The art of the pitch in the midst of a pandemic

Publicists for products in the pipeline long before the outbreak struggle to find the right tone

By Brooks Barnes
Published: Apr 8, 2020

bg_virus publicistsJust how do you go about promoting nonessential products (celebrities, linoleum, jewelry, $230 latex thongs) at a time of death counts and soaring unemployment and improvised hospitals?
Image: Yvetta Fedorova/The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Millions of people had started to shelter in place. The global economy was cratering. Coronavirus-panicked shoppers were clawing at each other over toilet paper.

But apocalypse be darned. Ashley McCormick, a fashion publicist at Ragdoll PR in Los Angeles, had a product to promote. “Forget everything you’ve ever heard about latex,” her March 19 email to lifestyle journalists began.

She was not referring to gloves.

“Latex has become an inescapable fashion sensation, with designers creating unique and innovative looks for both on and off the runway,” McCormick wrote, citing Bella Hadid and Kim Kardashian West as celebrity devotees. “But jumping straight into a full latex look may seem intimidating. So why not test the waters first with sexy & seductive latex lingerie? Our luxury lingerie line, Anya Lust, is the perfect place to find all your latex lingerie needs.”

At first glance, McCormick’s note, forwarded to me by a nonplused recipient, came across as offensively extraterrestrial. What planet was this person living on? Then I felt an emotion approaching compassion: She was just doing her job.

The undergarment-makers of the world have payroll to make too. So do boutique public relations agencies. Fashion magazines have pages to fill; online influencers have beauty trends to discover.

Just how do you go about promoting nonessential products (celebrities, linoleum, jewelry, $230 latex thongs) at a time of death counts and soaring unemployment and improvised hospitals? A single ill-considered post on social media could result in tar and feathers — both for companies and for brand-name people, as David Geffen discovered with his Instagram salutation from self-isolation in the fancy-pants Grenadines.

Even Wonder Woman got it wrong: Gal Gadot’s now-infamous coronavirus video, which found her and a flock of celebrity chums warbling “Imagine,” will likely haunt her (and us) forever.

There wasn’t a single publicist around to body-block that thing?

“How brands appear to the world during this pandemic could impact how people see them for years to come, good and bad,” said Lauren Reed, the founder of Reed Public Relations, a firm in Nashville, Tennessee, with dining, tourism and fitness clients, among others.

As the pandemic began to escalate in mid-March, Reed started a free hotline for small businesses looking for communications advice. Callers have included a cosmetic surgery center and a furniture-maker.

“We’re finding that a lot of people are totally lost,” she said.

Howard Bragman, the Hollywood publicist and crisis communications expert, warned that ham-handed efforts to tie products to the pandemic could do as much brand damage as charging forward as if the world had not changed at all.

“We’re all getting these marketing messages in our feeds that feel really gross — trying to sell us things we don’t need by slapping on an ‘in these difficult times’ at the start of the pitch,” Bragman said by phone. “I understand that people are worried about their businesses, and rightly so. It’s awful. But my personal belief is this: It’s OK to say nothing for a while.”

McCormick was far from alone in pushing ahead with her promotional duties. A few hours after her pitch went out into the world, American-Brazilian Body Waxing, a Miami salon, sent a jolly email to clients to unveil a new social media account. (“Follow us on Instagram!”)

A socially conscious fashion company, Able, publicized a sale on earrings and apparel — a way to “keep things classy” while social distancing. (Worried about looking good on Zoom work meetings? Just remember: “Business on top, comfort on the bottom.”)

Krista Ritterhoff, a publicist at Bullfrog + Baum, a New York agency, emailed a reporter she did not know — twice — in hopes of generating attention for Singapore as a “Westworld” shooting location. “Hope all is well!” her March 20 note started.

Silent scream: All is actually the exact opposite of well!

Clint Morris, who runs October Coast Publicity in Burbank, California, got in touch with me to offer an interview with an actress. “Please let me know if you’d like to talk to Jamie Bernadette (‘I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu’) for her new film ‘Dead by Dawn,’ releasing in April,” he wrote in an email. “Happy to coordinate!”

A little too on the nose, perhaps.

Ritterhoff, the high-spirited Singapore slinger, declined to comment. Morris said: “Like everyone else, we’re a little frightened — the pandemic, the uncertainty of the entertainment business — but the show has to go on. People need entertainment and distraction right now, so we can help with that.”

Greta Kovacs Schmid, the owner and chief executive of Ragdoll PR, responded on McCormick’s behalf. “We are doing the best we can to remain sensitive in content and approach,” Kovacs Schmid said. “Most of our clients are small businesses and are really struggling from the pandemic, as most companies currently are, so now more than ever is it important for us to pitch.”

And the response from editors and influencers?

“We’ve actually seen a dramatic increase in responses to our pitching efforts,” she said. “We’ve chatted with many close editor contacts who let us know they still want us to keep pitching. They understand this is our job, and we’re just trying to keep our company and our clients’ companies afloat.”

Fair enough.

Some agencies, however, have taken a more cautious approach. Fitz & Co., with a client list that includes Art Basel and Gagosian, stopped pitching media outlets as soon as the coronavirus started to spread in the United States, according to its founder and chief executive, Sara Fitzmaurice.

“You need to pause and strategize — how can we help clients be relevant, genuinely relevant, at a time when everyone is absolutely terrified,” she said. Fitzmaurice pointed to Art Basel Hong Kong, which was canceled in early February as the coronavirus surged in China; the art fair introduced online viewing rooms instead.

“Part of our job is to coach clients through this crisis,” she said. “We start by looking at the absolute worst-case scenario and work our way back from there.”

Weber Shandwick, a public relations giant that works with brands including Royal Caribbean, Bud Light and GlaxoSmithKline, sent a memo to staffers March 13 that urged caution. “Closely review all potential media pitches and social content for risk, backlash and insensitivity before sending,” Michael Wehman, a senior Weber Shandwick executive in New York, wrote in the memo, which was published by Business Insider.

Wehman, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, listed his recommendations using bullet points:

“Prioritize: Favor actions and stories that address public needs, not just short-term brand goals. Empathize: Treat media like the people they are.”

Gee, thanks.

But stay ready to pounce, he advised, noting that “people may become overwhelmed by the 24/7 news cycle and will seek out ‘breaks’ or ‘softer’ stories for comfort and distraction.”

Like now.

Click here to see Forbes India's comprehensive coverage on the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and the economy​

©2019 New York Times News Service

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