According to Obren Msuku, Managing Director of Msuku Media, the big strategic question as we enter 2021 surely must be not how to slash all costs, but how to optimise spend in areas that help the business survive the current crisis while still positioning itself for future growth. Within the realm of brand communication, public relations (PR) stands out as a potentially crucial element.

The risk with slashing expenditure too broadly is that a lack of essential spending could well see surviving businesses poorly equipped to succeed in the post-Covid economy. PR is recognised to deliver strong ROI in conventional times, but it is also particularly well suited to the highly stressed Covid-19 economy, thanks to an ability to create relationships with consumers that reach beyond quick-fire advertising and promotions.

PR is generally one of the most cost-effective components of communications strategies, and during the Covid-19 downturn, its worth has increased significantly. South Africa, like most countries across the world, is fighting a Covid-19 fuelled economic slowdown. Retrenchments are taking place across many industries, and companies of all sizes are tightening their belts to make it through.

As we mark South Africa’s 300th day of lockdown, consumers are clearly very tired. From saturation level news and social media coverage of the pandemic through to the turmoil of global politics and the stresses of navigating a contracting economy, many are simply trying to avoid spending too much. This is clearly reflected by South Africa’s consumer confidence levels, which, according to Bloomberg, remained worryingly
low over December 2020.

In summary: we’re currently in an eyes-down, ears-ˇclosed market, with consumers trying their best to economise. With most real-world events completely shut down and wallets tightly closed, conventional advertising and marketing campaigns are problematic, with ROI destined to be low in most sectors.

But consumers will spend in the post-Covid-19 economy, and the successful brands in the ‘new normal market are likely to be the ones that already have deep, trusting relationships with them. This makes building strong relationships within brand communities right now crucial for players looking to put themselves in pole position during the slow climb out of the Covid-19 crunch.

PR can play a key role because it places a brand in the middle of organic consumer conversations across mass media and broadcast channels, as well as social media. PR allows the brand to engage directly with consumers, deliver important messages within tightly defined target areas and side-step the media fatigue many are currently experiencing.

Take financial services, for example – a sector where many South African consumers are explicitly worried about their futures. Conventional above the line media projects are unlikely to assuage consumer fear or help anyone plot a path into an uncertain future. PR, on the other hand, allows brand leaders to join in important financial conversations on the radio, on TV, in print and on social media. It also opens regular opportunities for the brand to bring its leadership into direct, personal contact with its community – all at a time when personal input and advice from experts is highly valued and relevant to the man or woman on the street. Relative to other types of media spend, PR is clearly an area able to give financial brands maximum ROI.

The same holds true in the realm of FMCG, which has traditionally relied on a strong above the line promotional engine to drive sales. While it would obviously be foolish to abandon this engine, upping PR levels has the potential to leapfrog FMCG brands past rivals. Simply put, brands that are visible and engaged directly within their communities in times of social stress, and that are present in the middle of consumer conversations, are in an excellent position to turn loyalty into better profit margins as the economy recovers.

2021 is set to be a unique and very challenging year for consumers and businesses alike. But even within the challenges, there remain opportunities to spend wisely and lay a foundation for strong future growth. PR is certainly one of these and should be a central plank in any strategic mix.