In what has been probably the most dramatic March in our memories, a frenzied storm grinded the life of Cairenes to a halt for a whole weekend. Unbeknownst to us back then was that less than two days later, this temporary shutdown would become a normal state of existence, with Egypt imposing a lockdown that would see most businesses stop their activities at least for a while.
All the talk back then rightfully centered around informal workers, who depend on street traffic and freedom of movement to make ends meet, and labour-intensive industries like tourism and food beverages. One of the lesser discussed industries was that of public relations and events – which had also seen a very severe downturn in their activities as all gatherings of any kind were indefinitely suspended, directly threatening the livelihood of millions in Egypt and around the world.
“The events industry covers many sectors, has extensive and expensive overheads, such as venue costs, business rates, insurance, is responsible for an extended supply chain, and employs millions of staff globally who maintain the smooth delivery of productions,” says Pigalle Tavakkoli, an esteemed London-based experience designer, producer and tutor, to Business Forward.
In the wake of the pandemic, “even major global entertainment juggernauts such as Cirque du Soleil have been forced to suspend all of their shows worldwide, make 3,500 redundancies worldwide, and declaring bankruptcy,” adds Tavakkoli.
One of the obvious alternatives to holding real-life events is going virtual, which what many events firms around the world had done in response to the crisis. However, such events rarely, if ever, manage to attract large audience.
Challenges of going virtual
“Events and activities that are virtual have been created by the producer, with predetermined functions that the audience may interact with,” explains Tavakkoli, elaborating that this is considered ‘passive consumption’.
“A live experience [on the other hand], provides opportunities for self-expression, which allows the consumer to co-author their journey through two-way dialogue […] This is known as active consumption […] The challenge facing virtual interactions is to develop open spaces within the design that encourage two-way dialogue, to allow the audience to tap into their imagination and co-author their journey in a meaningful and resonant way.”
Following that mindset, Tavakkoli sought to apply a revolutionary approach in one of her upcoming events: “Once lockdown came into force in the UK, a live festival I had been working on for September was suspended indefinitely. After careful review, I converted our festival plans into an online season which will continue to run across a week in September. We are in the process of adapting the installation from a physical space that the public can enter, into a virtual walkthrough that the public will now interact with online.”
Lamia Kamel, CEO of CC Plus, a prominent Egyptian PR firm that organizes one of the biggest PR summits in Egypt, Narrative Summit, reiterates the same concern about going virtual. “I do not see a very big appetite for virtual events in Egypt; to sit through a whole virtual summit is not something many people would do on a recurring basis,” explains Kamel. “A large part of the [Narrative] summit experience is about more than the content; it is about the engagement and interaction with the other attendees and speakers.”
Opportunity in disguise?
As with most challenges, Covid-19 also presents an opportunity for growth and reinvention for many businesses across different sectors. Could PR be one of those?
“This is a special era for PR. Business models are changing and evolving and becoming more digitized and fast-paced. In the current climate, barriers for entry are low so anyone with a platform and a voice can claim to be a PR practitioner,” says Kamel.
Furthermore, Covid-19 created a sense of unity among populations of the world facing an invisible enemy of life – this seems to have been also the case in business, despite the presumed competition between different players; “During the past couple of months, I saw a lot of creativity and energy from my team and in the industry in general,” explains Kamel. “We have been working a lot with other PR firms to push through this time as an industry and there has been so much that has brought us together […] The stamina that we witnessed from our stakeholders and partners was very encouraging and has helped us push through this period. Post-Covid-19 is going to be a very promising time.”
How to weather the storm?
First and foremost, Kamel recommends upholding employee-centric policies as a way to keep the industry afloat and morale high. “It is vital, now more than ever, to provide your team with the confidence and training to enhance their loyalty and commitment. It is the time to promote teamwork and harmony,” she says.
“My second piece of advice is to be very attentive and stay on top of things with your clients. Clients have to feel that they have an indispensable arm that is really monitoring the situation in and around their industries.”
Last but not least, Kamel calls upon business owners in the industry to make peace with the fact that they, like almost every business in the world nowadays, should expect to suffer major losses – however the way out of the crisis is paved with nothing but hard work and sacrifices.
“Yes, you will not be making the same ROI that was expected; however, it is the time to showcase our ability to adjust to the current state of the world and still be able to deliver for our clients.”