In the traditional sense, reactive PR refers to traditional PR work and how a brand reacts to negative headlines.

I have seen this when I was working in an in-house role at EF, the provider of language travel. There had been a report on TV in Switzerland in which two travellers had encountered somewhat dirty conditions in their hotel room in Florida.

Once the report had aired, I could see a whole marketing department on the edge. The next three days were filled with emergency meetings.

I was responsible for the SEO for all German-speaking markets and not directly involved, but I could feel the tension to that extent that I kept the number of emails and messages to a minimum that week.

Press releases were issued, replies requested in all the media that had been talking about it, and campaigns were planned to prove the report wrong.

That was reactive PR at its best: a reaction to negative PR.

A PR tale as old as time

Negative press had always been around and even before the concept of a brand existed, people were talking negatively about each other and reacting to it.

It is human nature.

Media and public relations only took it to another level.

I could probably find hundreds of examples of how reactive PR has been used in traditional PR and advertising. But how does it apply to digital PR?

As opposed to traditional PR, digital PR is still a young discipline and it aims to give brands visibility on the web.

TV or print media do not matter for digital PRs, what matters is quality content that gets shared, republished and linked to.

Negative digital PR is hard to imagine: We could think of harmful backlinks but that is negative SEO, not negative digital PR.

Therefore, also the concept of reactive PR in a digital context requires some thought. What are we reacting to? How does this reaction look like?

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Digital PR in 2020

2020 brought many changes to all industries worldwide and digital PR is no exception.

The new situation caused by a virus required quick responses involved a lot of pivoting and made us all look for new approaches.

As the whole world went into lockdown, some digital PR campaigns just needed a new angle as a reaction to current events, other campaigns required an entire redesign or a new way of looking at the data behind a campaign.

A sensitive approach to the situation was needed and the industry had to adapt. That also is reactive PR – a reaction to a change in circumstances and in this case, it does not matter whether these circumstances were positive or negative.

The situation we had to react to in 2020 certainly had a negative feel to it.

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Digital PR throughout lockdown

The UK went into lockdown on 23rd March 2020. Two weeks earlier, people could see it coming as other European countries had taken that step ahead of the UK.

One day later, the bathroom retailer Victorian Plumbing published a digital PR campaign around the topic of DIY.

The campaign had certainly been prepared for weeks and it could have taken a different angle. Such a campaign could have been about the financial side where DIY jobs could have been compared to the cost of a workman.

But that would have been insensitive under the circumstances of lockdown. Instead, the campaign focuses on how stressful these DYI jobs are and it was certainly published at the right time when everybody was forced to spend more time at home.

Another example is Savoo, a website that provides voucher codes. They were working on a digital PR campaign about hobbies and how interest shifted over time. The creators of the campaign realized quickly that the lockdown had an impact on the way how we spend our free time.

The whole campaign was overhauled and new data was gathered.

Instead of comparing the interest in free time activities over time, they were now looking at the hobbies that had gained traction during lockdown: Yoga, gardening, baking, cycling – you might have taken up one of these in 2020.

The creators of those campaigns have done a good job with their reactive PR.

The next one though, not so much.

A week before lockdown, when other countries had already imposed hefty fines for people leaving their houses, homebusinessmag.com published an article with the title “5 Signs you should move your business from home to a dedicated workspace”.

A few days later, dedicated workspaces closed their doors and the home office became reality for everybody.

While I’m sure that the same article also contains a paid link, it is also obvious that somebody should have reacted and changed the angle to make it more appropriate.

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Making good of a bad situation

In the beginning, pivoting was all that needed. Campaigns that were about to be published had to be changed because of a pandemic.

Nobody would have thought at that point that lockdown would drag on for many months and marketers and PRs realized at some point that even their future campaigns would be affected.

And if this virus has already destroyed all plans, why not use the topic for a new campaign?

The global travel map

One example is an interactive infographic that was published earlier in the summer by TripsGuard.

Their interactive map lets you hover over the country of interest or search for it and provides information about travel restrictions.

Quick and easy, you can find out if it is possible to travel to that country or not, if you have to take a coronavirus test or not, if you have to wear a mask or not, and more.

It is very user-friendly, interactive, and of high interest. The only difficulty I see with such a content asset is that it quickly and often suddenly becomes outdated. The government seems to change the rules at almost the same frequency as they change their underwear, the creators behind the campaign have to stay reactive.

Promoting local travel

Another good example for the use of the situation is an advertising campaign in Germany run by the main train company.

They use the fact that people cannot travel freely this year to their advantage: Every advert shows an iconic image or a landmark that reminds the viewer of a faraway destination.

When looking at those pictures, you could think that it promotes a trip to the Caribbean or South East Asia, but it is a destination in Germany, and it can be reached by train.

This advert combines the desire to travel at a time when this opportunity does not exist, it promotes the service of train travel and it makes use of an unusual circumstance that nobody would have seen coming at the beginning of the year.

With this example, we are again back at print advertising and traditional PR, but the idea could have easily been used for a travel PR campaign with an infographic – something along the lines: “How to travel to an exotic place without leaving the UK”.

Putting up Cornwall as an alternative to the Caribbean could get us some coverage, don’t you think?

Reactive PR in technology

Not only the creative side had to react to the changed circumstances. Mid-March, a few days after the world had gone into lockdown, Google rolled out a new property for structured data markup: eventStatus.

This offered event organisers the option to mark up their events for rich snippets in Google if they had been cancelled, postponed, or moved online.

Events have always played a key role in traditional PR, now they are becoming more and more digital and Google now allows to be extra reactive when events have to be changed. Updating information when necessary is also a part of reactive PR.

In that context, another type of markup has become popular in 2020 even though Google had already introduced it a year before: the live video badge.

In 2019 Google’s John Muller had advised to mark up whether a video is recorded or live, but in 2020 this became essential as more and more events, conferences, and meetups had been moved online.

2020: the year that forced reactive PR

A pandemic and global lockdown have changed our lives significantly and with these changes came new requirements, new approaches to old traditions, and new concepts.

Reactive PR is not a new concept, but it has expanded into new areas.

For a long time, what we understood when we heard the term reactive PR was a press statement or a public reply to negative headlines. In recent times, also digital PR had to become more reactive.

Initially, it meant that we had to revise our angles and campaigns, a few months into lockdown, all creative professions – online and offline – had to accept the new situation and embed it topically into their marketing approach: the reaction had become the norm.