How to adapt marketing communications to an unpredictable world

Marketing and communications professionals are adept at being adaptable; it comes with the territory of these professions. However, recent events have been challenging to even the most experienced marketing and communications practitioners, who may be finding it tough to keep key messaging and campaign themes aligned with events of the day. 

While current events are challenging, it’s not the first time multiple major events have occurred simultaneously. For example, within a period of two years, Australia’s insurance industry alone had to deal with the collapse of HIH, a royal commission, a nationwide public liability insurance crisis, multiple natural disasters involving bushfires and floods, the SARS virus, and the September 11 and Bali terrorist attacks.  

In situations such as these, how do communications and marketing professionals stay both relevant and sensitive to topics and issues of the day? 

There are five key things to consider when progressing marketing and communications plans in a volatile environment: 

  1. Empathy 

No matter who your target audience is and what role they play in an organisation, remember they are all human and emotionally impacted either directly or indirectly by external events.  

As major events are unfolding, consider how they will impact your own organisation, your clients and potential target audiences on both a professional and personal level.  

This degree of empathy helps marketers and communicators tailor messages that suit the issue and affected audiences. It involves more of an ‘outside-in’ view of the world, rather than a view of how the organisation will communicate its message outwards. In this way, the message helps to solve a problem for target audiences, rather than becoming an ill-timed and ill-pitched product promotion. 

An empathetic approach is particularly important in getting the tone of voice right on social media. Organisations don’t need to comment on major events, and should avoid doing so, unless they can offer some considered advice that will solve a problem for target audiences and be sensitive to the situation. Senior communicators should develop this content rather than junior staff members because social media and websites are the new shopfront for organisations. This is where most people will gain their first impression of a business, so you don’t want it displaying messages that aren’t based on a full understanding of the nuances involved. 

  1. Keep informed, not obsessed, about the news of the day 

With so much happening at one time, marketers and communicators can easily be caught up in the whirlwind of information. 

While it’s important to be informed and on top of current issues, there is a fine line between becoming informed and being obsessed with an issue. Obsession can make it hard to provide a clear and objective view of the situation for your target audiences. 

It’s important to obtain the facts about an issue from a trusted source, such as official channels or non-commercial news providers. While it may be interesting to see different perspectives about an issue on consumer social channels, don’t let this information cloud your judgement or your communications about the issue.  

If you find yourself becoming obsessed, consider limiting your view of issue updates to two to three times per day, unless of course it’s an issue that is unfolding minute-by-minute. Only rely on trusted sources of information. Turn off automatic social news feeds if you find you are becoming emotionally impacted or distracted by an issue. 

  1. Don’t plan too far in advance 

The digital business environment and the rapidly evolving global market have permanently changed planning cycles across all work functions in organisations.  

Developing an annual outline of potential ideas and activities is still relevant, but solid annual marketing and communications plans can easily become obsolete. If you focus on a comprehensive, 12-month marketing or communications plan, you could find yourself needing to redo the plan six months down the track. 

Instead, focus on a three-to-six month plan, with some potential ideas that extend beyond six months but can be easily adapted as market forces change. 

This approach also helps your organisation to become more agile and adaptable, and ensures your messages remain relevant no matter what market conditions are present. 

  1. Know that people still need to hear your message 

While marketers and communicators need to be sensitive to societal issues, equally they must be sensitive to the needs of their audiences. Outside of the issue, the world still turns, and business still needs to be done. This means that there are problems your target audiences need to solve, and they rely on your insight and expertise to do so.  

Thought leadership on key topics that provide valuable insights and advice for your target audiences is still powerful for conveying key messages, without being insensitive to societal issues. 

  1. Be prepared to adjust content and let some ideas go 

As a marketer and communicator, flexibility and adaptability are key. Thinking on your feet can be a great buzz as you adapt to keep pace with market demands. It can be frustrating when you’ve worked hard on a great idea that suddenly has no relevance to what is happening in society.  

When this occurs, consider your idea with a new perspective that is more relevant to the current environment. An entire campaign theme could go out the window but there is always something from that campaign that can be salvaged and reused.  

Ultimately, being an adaptable marketer and communicator in an unpredictable environment is a great opportunity to capitalise on your creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills, while further developing your empathy, which will make you a much stronger and more effective communicator in the long term, even when peace reigns in the outside world. 

Don’t let interns loose on the media

One of the myths in PR is that asking a journalist if they’re going to use a media release will improve coverage results.

Every year, journalists around the world write about how dumb and annoying this practice is. And it is. The fact they write about it every year (for the past 20 years at least) also says that many agencies and corporate PR teams still aren’t getting the message.

If you sent a media release:

a) the journalist is going to assume (rightly usually) that all of their competitors were sent pretty much the exact same story. So it’s not really news any more. (There are exceptions of course).

b) unless their or your email was actually down – then they did receive it. So asking them if they got it is pretty silly. We don’t ring anyone else usually to ask if they got the email we just sent them.

And asking, ‘Are you going to use it?’ is an equally annoying question.

However, for some reason many companies and agencies do insist on calling the media and asking these two questions.

When you’re talking about business to business communication, first up, if your news is important, ring or email the journalist first and explain the story and what you can specifically offer them in terms of content, spokespeople and supporting resources. Every news outlet is different – so customise what you offer to suit their readership.

If it’s run of the mill content then a media release can work to some extent and may get some coverage.

Anyway – how to manage basic PR processes is not the point of this blog!

It’s to draw attention to the fact that many agencies and some company PR teams are using interns to make the ‘Did you get the media release? Are you going to use it?’ calls.

This is bad news on several fronts (apart from the fact that’s it’s a pet hate of the media). Here’s my list.

1. For most companies and agencies, the relationships they have with the media have taken years to develop and are highly valued. Why on earth would you ask the most junior people in an organisation to get on the phone and speak with the media at all – ever?

2. Interns don’t know anything usually about the client, their business strategy or the content in the media release. So if they get asked a tough question by a journalist, they can’t answer it. It might not even be a tough question. It’s annoying to journalists who’s time is wasted and belittling to interns who suddenly realise they’re out of their depth and their own name and reputation, right at the start of their career, is taking a beating. Not a nice place to be for anyone really.

3. Companies are entrusting agencies to represent their brand and build media relationships on their behalf. They must be horrified to learn of agencies that deploy interns – who, through no fault of their own, manage to do the exact opposite of what was intended.

4. Interns can’t pick up on media feedback and adapt their pitch content or come up with fresh ideas to take to the journalists that might make the story fit better with the news agenda of the day. They will follow directions as best as they can – and plough on regardless in many cases.

5. Interns get yelled at, hung up on, receive crushing emails and, unfortunately for the entire PR industry (and probably the media to some extent as well), can emerge from their few months of internship in a state of shock and disappointment. And let’s remember, most Communications courses these days need a near perfect leaving exam mark to get into. So these are some of the brightest people in the country who, thanks to a very ordinary internship experience, swear off the sector all together – and rethink their entire career path.

I can’t tell you how mad this makes me, particularly after conducting many interviews already this year with recent graduates who relayed horror story after horror story about how they told to ‘follow up media releases’ during their internship and got an entirely predictable response from the media.

We have a chronic staff shortage in the PR industry yet too many agencies and companies are tossing interns into terrible situations to get themselves out of a short-term bind (or they honestly think that doing media follow up is ‘good work for an intern’).

As agency owners at least, we owe our future super stars a lot more than this.