The PR industry has benefitted from an increase in crisis communications work as companies deal with fallout from the coronavirus.Edelman CEO Richard Edelman says it’s time for PR to take market share from advertising while BCW CEO Donna Imperato says her firm is going up against management consulting giants.As lockdown orders lift, PR agencies could also benefit as corporations reopen offices and seek help communicating with employees.Click here for more BI Prime stories.

Public relations firms are positioning themselves to take market share from consultancies and advertising agencies as the coronavirus pandemic changes consumer habits, leading marketers to slash their budgets.Business Insider spoke to four CEOs of the largest PR agencies in the world, Edelman, FleishmanHillard, BCW Global, and Weber Shandwick, about how the coronavirus pandemic would affect their industry and where they still saw opportunity.”I think it’s time for PR to take share from advertising,” said Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. “Advertisers don’t want to be next to difficult news. We can actually be part of the news cycle with stories of companies and brands stepping up, of companies in some way changing their supply chains.”Economic headwinds buffeted Edelman in its race to become a $1 billion business, but the firm said it would continue trying to wrest accounts from ad agencies by bringing a PR approach to creative. In the past, it’s won pitches as the lead creative agency for HP, Dove, and others.

“One in three Edelman employees is now either digital, research, experiential, or creative,” Edelman said. “That’s up from one in 25 five years ago.”Edelman is the world’s largest agency, with some 6,000 people, but it hasn’t been spared from cutbacks. The agency laid off some staff in Australia, according to PRovokeMedia. It also just lost a chunk of its Samsung work.Crisis is cushioning the impact of the coronavirus pandemicPR CEOs argued their profession is especially relevant now because they can help clients deal with crises and paint their brands in a favorable light while people may not be receptive to traditional advertising now.Clients are seeking help communicating with vendors and other stakeholders about how the virus would affect their business. They’ve also sought help talking to their employees as they’ve cut staff and set up remote work environments.

And as Chapter 11 petitions surge, the pandemic has positioned PR to profit from bankruptcy communications.Ad holding companies have reported that their PR agencies, especially crisis work, remains in demand during the pandemic.For example, WPP said PR’s like-for-like revenue was only down 1.4% in its first quarter, with the decline mitigated by strong demand for specialist PR services.BCW gears up to take on the consultanciesBCW Global CEO Donna Imperato said the influx of crisis assignments has opened a door for big PR agencies to compete with consultancies by positioning themselves as faster to respond in rapidly changing news cycles.

“We always recommend that clients prepare for crises or certain scenarios, and they think, ‘Well, that’s not going to happen. It’s not what I have to spend money on now.’ I believe that’s going to open up,” Imperato said.Returning to the workplace could also be a boon for PRCrisis PR will also benefit when the lockdown orders lift, FleishmanHillard CEO John Saunders said. FleishmanHillard launched a new practice aimed at helping clients respond to and plan for a post-COVID future.”If we are not helping clients with a COVID-19 related crisis, we are developing best practices for the return to the workplace,” Saunders said. “We are developing scenarios that re-imagine new products and services, new ways of holding virtual events, new ways of engaging consumers.”Technology investment will continuePR CEOs predicted technologies like data analytics tools would play a bigger part in client work as they seek constant updates on how their campaigns are performing.

PR agencies have poured resources into technology lately. Earlier this year, Weber Shandwick launched its tech platform, A-Hub. Last year, Edelman inked a partnership with Cision, the largest PR tech company in the world.”Some 40% of our business is ‘digitally fueled,'” Weber Shandwick CEO Gail Heimann said. “As we move towards the next chapter, we know technology has an absolutely huge role to play.”

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