Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production
“At the Moment It's about Empathy and Being Human”: A PR Perspective on Communications in the Time of Covid-19
Advertising Agency
Mumbai, India
MullenLowe Lintas Group's public relation division - GolinOpinion's president gives his take on how brands can alter their messaging to ensure consumers stay on side during the pandemic

During this time of uncertainty, one thing has been obvious from the start and that is the need of brands to change their communication and marketing tactics to continue to appeal to consumers. Most customers, in all corners of the globe, have shifted their spending habits onto items that tick the boxes of cleanliness and hygiene. But, as more of the world begins to open up how will PR practices change?


LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Ameer Ismail, president of MullenLowe Lintas Group's PR division - GolinOpinion who is based in India to hear his advice for brands and how he believes pent-up demand will drive the future of luxury sales.



LBB> How have you and the team reacted to the lockdown in India?


Ameer> Initially it was a little disruptive because psychologically most people feel being in an environment where there are people, in an office environment, a safe space to get on with your day. Little did we all realise that you can be as efficient working from home.


In Mumbai we spent quite a lot of time commuting so all that time is saved and we spend quality family time together. The key thing in all of this is self-motivation; you’ve got to have that built into your DNA over a period of time if this reality plays out for longer.



LBB> What about as a business, what effect has Covid-19 had?


Ameer>I’ve been part of this group for 23 years donning various hats and during my time here I’ve noticed that we get somewhat insulated from immediate hits because we are well diversified.


The PR business was set up in 1994 so we are one of the older players in the field. Our portfolio is diversified even in PR and there are certain sectors that have taken a massive hit like hospitality where we had a very strong partnership with Marriott International. We were the only agency on record for eight years in a row without a repitch, but as they’ve taken such a bad hit during Covid-19, their entire agency system has been impacted in some way, shape or form.



LBB> How have you worked with clients to change their messaging and communications since the coronavirus outbreak?


Ameer> In various facets you have to reimagine the storytelling, the content and the way it's delivered: it's got to be compelling and it's got to be relevant. We’ve been working with different brands across different categories in different ways. For some brands just being alive on social media and digital platforms with consistency is key. At GolinOpinion we don’t believe in quick fixes and brand building so you’ve got to be out there in whatever shape or form so that’s the brief from some brands. With others, they want to do a little more, they want to tackle this whole fear psychosis that exists under the circumstances of “oh my god am I going to be safe if I do this?”


We’ve had to curate and work with messaging around safety, health, cleanliness and disinfecting but all packaged in a nice way. Digital video content makes a big difference in that space and in other cases clients are willing to talk to us and experiment a little more. We've been asked, “what can we do to come up with something potent, socially relevant and digital?”



LBB> What has driven the understanding to create the correct messaging?


Ameer> We go all the way in the food chain. You start with the internal concerns, employee welfare, stockholder concerns and share value and so on. So, you have to curate that kind of messaging correctly and sensitively.


The first place where a PR agency kicks in is to guide and advise and once content is ready to upscale and train to ensure that’s delivered well. We have a training arm as well that does that with clients. That’s what you do at the beginning.


Then you look at context, luckily we’re an agency steeped in insights, we’ve always prided ourselves on effectiveness and we deep dive into research that’s available. But, we sometimes conduct research and understand what the real issues are – not based on a gut feeling. Those kinds of insights highlight the real issues and then you get into discussing content and platforms, the best way and most cost effective way. Let me be clear, everyone is looking at every rupee spent far more carefully than they did earlier, you’ve got to understand that reality too and not come up with very big and expensive ideas because clients are going to shoot it down at some level.



LBB> So, from a PR perspective, what are you advising brands to do right now?


Ameer> The first thing I’d say is be consistent. Everyone believes switching on and off when it suits them, but consistency of communication keeps you alive. As a human being, as a brand – it’s the principle I believe in.


Secondly I think you need to be authentic, truthful and back it by action. You can’t say, I believe in this and not do it. You’ve got to step up and do something – take some action. It’s about really doing something.


The third thing is, continue to explore new avenues and let your agency guys innovate because this is the time you get the best out of them.



LBB> Is the main focus of the Indian consumer at the moment on cleanliness and hygiene?


Ameer> Its sector specific, somebody buying a bike won’t be thinking too much about safety. They want to get out there and release pent-up demand. Safety is applicable to hospitality, aviation. The challenge for brands is always “come back and consider me”. Some of our clients say “we don’t want consideration, we need sales, we need cash flows”. You need to be really tough on what kind of communication triggers that response and that action.



LBB> Talking of pent-up demand, how will the luxury sectors fare post-lockdown? There have been scenes of designer stores crowded in China in a wave of ‘revenge spending’


Ameer> I think people are going to go back to spending, but the whole ecosystem of celebrations for the foreseeable future – at least six months - is going to be quite subdued. You buy fancy outfits and wear them in different situations.


With designer clothing people will dress up at home and celebrate. I don’t think that’s going to come back in a hurry, but shopping will definitely. You hear reports of pent-up demand in China and there is plenty of money in India – as much as people like to show the other side.



LBB> What direction do you hope to steer the business in the future?


Ameer> I see newer challenges and newer opportunities. A lot of what I see is going to move onto digital in a big way, it was always happening a bit with consumption of media and news online. India is the only country where print rules the roost, but also we have television and online growing. Now I think it’s going to catapult in a massive way from a news consumption and sharing point of view. You’re going to be used to five months of lockdown and checking out stuff online. That kind of stuff is going to throw out a number of opportunities.


From a PR agency lense, it’s the ability to map and measure, which did not happen in the world of print versus digital. The ability to measure and deliver storytelling, all of that stuff is going to really change the game. In my opinion whatever is going to happen with technology to change the game in health care is  going to now happen for us.



LBB> Will you be tailoring more communications towards digital now?


Ameer> In India specifically the focus has been, “I’ll be the jack of all” and there are loads of clients that believe that reputation and image is built offline first. That dynamic has slowly changed.



LBB> From that perspective, what role will social media play on communications?


Ameer> I think you’re going to find that the technology companies themselves are going to start catering towards products and services that build profiles and images. They are all vying for advertising money but soon that’s going to expand into many other areas, a lot of people in ad tech  I believe is the future.


Social media is going to play a very, very critical role. I’m hearing form colleagues that gone are the days of big, fancy, very expensive campaigns. It doesn’t give you that kind of reach anymore. So then what does? You’ve got to figure out these bits that in conjunction have a big impact and don’t cost you an arm and a leg.



LBB> Has there been a campaign that’s really stood out to you in the last six months?


Ameer> I don’t have a single campaign in mind, there are quite a few! One is an agency one – I’m a little biased – a campaign I saw that the team had done for Lifebuoy and it really looked at the factory floor workers. That’s a brand that stepped up to the plate and actually reduced prices. There was a point in time where they were doing a lot of good but weren’t backing it with authentic action. I saw this piece of work that was giving thanks to their workers. It was a beautiful campaign, lovely visual impact. Hashtag hope makers, I like that kind of message.


On the corporate side I was really impressed with Arne Sorenson’s message [the CEO of Marriott]. When all of this first broke out, a video message he sent to his employees and then to the world was really full of empathy, decent and so well articulated. So I see different bits, it’s not necessarily in a film format that impresses me.



LBB> Is that human element and understanding crucial right now to get consumers on side?


Ameer> The way I see it is it’s almost like being decent in a conversation. You can’t just override the other person and say something that they don’t want to hear.


Suddenly consumers will want to buy this and that at the right price. At the moment it's about empathy and being human – and being real. If you do that without taking action it may not work as well.


I think the new normal is going to be partnerships, associations, helping businesses, helping each other and doing good for the economy. That’s the bigger picture as people have the time and they have the inclination. There’s a big, big wealth of opportunity that’s sitting right there because we are a country that, normally, under normal circumstances people love to say ‘Indians love to pull each other down’. They don’t give each other a chance. In this case, it’s changed the dynamic. I think agencies are well placed to take advantage of that dynamic in many ways.