part, and – for businesses practicing thought leadership by stepping up to contribute support and empathy – making the world a little brighter each day.  

Byline: Kylie McMullan is the principal of Finch Media and is a communications strategy expert who has worked on a number of issues and recalls across a number of industries including healthcare and consumer packaged goods.

Julia Smith is the Managing Director at Finch Media, an internal communications expert with extensive crisis work, including work around the Ebola crisis in 2014. 

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