The Personal Side of PR During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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As a longtime PRSA member and past Chapter president, I’m deeply invested in upholding the best parts of our profession. In fact, I’ve been studying since January to test for the APR. My plan was to study independently, participate in my Panel Presentation in March, and then take the APR Bootcamp in late April — which would have concluded with the exam. But then the COVID-19 crisis put those plans on hold. 

On March 12, after I took my APR Panel Presentation, my family and I went out to celebrate in our city of San Antonio, Texas. It was the last restaurant outing we’ve had since then. Soon after, “Stay Home, Stay Safe” restrictions began in Texas and the world changed.

Leading my clients, I dove into COVID-19 response actions. But at home, the action was just beginning.

Children become clients and co-workers

My husband James and I have two children in elementary school. Logan, our 5-year-old son, saw his first year of kindergarten severed. Every week, his disdain for distance-learning reminded us of that loss. 

Our daughter Emilia was finishing up fifth grade. In February, my biggest concern for her had been where she would attend middle school, and whether her magical, mystical world would be smashed by mean girls who don’t like unicorns anymore. The days of those concerns seem like they were ages ago now. 

And while coronavirus disease has killed more than 130,000 people in the United States, for many of us, its consequences have been smaller yet disruptive. Among its many effects, the pandemic has turned parents into homeschool teachers. It has also unsettled my independent PR practice in many ways. I have worked from home since 2015 but now, instead of going out to meet with clients, I’ve been on the virtual front lines from behind device screens, leading COVID-19 communications for clients such as Meals on Wheels San Antonio, which found ways to continue delivering meals to people in need.

Being in public relations, I know that relationships are everything. The abrupt shift from in-person meetings to trying to catch people on their cell phone without interruptions from kids has presented a huge obstacle. 

I love my son, but he’s clingier than ever now, and super emotional. Not being able to take our kids to playgrounds, swimming pools or events has been upsetting for all of us.

My husband has borne the brunt of teaching my son, allowing me to get my most vital work done and virtually attend important meetings. I played principal, counselor and electives coordinator. We also hired a neighborhood babysitter to help us two hours a day, Monday through Thursday.

Still, we have lots of starts, stops and “Where was I?” distractions in our work. The deep work that I used to enjoy as an independent PR practitioner is hard to achieve in this pandemic predicament. It has become very challenging to develop a custom PR plan, offer uninterrupted crisis communications support, manage media relations and write. 

I’ve also been delegating work to my team, which includes my assistant, social media coordinator and other contractors. I’ve shared the reality of my situation with clients, so they can understand any gaps in my responses and we can relate to one another as they navigate their own experiences of working remotely or around their own children for the first time. To meet the needs of my clients and my business, I’ve also worked early mornings, at night and on weekends.

To manage work and family demands, I’ve also hired and collaborated with other marketing, social media and PR professionals. They all work remotely, as has been my business model, so we each have flexibility to manage our lives in ways that we find the most efficient, as long as we meet our deadlines and do great work. That freedom has made us more resilient. If a deadline needs to be modified, we all communicate with one another and make adjustments. 

Zoom invades homes, privacy

The coronavirus shutdown forced my clients to postpone book launches, cancel fundraisers and hastily retool events to become Zoom experiences instead. Video conferences from home have made life during the pandemic even more complex.

With children running underfoot and families feeling anxious, people and their homes are not always camera-ready. As a PR pro, I cringe at Zoom mishaps and coach others on how to avoid them. During Zoom calls I’ve seen other people’s kids dash back and forth behind them and heard others who should have pressed the mute button before scolding their children.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, video-conferencing services such as Zoom have been lifesavers for many organizations. But to me, video calls feel right for connecting with friends, not always for business meetings in which webcams can distract the viewer and the person on camera.

New research shows that excessive Zoom use exhausts people — and I’m one of them. I find myself constantly assessing my presence on camera, especially since I can’t prevent my son from running in and making a scene. 

An opportunity for empathy and growth

The good news is that looking through the lens of this universally shared, but individually experienced COVID-19 season can help all of us grow. Perhaps we’ve become more empathetic toward others like ourselves — in my case, a mother trying to keep her business running amid sky-high stakes. We don’t know if we’ll have clients in the future. Or keep those we have through the forecast second wave. Communicators have worked overtime to keep their organizations steady and their jobs secure. 

I also empathize more closely now with what our target publics might be experiencing, as parents have been turned into schoolteachers or into caregivers for elderly loved ones, high-risk children, spouses or others. The digital divide was made crystal clear and a tsunami of educational and financial backslides are predicted in San Antonio.  

Let’s try to inspire people in such situations, and think of how we can help our organizations strengthen their relationships with their publics as the country continues to reopen. I challenge every PR pro to be COVID-kind by thinking about what a client’s constituents might be living through during these continued trying times.

Postscript: On July 8, Vela-Williamson learned that she had passed the Accreditation in Public Relations Exam.

Photo credit: melissa vela-williamson
Return to Current Issue Health & Wellness | July-August 2020
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