How Brands and Their PR Teams Are Navigating Communications During a Pandemic - Fashionista

The coronavirus outbreak is not the first incident that has made fashion and beauty feel like incredibly trivial things to talk and write about — or pushed many of us in the industry into existential crises of sorts. It can be hard not to question your role in a world where there are always More Important Things Going On. But this global pandemic is still unique in the impact it's had on literally every human on earth, and in the sense that there's still no end in sight.

As we work to ensure a sensitive and useful approach to creating content, brands and their communications teams are also grappling with how to do their jobs — which primarily involve pushing products, either directly to consumers or through editors, writers and influencers. And when consumers are struggling to find basic items like toilet paper or maintain a steady income, being marketed to by a fashion brand can feel ridiculous. At the same time, many brands are losing sales to store closures and the economic downturn, and workers to social distancing requirements. And they simply can't afford to go dark.

While we've seen plenty of off-putting pitches over the past few weeks, several brands and their PR teams are proactively cancelling events and launches, shifting strategies, checking in with the editors they work with and being refreshingly transparent about their (very understandable) confusion in this time.

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We spoke to several brand founders and PR professionals in fashion — and observed their actions — about the discussions they've been having internally, how they're shifting their communications strategies, what they're doing about cancelled events and launches, how publicists are working with clients who may soon not be able to afford to pay them and how brands keeping consumers engaged while remaining sensitive and mindful. Read on.

"We're humans first."

"Our first communication [to editors] has been to inquire about everyone's health and safety," says Clara Jeon, co-founder of Chapter 2. "We offer help, our personal Disney+ logins or sometimes just a friendly ear. We work with these people every day; to be honest, you should want to genuinely know how everyone's doing and if they're okay. Let's all remember that we're human first, our professions second."

At Fashionista, we've seen a growing number of these thoughtful inquiries from our PR contacts in our inboxes. They'll usually include questions about if and how we're adjusting our coverage and whether fashion and beauty pitches have a place. Whether in correspondence with editor contacts or on social media, it doesn't make sense to go about business as usual without acknowledging the strange reality we're all living in. 

"We're approaching it with a combination of being real and using common-sense sensitivity. We're not communicating as if there's nothing going on, but we're being smart about it," says Lisette Sand-Freedman, CEO of the PR agency Shadow. "By better understanding sensitivities or concerns from [editors' and influencers'] end, we are better informed in our go-forward strategies for our clients."

"We have really emphasized to our team the importance of striking the right tone when speaking with media to ensure we are not being frivolous or opportunistic in our communication," adds Ashley Carone, managing partner at Autumn Communications.

This is true not just of publicists, but also of brands themselves.

"Right now, the sensitivity really has to be there," says Sarah Flint, founder and designer of an eponymous luxury shoe line, who struggled with how to communicate around an important new collection launch this week. "Every company needs to reexamine their communication." She still alerted her customers to the new product, but did so by sharing a personal letter that did more than outline her company's sanitation practices. "When so many people are feeling understandably anxious, is it wrong to be sending cheerful emails about shoes?" she wrote. "This is challenging. It is a 'first' for us. We may not get it right."

Messaging from other independent brands like Entireworld and Rachel Antonoff struck a similarly genuine, anxious, sympathetic tone. (It turns out that can sell product, because the former got me to buy yet another effing sweatsuit.)

Focus on connections over transactions.

By that same token, at a time when pushing frivolous items feels icky, PRs are advising clients to focus on building up connections with customers in lieu of driving conversion. 

"Our advice is to use their platforms and products to spread as much positivity, support and informed messaging as possible," says Jeon.

Catbird founder Rony Vardi is working hard to keep her small Brooklyn operation running somewhat smoothly and trying to reach customers with connection rather than promotion. "Beyond the business itself, we're leaning on [our team and customers] to help navigate," she says. "Sharing tips on how to care for each other and ourselves, sharing fears, meditations, words, reading lists, jokes, glasses of wine over Facetime. We've used the same channels that were once primarily promotional for our brand and product to connect on this level." (Catbird's stores are temporarily closed, but its retail staff is being paid during that time, according to an Instagram post.)  

"We are encouraging [our clients] to share both their craft and their spirit digitally and virtually," says Dana Hollar Schwartz, co-founder of PR agency The Hours (which represents Catbird). "One client in particular has been hosting 'self-guided facials' from home on Instagram Live for her community and had almost a quarter of her followers tune in." 

Part of the thinking seems to be: Keep your customers engaged, so that if and when things return to normal, they'll be ready to shop. "The brands that will be successful over the next few months will focus on community building and engage openly about what's impacting the everyday lives of their customers," says Sand-Freeman. "It's an opportunity to move and inspire people, and customers will remember those brands that brought them together."

Pitching and messaging needs to shift to what's relevant. 

It's important to note that there's a fine line between pitching products that feel relevant right now and capitalizing on consumers' fears — and that's something some communications teams are aware of. Many PR professionals are encouraging clients to postpone or reframe spring launches that don't feel appropriate right now.

One unnamed womenswear brand was forced to postpone the March launch of a (still embargoed) collaboration of products pretty much centered around vacation: They planned to align the launch with spring break and Coachella, and it quickly became clear that it wasn't something the brand's customers would respond to. So they scrapped it.

Flint had initially planned to promote her new shoe collection around spring-y, festive gatherings like weddings and graduations, until it became clear that many people are presently having to cancel these kinds of events. "So many people are changing their plans; I thought, 'Is it putting salt in the wound to talk about these things right now?'" Still, she knew that, business-wise, it wasn't an option for her to cancel the launch. "It was more: How do we talk about it in a sensitive way? Maybe we don't promote, 'These are the shoes for outdoor events like weddings and parties,' but promote the design details and inspiration [instead]."

Shadow's Sand-Freeman focused on appealing to editors' new lifestyles. "It's not a secret that most media companies have transitioned to work from home, but we're hearing stories about editors being force-fed tone-deaf pitches like 'Covid-19 is here so here is the best eye shadow look to match your face mask when you go to the grocery store,' which is just flat-out inappropriate," she notes. "Instead, we leaned into our client Aerie's collection of cozy pieces and offered editors, journalists and influencers the opportunity to place a personal order to help make their work from home setup a just little more comfortable. It served as a relationship builder and indirectly led to coverage around the new collection."

Remote working allows for experimenting with meeting formats.

A big part of a publicist's job is to build relationships with editors and this often takes the form of taking them out to coffee or a meal or inviting them to events or into their showrooms for appointments. In a time when these in-person meetings aren't possible, some PR companies are experimenting with digital versions.

Beth Bassil and Danielle Goodman just opened their new Los Angeles-based PR agency B.good in January, and had planned a trip to New York to meet with editors and introduce them to the new company and their clients. Since that wasn't possible, they emailed editors inviting them to schedule a "Virtual Breakfast." They'd set up a time to chat over the phone and Bassil and Goodman would send the editor a virtual gift card to the juice or breakfast spot of their choosing so they could order delivery and support a local small business.

During this time of year, many brands and their PR teams focus their efforts on marketing around Coachella — promoting festival-appropriate products and coordinating "gifting suites," especially in Los Angeles, where editors and influencers come to collect free stuff. While Coachella has been rescheduled for October, one PR company, Coded, has already planned a digital version wherein team members will show virtual attendees around their showroom and assist them in selecting product via Facetime.

Be nimble — and realistic — about losing business. 

No matter how hard industry professionals try to heed the prophetic advice of one Tim Gunn to "make it work," the reality is that there will be real hurdles and consequences, particularly when it comes to client retention. 

Bassil says one of B.good's clients doesn't know if she'll be able to afford her retainer fee next month due to the loss of business. "We're willing to work with clients to lower retainers make this work for everyone; when this blows over, then we pick back up," she says.

"We have advised some clients to hold on spring launches, if they can, until the dust settles, and we're being upfront that the typical fashion and beauty coverage they expect from us will look different over the next several months," explains Schwartz. "We're also helping clients navigate business interruption and strategizing for the year and beyond."

Vardi, whose Catbird jewelry is all produced in-house, worries about her team's ability to keep up operations. "The fear is of course that there is a team of 140 who are employed by Catbird and that as the world halts to contain what is happening, the small joys we have made for years will come to a halt," she says. "It's been scary but we know 16 years in that weathering this is possible. Despite it all, there is hope."

Flint has her shoes manufactured in Italy, which presents its own potential logistical challenges. Furtuna, a new luxury skin-care company, also bottles its serums there; co-founder Kim Walls explains that "over 95% of our team is Italian, so it has largely impacted our launch timelines. While our Italian manufacturers and farm members are isolated, our U.S. team is working remotely on shifting launch plans and creating more digital promotion opportunities." 

Small fashion brands who operate without much of a financial safety net are at the highest risk. 

"The implications of our current situation on small businesses is going to be hard to predict in its totality, but we all know it’s going to be rough," says Jeon. "There will be an inevitable slowdown in business, for us and for our clients. Our client roster includes retailers that are currently closed and brands that are heavy in events-based services with events cancelled, and retaining them and finding our best ways of supporting them through this time is a consequence we're dealing with now."

The bottom line? Both internally and externally, brands and their PR teams need to use this time wisely. 

"The biggest issues are going to come from knee-jerk reactions from short-sighted company leaders or those who decide to do nothing at all," says Jeon. "We know and feel the same anxieties as everyone else right now about all the uncertainty we’re facing, but those who are only focusing on the immediate and behaving as if this is the end of their businesses will be the biggest losers in this. The real leaders in our industry are taking this as an opportunity to address the concerns and needs of their customers and teams, taking the time to innovate and get creative, and are well on their way to designing their next big thing."

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