Embrace the Virtual and Good Things Will Happen, PRWeek Shows

“Tomorrow’s going to be different. I have no idea how. If you’ve never embraced that before, embrace it now.” That quote comes from Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications and author of PR for Dummies, in part of a video series called Lockdown Life presented by Connectiv member Haymarket Media’s PRWeek brand.
This moving video features three PR pros who came down with COVID-19—they’re better now—and talk briefly about what it was like, how their agencies dealt with it and the lessons learned.
Sometimes we see a big company doing cool and innovative things, and we say, “I don’t have the resources to do that.” But in the case of PRWeek—which has turned our current disruption into a virtual smorgasbord of creative content, diverse and engaging videos and lively awards shows—smaller companies can definitely take a page or chapter even.

With books aplenty behind him—appropriate for a VP and editorial director—Steve Barrett (pictured) of PRWeek spoke to my colleague Matt Kinsman last week about the incredible pivoting they have done and the rewarding—business-wise and human-wise—results, much of which will remain a part of PRWeek’s agenda in the future.

Here are some of the highlights:
This is a time to try new things. “That phrase, ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ is a really good one,” Barrett said. “You’ve got to be bold in business, you have to be bold in media and try new things.” They turned their Global Awards, normally held in London, into a three-part event and “optimized each day for a different part of the world… We were able to do it in the right time zone and reach a much bigger audience.” They also turned their Brand Film Festival, usually at the Paley Center for Media in New York, into a successful virtual event. “We were showing films, getting lots of contributions from the jury members talking about content and making an engaging and interesting show out of it,” Barrett said.

Lockdown Life. Yaverbaum’s quote came from just one part of one episode of Lockdown LIfe! “Every company needs to keep in mind whether their messaging is actually helping others or if they’re just jumping on the train of communicating about this because they feel they have to,” says Maisie Guzy, an account executive with Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, who also recovered from the virus. Other episodes include: a diverse group of recent grads entering the PR workforce; the challenge of pitching remotely; and fun videos where kids say what they think their parents do for a living.

Coffee Break. “We launched Coffee Break, which are just short, 15-minutes videos with people in the industry,” Barrett said. In one incredibly timely episode from earlier this month, he speaks with Margenett Moore Roberts, chief diversity and inclusion officer at CMG, and to his great credit, gives her the floor. “How do we think about the way we evaluate our internal systems and how do we make changes so we can make sure we are not replicating some of the same systemic issues over and over again within our own organizations…” This is a feature that I’m sure will be staying post-COVID.
Survey your audience. “We did a COVID-19 survey to test the temperature of the industry,” Barrett said, explaining their decision to move all events prior to December to online. “There were a lot of issues but we put a question in there, ‘How comfortable would you be attending an awards ceremony?’ It was pretty obvious from those results that there wouldn’t be any comfort by the end of the year. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen. It’s talking to your key stakeholders and communicating with them. They understand.”
Focus on content. “At a physical event [such as the awards], nobody wants to sit there and watch loads of content—they want to network, have a nice dinner, they want to go to parties and obviously, we want to encourage that,” Barrett said. “In a virtual environment, there’s more opportunities to focus on the case studies, the winning entries, the individuals and the teams. So we really pivoted to content for the big events.”
Do what makes sense virtually and given our backdrop. PRWeek puts on smaller Convene discussion events—free to attend but sponsored—usually run over lunch Eastern time, 30 to 40-minutes on a particular topic. “We had one on COVID-19 and communicating in the coronavirus era and three thousand people registered,” Barrett said. “Normally, an event like that would get 80 to 90 people in a room physically. And then we produced more content after that to get to a bigger audience [and] so people can engage with it, ask questions. We have another session [this] week about health because health is becoming a big part of the communications business. We’re all looking through a public health lens now.”
By seeing what sticks now, you’re adding to your future. “When we come back [to live events], virtual elements will still be a big part going forward,” Barrett said. “We’ll still do virtual stuff because we’ve seen the potential of it. In terms of the bigger events, you have to add value in different ways than you would for a physical event… We’re all learning, there’s no playbook.”
Mix live and recorded content. Barrett acknowledges that “pre-shot” content is often a safer way to go for awards and webinars. But he prefers a mix. “I think [people] do like seeing more personality” that comes from live content, he said. “All prerecrorded can come off as a bit dry. And we’re all learning. I do think virtual events will progress massively over the next 12 months.”
Think horizontally. Haymarket launched a coronavirus briefing “where we took content from all of our brands and put it out as an email newsletter,” Barrett said. “Whereas B2B is usually about going deep in a vertical, this was a horizontal slice across one topic and presenting it out. That was really interesting—I could see that happening on other issues like the future of work, or diversity would be an interesting thing for B2B publishers to look into.”

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