The ‘COVID-19 Trinity’

Three communications trends whose impact will be evident beyond this crisis

Call it a form of therapy, but I prefer to focus my energy and imagination on ‘post-COVID-19’, when we can take advantage of life again.  The latter may not quite be the same – protocols will change and restrictions will certainly remain – but life will eventually normalize.

Again, this is not a prediction; consider it more of a personal antidote to the relentless uncertainty the world is facing across every aspect from economic and political, to social and individual.

My profession will return, but it may never be quite the same.

The pandemic can be seen as an unprecedented catalyst for change across both the media and communications environment.  For a decade concepts such as influencer engagement and integrated marketing have offered an opportunity for public relations (PR) – earned influence – to lead.

The reality is that, until now – with a few notable exceptions – other marketing disciplines (particularly advertising) continue to dominate the strategic high ground, and budgets. PR is typically relegated to the ‘long tail’ of a marketing programme or advertising campaign.

However, the impact COVID-19 is already being felt in the way people live, work and consumer media, and the opportunity for PR to lead is evident.  I see three communications trends, in particular, that are likely to remain, whenever the ‘new’ normal of our lives returns.

1. The renaissance of television

To quote global market research firm, Nielsen[1]: “Be it snowstorms, hurricanes or a global pandemic, media users ramp up their media consumption to stay informed, kill time, find solace and stay in touch with others.”

The practice of working from home – enforced or otherwise – drives viewership.  Remote employees will on average spend 25 hours and two minutes every week consuming traditional TV, compared to the 21 hours and 56 minutes per week that the average non-remote worker will spend watching traditional TV.

Much of this viewing will be necessity, or lack of alternatives for house-bound citizens, but two important insights remain.  First, the continued trust viewers hold for broadcast as a trustworthy information source.  The last time the US TV broadcast industry, for example, experienced such an uptick was 11 September 2011.

The other insight is a more contemporary one: the use of ‘home made’ content to accompany news broadcasts.  New bulletins are supported by Skype interviews, Twitter-quoted statements, mobile phone videos etc; the ability with which protagonists and commentators can participate and contribute to TV news is unprecedented. And, in my view, it will last.

2. People are spending more time on social media

Nielsen cites a 50x increase in the use of social media in the first quarter of the year, attributable to the COVID lock-down across the globe. According to the research firm, its metric of ‘social media buzz’ in the US jumped up from 0.4 million in January and 1.6 million in February to a staggering 20.3 million by March 24.

The countries in which coronavirus pandemic manifested in the second phase including Italy saw an 11% surge in the average mobile usage, while in India, audio streaming platforms witnessed a 42% spike in total time spent by users.  Facebook experienced a major surge in usage in countries that are hit hardest by the virus with a total messaging increase by more than 50%.

In Brazil, social media engagement (responses, reposts, likes etc) around health and Government-related sites increased a staggering 80% in March compared to January (and 25% more than the previous month).

Despite the growing popularity of video chat apps like Houseparty and Zoom, WhatsApp remains the undisputed king of ‘lock-down social’.  The largest spike was seen in Spain, where the amount of time spent on WhatsApp rose 76% following the country’s lock-down.  In China social media rivals like WeChat and Weibo have seen a 58% increase in usage as people continue to talk to friends and family from quarantine in their homes.

3. A surge in online news consumption

According to ComScore, the number of minutes spent by readers at news sites increased 46% from the same period ending a few days ago last year, and overall visits rose 57%, according to a study of more than a dozen general news websites.

The number of minutes spent by readers at news sites increased 46% from the same period ending a few days ago last year, and overall visits rose 57%, according to a study of more than a dozen general news websites by ComScore, a media measurement company.

According to ComScore, online news across Latin America channels saw a peak in activity in March as a direct result of the ‘COVID-19’ effect.  Other data from Brazil, for instance, confirms the relative confidence citizens associate with reputable, online news channels in times of crisis; TV and (online) newspapers top the credibility lists (according to 61% and 56% of Brazilians, followed by radio (50%) and online news sites (38%).  These numbers compare with just 12% who enjoy similar of trust with social media.

Other research from another analytics company, Parse.ly, suggested that the pandemic directly led to a 60% increase in viewership for online news publishers. COVID-19 coverage is no doubt driving the surge, according to Parse.ly, as content explicitly mentioning coronavirus now comprises up to 15% of daily Web traffic. For contrast, 2020 election coverage was 15 times smaller than Coronavirus-related content views between the March 6-12 period.

Our communications landscape has changed; and not merely for the duration of this pandemic.  The precise details of these impacts are still being played out, but I believe that the resurgence of TV broadcast and use of ‘home’ content, the emergence of ‘home’ influencers (genuine experts, as opposed to celebrities – let’s see where COVID-19 leaves the Hollywood driven anti-vax movement), and the replacement of print media with online news will be here to stay.

This is my therapy; imagining a World post-COVID-19.  PR firms and commutators who recognize and adapt to these shifts will be best placed to prosper.

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