PR’s Top Pros Talk…Consumer Interaction Post COVID
Alina Diaz, Managing Director of Consumer Practice, MSL Group
>> More episodes here
>> Also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and others.
About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: ALINA DIAZ
DOUG: Alina, given your role leading the consumer practice, I’m sure you’ve seen major changes in how public relations is involved in communicating consumer stories since the start of COVID, can you share maybe some of the top changes you’ve seen?
ALINA: Absolutely. Obviously, when we hit March 2020, our lives changed and the way that we were changed, the way that we approach clients and how we engage with media changed. A lot of our consumer work is consumer engagement, which was already very much driven by digital interactions, but not as much as we were all accelerated to do when COVID hit. So we went from a partial virtual interaction to one hundred percent. And I think anybody that would say that they would ready to do this would be lying right now.
DOUG: No, that’s good, well, you can set them straight. So what were some of the tactics and approaches that you suggested were changing first and then we can get into of those which are going to stick around?
ALINA: Absolutely. Well, we were challenged to tell stories when events were not happening. We were challenged to drive people to buy on a store that typically they would do in real life. But the stores and the retailers were closed and some of our clients were closed. And we had to pivot to engage media on virtual events when we had originally and traditionally approach media in real life to build relationships and feel the products and to touch the products and interact also with consumers. So we had to pivot and do media virtual events. I remember last summer, we had to do a media event for one of the retail giants of our clients, and it was a completely virtual event that we’ve never done for a retail client. And it went very successful because we prepared all of the assets in a virtual way that also gave them a taste of what they were going to expect. So same as you would invite somebody to an event where you send them an invitation or you actually send them a gift. We had teasers and Easter eggs to start preparing the momentum and get people excited. So at the moment where we had the Zoom call because that was a media event, people were already thirsty for the information that we were going to get. So that changed. I think also another very important thing that change is life events, concerts, Coachella, South by Southwest. We were all prepared to go to South by Southwest, and South by Southwest was one of the last, I would say, major events that canceled. So we say, how do we actually tell stories when we’re not being present, and how do we activate around U.S Open when we didn’t have a U.S. Open partnering with celebrities and talking about the real life impact that it had on them with athletes and COVID. So we all had to take a different turn and a different lens to create the story that was relevant to tell in the moment.
DOUG: And one of the things that we saw with these trends are actually beneficial to our business because we’re about bringing people who aren’t together with the media to media through media tours, production of content and virtual events. But now that we are hoping the pandemic is getting close to being behind us and changing, how much of this hybrid approach will remain and what are the implications for someone like yourself and your team’s practice and consumer PR and advising clients?
ALINA: I think some of some of these things, some of the practices that we have pre-COVID will come back. But what I’m encouraging our teams and our clients is to continue with the practices that we learn, the digitalization of engagement, the digitalization of how we contact media, how we engage with consumers in a way that we can leverage virtual reality. A.I. really accelerating the use of technology, something that we want to and we need to continue pushing on. But at the same time, what we’re missing of the real human touch and real things that you can touch, we want to bring that back. So I think it’s a balance between what we learn that worked and continue doing that because it’s worked well for media and consumers. But also, what’s the learning? What’s the missing piece that they keep saying? So things that actually people can touch and bring in back, as we can, events and interactions in real time, in real life.
DOUG: One of the things you’ve talked about, even when you’re recently speaking in Cannes is, sort of the growing role of employee communications, even within consumer communications for consumer brands. Can you explain that a little bit?
ALINA: I think we have to be much more reactive in real time. There’s less time to address a consumer, either complaint or a consumer reaction to a potential news that a client or a company of our clients actually is now being in discussion. So reacting in real time is very critical. And I think it’s a big learning out of the COVID times. The other piece is transparency. Consumers want to know what you’re doing, especially in this times when hygiene and practicing all of the rules that the governments in different states that are even different are applying. Just being transparent with what each company, what each brand is considering to protect their employees and their customers is equally important today.
DOUG: Even an additional challenge is the decision to bring employees back, forcing them to be back. There’s a recent story in The Wall Street Journal about JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs requiring employees to come back. And is that an opportunity for their competitors to poach them? How do you navigate those kinds of policies from a communications perspective when there might be some people at a firm or a consumer brand that you work with who can work as effectively, remotely and have proven that others who have to be on site? Where do you find the balance and where does communications play a role in that?
ALINA: Absolutely. I think that the guiding principle is flexibility and direction. Some companies have the early stages of COVID have decided some of the technology giants, we’re going to 100% remote and some of their own employees are saying we want to actually be in the office while now some companies are saying we have to be 100% back in the office when the majority of American employers, employees don’t necessarily want to be back in the office 100% of the time. So I think that flexibility is going to be key. We are interviewing young talent every single day. And one of the aks that we get from PR professionals just coming out of college or just entry levels is “can I work remotely?” And again, the word is flexibility. It depends on the type of client and depends on the type of work. It depends on what and when. Some accounts can be mostly operated 100% virtual, some might not be 100% virtual. So again, establishing one blanket rule for an entire company or even for an entire team is going to be really hard because right now everybody will have to adjust to each circumstance for everyone to be engaged, productive, but also happy where they are in their in their job.
DOUG: So, Alina, you’ve really created a great roadmap for people of where we’ve been and an inkling of what’s happening going forward. But what truly is the need for PR and communications going forward? And how can you prepare the viewers to better handle that?
ALINA: I think is three things. The first one is being more nimble in our planning process. We’ve learned that we cannot predict the future that’s going to happen everybody in the world. So we do have to be able to plan with flexibility for pivoting. We cannot count on dates and events and things happening exactly the way that we had projected them to happen. So we need to have a contingency plan and also being able to give it on the spot, having people that are open minded and having clients managing clients expectations of this could go in different directions. We’re ready to take them on in the five potential different directions that might happen. But also we have the team to pivot on the spot and continuous communication. So I would say that pivoting, flexibility and then the last one is just really focusing on how to measure the value of what we do in real time. If we drove engagement, if we actually drove click through, if we actually drove a sales to increase on a particular day for specific engagement, those moments are much more valuable today than just an annual reporting or an annual planning. So planning and reporting in shorter spans and being ready to pivot.
DOUG: One of the things you’re eager to talk about is the importance of listening to young people and that they may now have a bigger seat at the table, in part because of covid and how it’s accelerated change. How do you make sure that the voices of young people are heard within your organization and within your clients?
ALINA: I think that as leaders, we’ve all learned that the leadership and management has to come from listening to the people that are coming from the bottom up. We’ve all learned that what works for one generation doesn’t necessarily work for the other generation and young people, Gen Z’ers that are entry level right now in the PR industry are the ones that have been living in one hundred percent virtual world. So we all have to take a little bit of a lesson from young people and say, how do I do this better? What actually works better? So again, flexibility. But at the same time, hearing that with direction, this generation also wants to have clear rules on what is expected. So we do have connectivity between the senior level and the younger level to understand better how to communicate. What are some of the rules and explanations that we have to do? But there’s no better lesson or better message for all leaders than to listen to young generations.
DOUG: And the younger people tend to recommend shorter emails rather than longer email. So we can take that to heart as well. Thanks so much for spending time with us.
ALINA: Thank you so much.