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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.
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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.
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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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‘You’ve Got To Be Bold’ – Why Moving to Virtual Events for All of 2020 Is Turning Into a Win for PRWeek

The hope that live events will return in the fall is increasingly giving way to the realization that many (if not most) conferences and trade shows in the U.S. will continue to be virtual or hybrids of online and in-person for the remainder of 2020. Last week, Informa saw an 8% stock jump when it said select trade shows would resume in Asia but warned that live events in the U.S. won’t return until at least September.

On June 3, Haymarket Media’s PRWeek became one of the first B2B media brands to announce that its full slate of events—including conferences and awards programs—will go virtual for the remainder of the year. Soon after, another Haymarket brand, Medical Marketing & Media, announced it will also be taking the remainder of its 2020 events virtual.

I caught up with Steve Barrett, Vice President and Editorial Director of PRWeek, on making the call, how virtual events are opening up new audiences and how the PRWeek edit team is rising to the challenge by creating new types of content that break the mold of traditional B2B.

On making the decision to go virtual for the remainder of the year…

Steve Barrett: The start of the lockdown came at bad time for everyone but particularly for us because we had our biggest event of year, the PRWeek Awards, set for March 19 in New York City, where we get over 1,000 PR pros in a room at Cipriani.

You’ve got to be bold in business. We had to make a difficult call then and we’ve been making difficult decisions about events since then. We’ve got awards shows, conferences, honorifics like our Hall of Fame, which honors women in PR, our Brand Film Festival at the Paley Center for Media and our Global Awards program that usually takes place in London.

At the end of the day, after taking all the guidance of our stakeholders into account and thinking about safety, which is the most important thing, and whether there’s really an appetite to travel and get together in large groups, we decided for clarity, for safety and so everyone can plan for rest of year, to call it and go virtual.

How virtual events give PRWeek new scale…

Whilst it’s regrettable that we can’t meet in person, there’s a lot of things that you can do like widening it out to a larger audience.

Our Global Awards are normally held in London. We made it a three-part event and optimized each day for a different part of the world—one day for Europe, one day for Asia, one day for the U.S.

At a physical event, nobody wants to sit there and watch loads of content—they want to network, they want to go to parties and obviously, we want to encourage that. In a virtual environment, they are more apt to focus on the content.

Our smaller Convene events usually run over lunch and we do three or four 30 to 40-minute discussions. We had one on COVID-19 and communicating in the coronavirus era and three thousand people registered. Normally, an event like that would get 80 to 90 people in a room.

When we come back to live events, virtual elements will still be part of that going forward. We’ve seen the potential of it.

On redefining content in the COVID-19 era…

We’ve added a lot of new elements to our weekly content. Lockdown Life features profiles of people in their work-at-home situations and includes fun videos where we get kids to say what they think their parents do for a living. We’ve talked to people in the industry who had the virus and what that experience was like; we had one where we featured two people working from home at competing PR firms.

There’s been a lot of bad news this summer so we’ve tried to balance that with some fun and engaging content. We launched Coffee Break, which are just short, 15-minutes videos like we’re doing here, with people in the industry.

At Haymarket Media we’ve got 40 brands across the world and we launched a coronavirus briefing with content from all those brands. Whereas B2B is about going deep in a vertical, this was a horizontal slice on one topic. That was really interesting—I could see that happening on other issues like the future of work or diversity.

Necessity is the mother of invention and editorial teams have been doing this for 10, 15 years now. We’ve had to be scrappy; we’ve had to pivot. We’ve had to work through challenges before like the financial crisis. I sometimes think consumer media is only just catching up to us. We’re battle-worn, we’re battle-weary, but we’ve still got a lot of energy and we’re still full of great ideas and I think there’s some great content being produced in the B2B environment.