As the coronavirus pandemic hit, many organizations reached out to professional communicators for help in navigating the delivery of COVID-19 messages. Quite often, due to the economic downturn and layoffs, these organizations have turned to independent practitioners.
Each practitioner is unique and how they are helping clients during this crisis is also unique. PRSA Independent Practitioners Alliance (IPA) members offered crisis counseling that included direct counseling with CEOs, providing training and resources for the nonprofit industry, and counseling for association executives, communication staff, and boards on how to serve their members during this crisis best.
Three IPA members who have helped organizations communicate during the current health crisis are Kevin Bakewell, APR; Courtney Malengo, APR; and Judy Musa.
Bakewell, who is the incoming chair of IPA, founded Bakewell Public Relations in 2013. He is a 43-year veteran of corporate PR at AAA. Based in Florida, he had an opportunity every year to practice crisis communication during hurricane season. He also led crisis communications for AAA after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Malengo founded Spark + Buzz Communications in 2019. In many of her previous jobs, she served as a company spokesperson and as a counselor to several CEOs. She has weathered quite a few crises, some of which were natural disasters. Other crises she has handled include a murder-suicide at a retirement community and employee misconduct. Now, with the COVID-19 health crisis, she is drawing upon the ten years she spent in senior living and health care to counsel clients in that industry.
Musa founded JM Marketing Communications in 2004 and became managing partner of MoJJo Collaborative Communications, a virtual agency, in 2015. Musa and her two business partners are seasoned veterans of crisis communications. They have counseled clients during crises, from product recalls to health issues to food poisoning.
Dealing with Crises as a Solo: Is it Different?
As solo practitioners, Bakewell, Malengo, and Musa work in an environment that is unique to independent practitioners. Corporations, nonprofits, and public relations agencies typically have large teams of public relations professionals who handle crisis communication. And yet, independent practitioners offer high quality, expert advice in crisis communications without an extensive infrastructure of support. There may be a few adjustments that independents need to make. Still, in the end, they prefer to work as independents, either collaboratively with a few select others or solo.
For example, Bakewell is adjusting to independent practice after 45 years in a large corporation. Before heading out on his own, he worked at AAA, where there were a large budget and a large team. Now, he admits, he is adjusting to a significant culture change. At AAA, the internal support system enabled him to deal with a steady flow of crises. As a solo practitioner, he works alone but relies “a lot” on local contacts as a support system. “These are people who have been doing this for a long time, including a couple of individuals who used to work for me many years ago at AAA and then went off on their own,” says Bakewell.
Collaborating with a few select colleagues is also a mainstay for Musa. She worked for many years in various public relations agencies and now collaborates with other solo and small agency practitioners. "I collaborate with my business partners," she says. "I bounce ideas off of them, and that's helpful." She also notes that the availability of experienced and knowledgeable people for brainstorming is one of the reasons why she joined IPA. "I find it helpful to turn to my fellow practitioners. Even if I don't have a specific subject matter, knowledge, or experience, someone else might." She also notes that, in the current crisis environment, reaching out to colleagues can be especially helpful, since practitioners may find themselves having to deal with different constituents and having to adjust how they are dealing with these new groups.
Malengo has found that one of the challenges of working as an external consultant is getting enough access to information. “Depending on the level in which you work in previous organizations, you're always going to have varying levels of access to different information about the companies,” she explains. “And also, frankly, you are more likely to be aware of the potential landmines that are there. When you slip over to the consultant or counselor role, you don't always know the full story. You're relying on the client to tell you and divulge everything to you in what you're hoping is accurate and truthful manner.”
Three practices, three types of service
The types of crisis communication services that Bakewell, Malengo, and Musa deliver vary. Bakewell counsels nonprofits. He is an active member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Tampa Bay Chapter, where he had a presentation scheduled for their April luncheon meeting. When COVID-19 hit, AFP canceled the in-person meeting. Bakewell then changed his topic from general public relations to crisis communications and presented this as a two-part Zoom presentation.
A pre-event survey on SurveyMonkey bolstered the success of Bakewell's presentation. He asked about members' content preferences. He found out that most organizations did not have a crisis communications plan, so he decided to do a two-part series: part one focused on how to create a crisis plan, and part two focused on COVID-19-specific communication responses. He also created PR for Nonprofits, which archives the information related to those presentations, as a resource for the nonprofits. "I had the luxury," Bakewell admits, "to not have to worry about a specific client as it relates to their crisis communication needs, but to help the whole industry instead."
Malengo has counseled various clients about COVID-19 issues, and each one has different needs. "It hinges on what they need and how equipped they are internally to handle the situation," she explains. But she emphasizes that crises counseling differs from non-crisis counseling in one crucial aspect: timing is always of the essence. "You don't have a lot of time to dive in and create a formal plan," she explains. "I've had some cases where clients have called me in when they have media swarming a physical building or a campus. You don't have the luxury of waiting in a situation like that."
“When I already have an ongoing relationship with the client, it's a little bit easier because you know how they operate,” says Malengo. "You know some of the politics and the potential landmines.” On the other hand, notes Malengo, with a brand-new client, you don't have the best frame of reference." In these cases, Malengo is extra careful to ask all the pertinent questions. “I assess the client need,” says Malengo. "And then I create a scope work proposal for them to review and then make sure that we have alignment and understanding. And then I dive in to execute whatever is needed. Sometimes that's at a strategic plan level or simply at a counseling level. Other times it's a strategy, plus the implementation and execution of tactics. Each client is at a different place and requires different things from me."
Musa's involvement with COVID-19-communication counseling has mostly been for two nationwide associations, with whom she and her virtual team at MoJJo had been working before the crisis. For these associations, the biggest concern was ensuring that their members had the tools they needed in their businesses to respond to COVID-19. They needed to advise their members on professional protocols to follow, even though quarantine rules were different in different locations. "We suggested that their (respective) executive director(s) reach out and provide regular information that's very factual, whether it is providing information on resources, creating a resource page for their membership, or how to obtain a PPP loan to stay in business," Musa explained.
Musa will also revisit projects she had already been working on with these clients, such as annual meetings. "We are working with them to figure out how to communicate since one client canceled their yearly conference, and another is converting to a virtual meeting."
A healthy market for Independent practitioners
In the wake of the COVID-19 health crisis, opportunities for independent practitioners of crisis communications seem to be increasing. One reason is that many organizations who never thought they would need a crisis communication plan now see the value in having one. Also, the COVID-19 crisis is forcing many organizations to re-evaluate and reassess their organizational messages going forward. Bakewell notes that many organizations have the same communication goals and objectives as before the pandemic. Still, the current situation may require different strategies and tactics for them to achieve their goals and objectives.
Another reason for the increasing demand for independent practitioners is that, due to the weakened economy, many organizations have unfortunately divested themselves of public relations staff. Bakewell speculates that corporate executives are thinking, “I may not be able to pay salary and benefits for a full-time PR person, but I know I still need support for communications, and contracting with an independent professional would be a great solution.”