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Senior Leadership Roundtable: Leading During a Pandemic

Chris BretschgerIt’s not unusual for communications professionals to work remotely. But the coronavirus pandemic has made for exceptional and unusual circumstances. Leading a team can have its challenges even without a health crisis, but with one – it’s not just about the work or the deadlines. IMW President Chris Bretschger shares how he and his agency are serving both clients and their employees.

In all of your years as a public relations and communications practitioner, have you ever had to do your craft or lead a team through circumstances like this?

The rate and scope of the shifts that we’re seeing today remind me of working on the Hyundai and Kia accounts back in 2007-2009, and the impact that the Great Recession had on the auto industry.  As the industry sunk deeper into that environment, every manufacturer pulled out a different playbook to weather the storm.

Our clients completely shifted focus — re-allocated funds into what was then the emerging channels of online media — search, display, and online video.  With overall sales decreasing so drastically and having historically been used as the bellwether of success — our clients needed new tools and metrics to gauge success.  And with that focus, came a new level of scrutiny (and reliance) on website KPIs, and the conversion focus of the time — last click attribution.

While I think, overall, it was a great move for the industry, I believe this forced a shift to online, and subsequent laser focus on the last click model for KPIs dug a hole that marketers are still trying to dig out of to this day — what marketer hasn’t pitched an online brand campaign without one person questioning the direct link to a sale?  Since then, social media has continued to play a greater role in most of our clients’ marketing strategies. In this health crisis, we are engaging with our social communities to give them support—whether that be providing recipes that provide comfort from the kitchens of Kayanoya or images that bring them peace from the Flower Fields.

How are you helping your teams continue to move their work forward?

Each client has been impacted by the latest shelter-in-place and other protective measures in wildly different ways — we’ve had many that put into place protective measures to manage cash flow, while others who have seen a natural increase in business due to the surge in e-commerce activities — both sides of the spectrum have required substantial shifts in strategies to compensate for the changing landscape.

In terms of moving work forward, many clients are not necessarily geared for this degree of shift in such a short time, and as a result, we instituted near-term pivot plans to make the necessary adjustments in both channels and messaging. These plans, in conjunction with an increase in status frequency has allowed the teams to adjust as new information comes in from the federal, state, and county levels. For our media partners, we have been working closely with them to provide them the content they need during this time. As an example: While our client, The Flower Fields, had to close for the season, we used the opportunity to shoot b-roll and develop story-telling videos that show the pristine beauty of the fields.

The important part for our team was to clearly define the core tenets of how to move forward, and then providing the ability for them to integrate that into each client’s circumstance.

What advice are you sharing with your direct reports who are also leaders?

To stay calm and keep focused.

There is a lot of change happening in our communities, and we all have a lot of change happening ourselves — not only professionally, but personally as well.  The best thing we can do for ourselves and our clients is to keep a clear mind about where we are, and where we want to be coming out of this.

In what ways can PR practitioners continue to be of service to their organizations and clients during this time, when for some industries, business has come to a standstill?

There’s always a story somewhere — currently we’ve been working with the media to build stories based on how our clients are shifting and adjusting to the times — this has seen a lot of momentum specifically within trade publications.  The focus of those changes are typically what is helping drive the consumer story — much of which has been centered around what our clients are doing to help the public through these times.

For instance, this week we’re launching a series of virtual tastings for our Santa Barbara Vintners client to help bring the tasting experience into the homes of those who would otherwise be up in the valley (or those who would like to visit). Proximity and “behind-the-scenes” have always been an intrigue to audiences, and this allows us to get them close to the winemakers themselves and have a bit more insight into the people behind some of their favorite wines (or, possibly find a new one).

For PR professionals who may have been laid off or lost their jobs during this time, what can they do in anticipation of their next opportunity?

There’s no doubt that out of circumstances like these, there is opportunity. There’s been a lot of shift in personnel on both the client and agency sides.  Looking forward, I would definitely be looking at industries that were essential during this period to move forward, as well as those that were hardest hit — they’ll be looking for new, innovative, and fresh concepts to get themselves back on track.

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