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PR in a Pandemic

Rachel O’Reilly is Head of Communications for tour operator Kuoni in the UK. Having worked in the travel industry for 25 years Rachel joined Kuoni six and a half years ago after time spent at TUI UK, BGB Public Relations and setting up her own consultancy.

I had a virtual sit down with her to talk all things public relations (PR), at the end of a year that has been an annus very horribilis for all those in the travel business.

“I love my job as much now as I did when I started” she told me recently. “I still get a thrill from seeing coverage I’ve helped to generate. I love digital but also still love print. There’s nothing I like more than dashing out to buy a paper if we’ve got a big (or small) piece in. I’m still learning but there’s no other career I’d swap it for.”

To someone who doesn't know, how do you describe the role of PR and what is the difference between PR and marketing?

“These days I’d tend to say that the difference is between advertising and PR, as in truth PR is a pretty powerful form of marketing. If I was telling my kids what the difference between PR and advertising is I’d say something like: ‘Advertising is what we say about ourselves, and is paid for; PR is what other people say about us and it’s earned through having stories and news so good that people want to write about it – or talk about on TV or radio or the interweb - oh and most people think it’s free.’

The editorial tone of voice in marketing is increasingly important as brands manage their owned content, through magazines, social media and online copy. Good PRs have been working on quality editorial content for years with brilliant journalists who write like a dream, so it’s a natural extension of what we do.

It’s obvious that the last year has been a very trying one for everyone in travel...what do you think has been the single most overriding PR lesson for you since March?

In some ways, it’s shone a light on how valuable PR is. When the vast majority of our paid marketing was put on hold, PR continued throughout the crisis. This is the biggest news story of our lifetime and to be at the forefront of it with Kuoni and talking positively about what we’ve been able to do to support customers has been an eye-opener for many people in our team, who previously perhaps didn’t understand the full value of PR.

Despite having a smaller team, we’ve had more coverage this year than in previous years and the sentiment has been more positive than it ever has been...along the lines of “if you’re going to book a holiday, book with a brand like Kuoni.” That’s gold dust for any brand.

Talk us through how Kuoni reacted to unfolding events from March last year onwards...I imagine you must have been on Zoom constantly?

We moved really quickly. Our CEO Derek Jones has been a brilliant leader and one step ahead throughout. In March, we brought thousands of customers home to the UK from all corners of the globe – that was a massive repatriation effort. But pretty surreal to have no customers overseas for months on end. Never in our history has that happened. We left our head office at the end of March and haven’t returned.

Our shops are closed and we set up a virtual call centre which is now operating really well. Video appointments were introduced early on and we’re now doing these regularly with customers. Another first – we also added a UK and Ireland collection – quite something for a brand famous for long-haul travel and created quite a buzz.

Do you think this whole experience will change travel fundamentally for years to come, or do you think once we have a vaccine and people are travelling "normally" again we'll forget about this and go back to "old ways" pretty quickly?

I think people are desperate to travel again, so once we are properly through this then I think people will go back to travel as usual. But having said that I think it’s going to take some time – years possibly – before the layers of complexity around travel disappear. We’ve got some way to go with that.

At the back of my mind I also wonder too about the looming crisis before the pandemic – about the environmental impact of flying. I think that noise will start to gather again at some point and as an industry we need to be prepared and involved in being the solution not the problem.

I appreciate everyone's crystal ball is very murky right now, but when do you think we will be travelling "normally" again and all this will be in the rear-view mirror?

Tricky – but I’d say it will be a good year at least before this is behind us. They are talking about needing some levels of restrictions next winter – so I think the re-opening of the world will be cautious and gradual, so it could be a couple of years before it’s totally in the rear-view mirror.

Do you think any particular destinations will come back more strongly after this for Kuoni, and why?

The Maldives is always a big seller for us and it’s been way out in front for forward bookings. It lends itself well to social distancing as each resort is on an individual island.

Closer to home, I think Greece will do well. I think people will find comfort and new joy in places like Greece that maybe they took for granted before.

In general, do you believe the adage "there's no such thing as bad publicity" or is that just a myth?

It’s a total myth. We spend a lot of time in PR protecting reputations. Some badly chosen words, insensitive actions, and anything being seen to “rip off” the customer that creates negative headlines can generate coverage which will potentially see the demise of a brand.

What would be your advice for a small tourism business that doesn't have a budget for PR? What is the most effective way for them to promote themselves and stand out, especially at the moment?

If that was me I’d be using social media really smartly. Actively posting interesting, beautiful pictures and comments on all channels. Invest in a good smartphone with a decent camera and become brilliant at photographing/documenting things – the seasons as they change, customer quotes and feedback, small details – fresh eggs from the hens, toasting marshmallows on the fire pit.

Find out who the journalists are who write about your sector and follow them. Having ‘quirks’ built into your business will help it stand out, so when designing it be clear about your niche. Create a few fun talking points – you want people to photograph their holiday when they’re with you and give you good feedback. This stuff all helps with your online search too – so can be super powerful.

Photos, thanks to Kuoni UK and Unsplash

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