Public Relations in a Virtual World
Public Relations is a field that requires interaction with people and building relationships. It is, after all, Public Relations. So, when the pandemic hit last March, how did this industry cope with shifting those relations into a virtual space?
We spoke to five Public Relations graduates from different cohorts to learn how they adapted during this period and whether they think this new normal will be permanent.
Some of them believed that the industry's demands have changed, given the shift in perspective on many issues during the pandemic. There is a need to focus on areas of PR that were not in the spotlight before. They also agreed that while moving to a virtual space and adopting digital strategies was a long time in the making, adapting to it has been challenging.
Moving to more personal topics, our grads had different takes on the work from home environment and how it has impacted their mental health. We get candid about their struggles and uncertainties but also find sustainable solutions to overcome them.
They were honest about the reality of the industry but also incredibly optimistic for the future. These difficult times present challenges but also opportunities if we make an effort to look for them.
*Disclaimer: This interview was conducted in 2020, and some of our grads employment status has recently changed. We'd like to congratulate them on their success, and encourage students to learn more about them in the Meet the Alumni section below!
PR is always changing, and it has to keep up with the times. So, I wouldn't necessarily be worried about the uncertainties. I would be more focussed on updating myself, my capabilities and my skills to match the times.
- Nilou Alizadeh
Meet The Alumni
Class of 2019
Class of 2018
Class of 2019
Somber piano music fades in
00:00:02 Sam Sokol (guest)
There's definitely that blurred line between working from home and then your home life, especially for us younger people in the GTA, like we have an intimate knowledge of working within smaller spaces, so my office is in my bedroom, which is quite difficult.
00:00:18 Afshaan Purvez (co-host)
Public relations is an industry that is constantly changing and adapting to current events and trends, but above all it is an industry that relies heavily on human connection. It is, after all, public relations.
So when the pandemic hit last March, how did it affect this dynamic sector and how did our grads adapt?
00:00:38 Devin Andrade (co-host)
We know there's concerns about the future and uncertainty about what that's going to hold. And while our grads shared these concerns, they also offered some invaluable advice and much needed Silver Linings.
So, that further ado, let's welcome Iryna, Roy, Zack, Nilou, and Sam.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, guys and what you're currently doing.
00:01:01 Nilou Alizadeh (guest)
Hi, my name is Nilou Alizadeh. I work at Argyle Public Relationships with the Argyle Group. I've been out of school for a year and a half.
00:01:12 Sam Sokol (guest)
So my name is Sam. I am currently a communications writer at the Canadian Olympic Committee and hard to believe, but I've been out of school since May 2018 when I started in the industry with my internship.
00:01:26 Roy Singh (guest)
My name is Roy Singh. I work at the Canadian, Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council. And I've been out of the PRCC program since April 2019.
00:01:36 Zack Babins (guest)
So hi, my name is Zack Babins. I graduated from Seneca in 2018 and since then I did an internship at the ALS Society of Canada. I spent about a year and a half at a public affairs firm in Toronto called the Daisy Group, and starting this year, but cut short by COVID, I was working as the marketing and communications coordinator at Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, also known as CJ PAC.
Currently, as I like to say funemployed due to COVID but you know keeping busy.
00:02:12 Iryna Zheliasko (guest)
My name is Iryna Zheliasko. I’ve been out of the program for three years. Oh my God! Actually, I completed two post-grads at Seneca, Public Relations-Corporate Communications, and then Government Relations.
So I started working out in my current company right after I finished my second degree, my second program. That was three years ago. Started as an associate and got promoted to manager of corporate communications from there on, which is my current position and the company is called CHF Capital Markets. It's a corporate communications slash Investor Relations agency that helps publicly traded companies in a broad bench of industries, including mining, technology, fintech, healthcare and diversified.
Well, it is wonderful speaking with you all and we're excited to hear what you have to say about everything that's happening right now.
Let's start with the simplest question, which might not actually be that simple at all... But how has your life changed as a result of the pandemic?
That's an interesting question because Argyle was very good at being interactive online before the pandemic happened, so it's almost like we were ready to go without even knowing that we have to at some point.
But then obviously that's just our internal side, whereas our clients kind of didn't expect that there may be a change in the way that they do their business or we had to pivot with some plans because of the pandemic because of the restrictions.
We were kind of midway into going all the way in with everything that we were working on, then the pandemic put a halt in everything and then we had to pivot our plans.
So that's one way that it really impacted the way we work.
In general, my job is kind of centred around strategic communications writing. So in terms of the responsibilities around developing key messages and communications planning around our corporate responsibilities. What we call games communications, which is essentially any communications around the Olympic Games, which, thanks to COVID, now we have two Olympic Games in 14 months rather than the two years we usually have. And then any communication support for the organization.
So really like the biggest change for us right now other than trying to tighten communication strategies where we usually have more time for something, is really how to adapt to working from home, especially how to operate as a team remotely.
It gets a little bit more difficult for our team to actually connect with each other we’ve noticed. We're still making it work, like on Wednesdays we do a 20 minute exercise just over the video to get there. That's a lot of fun.
And then when it comes to actually having those sort of phone calls or emails with our shareholders or our stakeholders rather than doing that, I find myself scheduling a lot more video calls just to get that same sort of personal touch that we've been missing since March.
So obviously you know everything went virtual. The meetings became virtual, that probably has been the main change- setting up meetings. They're not in the offices anymore. They're not one and one, face to face, but they're zoom to zoom.
Yeah, I think in virtual I would say probably more emails, fewer calls. Just because I don't know, maybe it's because a lot of people are, you know, on their computer most of the day. But I've noticed that it's been more emails.
Wow, all that emailing sounds stressful.
And let's not forget the struggles of working from home.
Yeah, yeah, like we're all feeling that right? It's like your bedroom is your whole day, like I I use I'm used to working at the office to like a bit later hours, but at least you can go home. You can decompress on your commute, and then you can go home and you have the separate space. Whereas now it's like I can literally see my bed from my desk.
It's interesting to see how I think a lot of people are adjusting because right before it happened, I think, even I look at myself a couple months before March, I probably never could have imagined myself working from home. I thought it was essential to go to the office. You know, with our nature of business, but turns out it's not true and instead I think I started more of trying to keep routine and now that I'm doing, for example, if you don't have any urgent meeting scheduled, during the day you know if I'm feeling tired, I would allow myself to take like a two hour break instead of 1 hour like lunch break, you know. And then you know, I would still need to work, but I could work at 6:00 PM and I would actually feel better about working at 6:00 PM than during the day.
Right now whenever I do a video call I have a preview default set up so that people don't know I'm working from my closet.
And that is a reality I think most of us are living right now, so we relate hard to that predicament. But we are noticing a pattern or trend emerge that speaks to a digital shift in the way we live our lives, so do you think this is something we are finally beginning to embrace?
That's a good question. Obviously, I said that I think we would see an even more digitized work world. I think it will prevail.
I think that COVID has revealed and amplified a lot of what we have already been trending towards. A lot of communications work is online already, or was online at the beginning of the year. Social media is extremely important and was only going to get more important and this just accelerated it to an extreme degree. I think because that's where people are. People have been for the last few years. Increasingly, you know, on their phones over social media. And now that was the only thing to do. So everyone's even more on their phone, and I think that may recede a little bit, but I think ultimately the trend is still in that direction.
Oh 100% it's going to change. First of all, the whole working from home thing. A lot of corporations are now starting to realize and think ‘Oh well, if we don't have that business center, that business hub, we're still able to function, and that's a little bit different. They're not really expecting them.
Yeah, I don't know. It's very hard to predict and I think the fact that it's hard to predict, I hope we're going to think about more creative ways to do this, and even in terms of communicating with the way we communicate is so fascinating in a world where we're pretty much all at home.
Now the changes in terms of adapting to a virtual lifestyle have been something several industries have had to deal with in varying capacities. But how has that affected the PR industry specifically and what are some of the trends you foresee?
In terms of the PR industry, it's a little bit difficult to say because on one hand, if you look at the digital marketing side, we're seeing that a lot more SMEs and minority owned businesses are finding out ‘Oh hey, we need to have a better digital footprint. We need to be able to market ourselves better because people aren't necessarily able to meet us anymore. We need to be able to put our best foot forward in all mediums.’
So first, in like the most immediate consequence, I think that a lot of people thought that PR was a little bit...It was not the immediate concern, staring in the face of a pandemic and you know an economic depression almost or recession, I don't know what term we're currently using, but I think it's made a lot of people think that it's a secondary thing. I don't know if I agree with that.
But I also think that it's more important than ever because people are looking for not answers, but they're looking to be heard and they're looking to hear important messages. So I think in my specialty corner of the PR world, I do a lot of work in political communications. It was more important than ever to hear from our elected officials in our government, and I think people really saw that.
Yeah, it's so hard to predict. I think we've been joking for a while, but this, for a lot of professionals, it's like anyone that's going into PR doesn't really understand the complexities of crisis communications and how it's hard to plan for everything. But we really like learning what crisis communications is, and I feel like I've learned more in the past year than I have in my entire career.
So I think that's like where I see maybe potentially the gap is and how this just highlights the importance of that because a lot of organizations have crisis communications people, but that's not necessarily the case throughout all organizations.
I have a theory, I may be wrong. But somehow I feel that the PR industry was due for change for awhile. I do think that you're going to see less of an influencer industry and influencer marketing in PR. I think it's shifting because a lot of people are tired of listening to other people’s advice, especially with the culture of celebrity and like talent management stuff like that.
I do see a bit of a shift towards corporate communications because there hasn't been enough stuff, you know enough talent to go into that industry and I see, actually, a lot of headhunters going after young talent trying to persuade people to actually apply their communication skills towards such industries as financial services, banks, insurance companies, so all the things that usually PR students considered boring.
I remember myself, when I first started the PR program was like I'm gonna be in lifestyle PR, you know and look where I ended and I'm actually happy. I'm actually happy where I am now and I don't envision myself anymore in lifestyle or consumer PR.
That being said, it will still exist. I just think it will shrink a little bit and there will be more opportunities in business communications. That's my opinion, because that is the industry that will stay. Capital markets, investments, insurance, banks and other businesses. And they all need communications.
So one thing that I've noticed is there's a lot less journalists and a lot more pitches that go out. So I think the trend that we see changing is being more focused on influencer relationships rather than media relationships. But that in itself is kind of challenging because there are some sectors that you cannot just solely rely on influencers and consumers. So that's something that I feel like it's changing.
The digital world obviously, it's constantly changing, always updating itself and the way you want to go out with the consumers. And obviously the social changes that we're seeing during our times. Those things how we have to be conscious of the way we deliver a message. How we how we have to be inclusive, transparent. These seem like very simple words and ideas, but they're not and we have to be cognizant of the variety of the audiences that we're reaching out to.
All right, so it seems like much of the industry is in flux. There are many changes happening and many possible ways this pandemic could affect the PR world.
Now, with all this happening, our students are a bit worried about how they're going to navigate these uncharted waters, especially with Co-op looming.
When we mentioned this to our grads, they definitely agreed that things will be tough.
Good luck. No, really it is... I kid but like it's true it is an impossible situation that we're all just going to have to make the best out of and students who are new and meeting new people online and trying to get jobs without being in the room with someone. It's going to be extremely difficult.
Right. We were able to at least meet our potential employer, either at an open house or just at a networking event. Those can't really happen as well anymore. You can still hold sort of networking events, but the ones that I've been to that are online are more just ‘Oh, here's the entertainment’. They play it. After that everyone introduces themselves and then everyone separates and gets off the call as soon as possible.
So now more than ever you have to be very, very careful with what you yourself are presenting online. Your employer is going to spend even more of their time and their attention looking at that and ensuring that you're the right fit for their company because they can't get that face-to-face meeting with you.
I do great in person. Online, it's it can be a little bit finicky.
I mean, I'm not gonna lie and say, that I envy them. The truth is I don't and I appreciate that it is probably harder now.
But there was also optimism.
It's not impossible. I mean there is anxiety, but again, I'm saying there is opportunity everywhere. Whatever you're going through, I do still see people looking to hire, companies looking to hire young students.
So the goal is to be hired. What are some of the skills students can either pick up in their classes or simply learn on their own that can help them going forward?
David Turnbull really instilled this sense of doing the work, being prepared and then getting ready for everything to get thrown out the window. His speech is... not speech writing... his public speaking sessions where we would go to Allen Gardens, happens to be right near where I live now, but we would go to Allen Gardens in mid-January and class would start at 9 but the actual gardens itself won't open till 10.
So doing speeches in the freezing cold was something that really taught me to be prepared for any eventuality. So the advice for students that I would give based on that is you can have a great plan, you can have your backup plan, you can have your second backup plan, you might need to make another plan.
And you need to be prepared to do what you gotta do and get it done. Even if five of your plans go out the window. It's frustrating at the time, but when you're faced with those situations in real life and you don't know what to do, but you know that you can do it. And people don't like it. People really don't like it at the time. But you'll learn. You'll learn through fire.
Pay attention to digital marketing. You will not regret it. Pay attention to digital marketing, pay attention to any sort of graphic design that you can pick up right now and honestly, pay attention to the world around you.
You're going to be seeing certain trends pop up, but by the time they make the news, those trends are halfway over. So when you're looking for any sort of jobs in the fields or anything like that you have to be open and you have to be knowledgeable. People aren't just looking for your skills nowadays, you still need to know how to connect with other people even when you can't see them.
Try to diversify your talent as well, because it's good to be good in your niche. For example, I was always more inclined towards writing, for example. I really liked the writing part, but I do think that these days it's important to be able to have a wider range of skills and be able to do a lot of cold calling or emailing, and even learn some basic financial stuff if you need to.
I think that's going to give you a lot of credit and a lot of additional weight to be hired at any place basically.
Of course, let's not forget the dreaded social media tip that we've heard a million times at this point, but it's more relevant now in the virtual setting.
So now more than ever you have to be very, very careful with what you yourself are presenting online. Your employer is going to spend even more of their time and their attention looking at that and ensuring that you're the right fit for their company because they can't get that face to face meeting with you.
So if you end up having any sort of weird picture on there, that's your introduction to whoever is looking at you. So you have to end up being careful there. I've noticed that a lot of our suppliers and a lot of corporate members now they look at LinkedIn to see what you're up to and if you don't have that, at least relatively updated, you're going to be passed over for a lot of different things.
I've always had to have LinkedIn now open at least three or four times a day just to check what messages are coming in.
Now, Roy touched upon the changing face of networking, which is the heart of PR, so how do students do that in our current reality?
PR is always changing and it has to keep up with the times, so I wouldn't necessarily be worried about the uncertainties.
I would be more focused on updating myself if I was a student and updating my capabilities and my skills to match the times that I'm in, and I think a great way to do that is to get involved while you're in your program or to really go out there and volunteer and have coffee chats with mentors. Reach out to the people that do have experience and really be in that environment where you see yourself ending up in. And really research what area of PR you want to get into because PR is so vast. You can literally do whatever it is that you want to, if you really work hard, and if you really research if you're compatible with that and go far with it.
So I think it's just dedication and commitment and the willingness, the initiative to go and get what you want. You know what? I take 10 zoom calls a day in my meetings, I wouldn't mind taking eleven, you know what I mean? It's just a half an hour coffee to build that relationship and to have that conversation.
So I don't think students should feel nervous about reaching out to potential mentors. That relationship could turn into a future employee, you never know, right?
But it's all about doing your research, going in well prepared and really being in the environment that you end up... that you see yourself ending up in. And that could be done via volunteer work or it could be done again, like participating in different school events and activities. There are so many ways.
So yes, we have to stand out, but I think that if you're active and if you will strive during your studies. Well, what helped me out and I think that works during the pandemic, after the pandemic is over, before that it always worked. You know, if you show your time, show your curiosity and enthusiasm, even during your studies and you network.
I think it will come to you anyway if you just never give up and for me it was a lot of volunteering during events, and it was offered by professors that we had to network with your professors. That’s definitely one big advice I always give to both current students and just recent grads because they're your pathway into the industry.
They have all been there for a while. They're still there, they're practitioners, and they can actually introduce you to a lot of people, so be active and just show up and eventually it will come to you.
Just because you can't meet with someone in person, you need to foster those relationships because those connections are going to help you past university career and that doesn't just necessarily go through your cohort. That goes for your professors as well.
So I think especially now it's important to keep that up because those conversations are going to help you move forward in your life too, and I don't want people to lose sight of the fact that... of course it's more difficult, you're not in class of people, I mean I'm not into what the students are doing right now, but I imagine you're sitting in zoom calls or you’re in all these project meetings, so whenever you can just to build that with your cohort because at the end of the day, we're all kind of going through very similar things.
We’re all in the pandemic together, right? So if you can improve your resources, we might as well like have these conversations with their classmate. Maybe a couple of you can get together and find one of these controllables and like a project that you want to do outside of class, but it's definitely, you need to foster those relationships, not just for the pandemic but just for your career.
I mean realistically, other than keeping to the guidelines set by the government, you can't control the pandemic. There's going to be things that are happening. There's things that are going to happen every year in PR that you can't necessarily control, but I think it's focusing on those little things.
So whether it's not, can you use some of this time to hone in on a skill? Can you volunteer some time to support organizations that are struggling with all this extra work that's being put on them from COVID? Are there podcasts like this or other resources that you can access to like help with your professional development?
And then whatever that is, take the time to figure out what you can do and what you can realistically do, because at the end of the day, 2020 is a lot. We think we can all agree on that and it's important to be resilient and solution oriented, but like there's going to be days that you're going to struggle. So I think trying to balance that with also focusing on those like little things that you can do to control your future I think will at least help with the uncertainty because humans just naturally want to be able to control their lives, but I think what this year has really shown is we can't necessarily do that.
Sam brings up an excellent point in that this isn’t something we can control. At the end of the day, so much of it seems overwhelming and we can feel helpless. This pandemic has taken a toll on our mental health and working from home may continue to be a reality for the foreseeable future.
So how do we cope with this?
Not well, uhm no. I think like a lot of people the first few months of this were extremely hard for me. Not only because of the pandemic, but also you know with, you know we already talked about how the opportunity I had was cut short.
So like with the reduction in income, came a real prioritization of other things and I consider myself pretty open about this. I you know, I see a therapist. I like to call them a shrink because that's just something that makes me feel better about it, I guess. But I had to cut down on the amount of sessions that I could do in a month because my income was so curtailed. That said I was, I did feel OK for the first few months of this because a lot of my like regular mental health issues have to do with anxiety about FOMO and the idea that like people around don't actually care and you always got to make the make the plans.
So now with nothing to miss out on that that was fine. But you know, overall, I think that like that in-person communication, that in-person experience of being in a room with someone is invaluable, and I think it really threw a lot of people, myself included for a loop.
That’s a good question. Also, I I think all of us are kind of experiencing or I'll just speak for myself, I experience waves where the days that I feel like I have to block out the news or I have to kind of just see what's important and then just leave it at that. But sometimes there's that pressure of ‘well will this ever end?’
One way that I've been trying to deal with everything going on is staying active, going for runs, that's really important for me and having a hard stop for myself to take breaks because you do need to tune out sometimes, whether it be from news or work and you need to readjust and re-evaluate. So those timeout moments are really important for me.
Yeah, that's a really great question and I think it's really important to be open and honest about these struggles. I remember even before COVID, when I got into the industry seeing other people maintain that balance, obviously have always been good at it, but no one ever really talks about the struggles behind that.
And so, like for me, no matter what the situation, I think it's important to be open and honest about that because again, even before COVID PR professionals tend to be very high performers, a lot of juggling many things at once and that balance before has already been an art form, and I feel like I will always try to be figure out that balance, but COVID makes that really different, especially with the added work level it's like those hours are not necessarily nine to five anymore, which they never really were, but it's just that lack of space is really, really difficult.
You know at first it was a bit challenging because it was all new and I couldn't figure it out. I mean, on one side, it seems to me that it was going fine, but then I started being anxious about the fact that I’m at home and doing the same things and you know I was like trying to find ways to make it more exciting or just because of lack of live communication I guess.
I think it's a little easier, introverts found it a little easier to adjust, but actually I would say that right now mentally I’m doing quite well. I do lots of sports, that helps for sure, you know yoga, strength training, running.
When COVID first started, I don't think any of us really expected it to go on for this long. OK, the scientists might have. The everyday person? We were kind of shocked. Yeah it's kind of crazy, but when it comes to actually taking care of myself now, I think I've actually been doing a bit of a better job now than pre COVID.
Before COVID, I was commuting from Brampton to Toronto, going to the office and I felt just drained at the end of the day. Now I can actually schedule in a little bit more knee time, so a little bit more exercising. I'm eating healthier and right now. I've actually taken some time out to just go over in my head what I need to remain myself during this time, whether that be being able to speak with some of my friends, being able to do a little bit of writing, or just some research into stuff that I didn't have time for pre COVID.
There's balance in that I have a little bit of time to relax, and there's balance in that I'm going to bed before 9 and I'm waking up before 5 and that's my me time before work. It's a little bit easier now to take care of myself.
It's amazing how everyone is approaching this difficult situation in different ways and we are finding ways to cope with this and make the best of things.
And now for some wise words from an Olympian.
Yeah, I was talking to a retired Olympian yesterday and it's so great to hear from, like someone who's like trained on resiliency and like had access to sports psychologists. She's like honestly your body, like if you feel the need to cry for three minutes like that's your body trying to regulate itself. Like that is normal.
That is completely normal and I think that's not something that people like either realize, especially like in sports we're very used to high performance skills and like being resilient. But like the human brain is not designed to handle everything that we're handling right now.
But Roy also had an interesting take on this.
Honestly, my brother has been really helpful. He's been able to just keep my head on track and when I am experiencing some sort of technological problem, it's always good to know that he's experiencing the same thing. We can cohabitate that misery together, and whenever we have anything that we're able to kind of connect on, it's nice to be able to share those moments of ‘Oh yeah, it sucks.’
We're going to get through it, though.
Well, I suppose you could say that misery loves company or teamwork makes dreamwork. It's all about perspective, which is an excellent way to wrap up this conversation.
If you could leave current students with some parting words to help them get through this, what would you tell them?
00:33:44 Speaker 3
Yeah, just like I want to wish all of the students that are starting their PR program the best of luck in a very difficult situation. I want to wish all of the students who are you know starting their first jobs now the best of luck because it's an extremely difficult time and you know I'm looking outside right now and it's sunny and it's nice and you know, I just went for a walk and it seems like things are OK right now.
But also, you know, in a normal year in a normal time we'd be doing this in a studio and we would be doing it in person and we wouldn't have had the technical difficulties that we had at the start of it so we're still in a crazy time, and who knows when things are going to get back to normal, but I just I wish everyone who needs it the best of luck 'cause we all need it right now.
You know, while all of this is happening its sometimes it's hard to see through that and hard to see that this is, you know how this will end. But the past, the history shows that all the things that happened like you know, the grander things like that, leads to something good and a long overdue change. I think that that's what's going to happen now too.
And so just definitely if I talk to current students who are starting their journey, is believe in yourself and work hard and they believe in yourself and you will accomplish things. You will go far.
Inspiring, upbeat piano music fades in
Now that is the kind of positivity we need in our lives right now. There was a lot we learned from this conversation, but mostly, that uncertainty is something that prevails across the board. And really all we can do right now is work on ourselves, stay positive and do the little things that are within our control.
Thank you so much for grads who took the time out of their undoubtedly busy schedules to chat with us today.
We wish them all the best in their future endeavors and hope to speak with them again very soon. More about their work can be found in the link in our show notes.
If you'd like to learn more about what we do here at Seneca Media, follow us on Instagram and Twitter at Seneca Media and find those at senecamedia.ca.
Thank you for listening.