Russia's economy is going through a tough period, which is mirrored by the state of the country's PR industry. Many companies have been forced to stop long-term reputation investment and focus all their efforts on obtaining fast marketing results.
Meanwhile, the communications boom continues. Terms such as 'visualization', 'social media marketing', 'influencer', and 'big data' have not only settled in the PR vocabulary, but are also transforming the landscape of the industry.
All in all, PR pros are facing an extremely difficult task. So what is really happening over here?
It’s true that the crisis is taking it’s toll on many – at worst, agencies are closing. Even though it’s still an exception rather than a rule, the majority are, however, reducing staff and optimizing costs. PR budgets are being cut, sometimes by as much as 20-50%.
Some customers are forced to stop working with agencies altogether or have moved on to project models instead of retainers, even if such projects turn out being more expensive in the long-term compared to retainers.
Companies that are too used to the customer-agency dynamic are often choosing less known and established contractors with a more boutique approach, who are more flexible to budget cuts and are often willing to provide more for less.
From a human resources point of view there is a definite shift from specialists towards multi-talented workers who are not afraid to learn new skills on the fly. While it’s become somewhat easier to find a good employee due to market reduction, it makes more sense to keep your best people and invest in their professional development.
Accordingly, it’s now more important than ever to prove PR can drive tangible profits since companies in Russia are cutting down on image costs and are focusing on the short-term goal of stimulating sales. Sometimes it’s good to re-think and redefine the formats of building communication with your audience. Searching for instruments that bring immediate impact is crucial, be it a project with a teenage vlogger for a language school to boost the courses during the summer period or a business column for a start-up to provide it with a flow of new investors.
Over the past few years the media market has changed beyond recognition. As the number of offline media is declining constantly, we work more and more with online influencers in order to reach the target audience. Gone are the days when you could simply choose the biggest star around. Being on a limited budget, it’s important conduct careful research, analyze key consumer interests and find the brand ambassador with a clearly defined, active and loyal audience before rolling out a communication plan. Sometimes doing a joint activity with a medium-sized but lively VK community (VK is the Russian social network with the country's biggest audience) or an aspiring Instagram photographer might cost you less and bring more tangible results.
Despite the crisis, PR needs continue to grow and media often fail to handle the flow of corporate information that falls on them, especially taking into account the decreasing number of offline media. As a solution, many companies have resorted to brand journalism – via their own corporate content platform.
This approach, though, requires time and creative resources: content should be truly useful and interesting for the audience and format — lively and involving, whether it is a corporate video blog, a series of Medium notes or an airline magazine. Modern PR people in Russia not only work with journalists — they have become journalists and data analysts, reducing the number of links in the communication chain.
It is difficult to imagine modern comms campaign without high quality visuals, whether it is a series of infographics, videos or a game app. Some Russian clients have a more traditional approach to comms and require more education regarding the importance of visuals in achieving success.
For some customers you need to be ready to provide PR, website support and social media management. These options require good design skills on a daily basis – whether it's a traditionally “visual” brand like a furniture retailer or a B2B customer.
The tricky thing is, though, that you do not always have the budget to hire a design agency for Facebook or Instagram. Accordingly, it becomes necessary to learn to do these things on your own — by hiring versatile professionals who have no problem creating simple visual content, be it a slideshow, a short Vine or banner for Facebook — or by investing in existing staff.
During the economic slowdown many Russian companies are responding by entering new markets so we must prepare ourselves to provide them with qualified international support. Hiring fluent English speakers is obviously important, having partners and advisors from different countries is also a part of the winning formula. In times of crisis we need to literally push business boundaries and work beyond borders.
To conclude, a crisis is often described as a time of new opportunities. Budgets are shrinking and many customers are reviewing their scopes of work but PR specialists shouldn’t lose heart – in fact, this might be the golden opportunity to crystallize the Russian industry.
At the end of the day, a crisis like this reveals everyone’s true abilities. Those who do it best and are quick to reinvent themselves under any given circumstances are much more likely to stay afloat. Those who are rigid and snail-paced are going to be left behind. Customers always want more work for less money and that's only going to intensify. Whether we are going to become an "extra", or transform our expertise to be one of the most effective and sought-after marketing tools, depends only on ourselves.
Natalia Buchelnikova is CEO of Moscow based comms agency Buman Media.