Reflecting on what PR means during a pandemic with Laura Westmacott, Founder of Mercury Communications

How have you worked differently with clients since the start of the pandemic?

PR and communications are often the first costs to be cut during financially challenging times, but we have actually seen clients depend on us for advice more than ever during the pandemic. Yes, we had to rip up 2020’s strategies and re-write them on a seemingly monthly or even weekly basis, but as a result Mercury has become very fleet of foot, helping our clients to pivot, stay relevant and financially viable.

We have taken on a far more consultative role, and many clients are involving us in the A-Z of their operations, and far beyond the traditional remit of public relations. As we edge towards a double dip-recession and budgets are squeezed, PRs and communications experts must be even more accountable and deliver campaigns with commercial impact and a tangible return on investment – something Mercury has always kept central to our strategies. Here are some of the core activities that we have been including in our approach:

  • Virtual reality: Whilst we have not been able to offer or attend physical events, we have been able to deliver other virtual opportunities – we think AR and VR technologies are only going to grow, especially in sectors such as real estate, which is being sold to international buyers.
  • Content is king: We are not a one-size fits all, one ‘press release’ only kind of agency – when it is challenging to reach and engage with media, whilst they are sitting at home, relevant content is king, so we tailor different releases for various segments of the media. For instance, for the iconic Clermont Club on Berkeley Square, we took advantage of their delayed opening date to draft bespoke press releases for each industry segment, covering lifestyle, interiors, F&B and gaming, plus we took the time to forge new partnerships.
  • One-stop-shop: Within the challenging landscape of procurement, marketing directors seem to be appreciating the prospect of an endorsed ‘one stop shop.’ We have been recommending suppliers within the suite of media services, such as best-in-class web developers, branding agencies, publishers, etc.
  • Calm in a crisis: There has clearly been a larger need for crisis communications. We found ourselves consulting on this basis with a particular client who was unable to fulfil their online orders, due to warehousing issues during Covid, plus supporting their strategic approach to win back their customers’ confidence.

Most of all, we have been proactive and optimistic; reassuring our clients that now is the opportune moment to amplify their voice. This can-do attitude has certainly benefitted Mercury: in the last quarter of 2020 our team grew with two new senior hires from the current talent-rich market, plus we won four new clients.

Property PR, Luxury PR, Private Members, Mercury Communications

With tightened purse strings on the client side, what should luxury brands be doing more of?

We have always been focused on partnerships to support a client’s business development and with slower sales across most luxury verticals, this has been an even bigger focal point than usual – in order to reach potentially new clientele, we believe that cross pollination of brand databases is the fastest way to acquire new customers in the current climate. Due to being multi-sectoral, we do not have more than two clients in one segment of the market, so we have no conflicts of interest, and we enjoy introducing our clients to one another, as well as to our extensive little black book.

Should luxury brands be completely transforming communication strategies for 2021?

First of all, we will not be writing in-depth strategies for the whole year, but rather focusing on Q1/H1 knowing that it’s a bit of moveable feast and that we will have to continue to be agile, as government regulations continuously change.

Being purpose driven and human is crucial. We saw many brands make monetary or product donations to hospitals and other not-for-profit organisations in 2020. For example, Burberry turning over its factory to make PPE for healthcare workers and funding research into a single dose vaccine – but we should make our contributions consistent and not just a one-off. Brands such as The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. is seriously raising the bar this year, with a new product (soon to be announced), which will be giving 50% of the proceeds to their chosen charity and a further 50% to a charity of the buyer’s choice.

We are looking forward to when real life events become a reality again, however while we wait – with bricks and mortar closed – we must be even more creative with devising experiential moments to engage customers at home – generic panel discussions and tastings won’t suffice as the Zoom fatigue sets in. For property clients, we anticipate virtual video tours will be here to stay long past the day we are all vaccinated.

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Are there particular sectors which you see flourishing despite the circumstances?

Many luxury segments have been insulated due to the diverse portfolios of HNWIs, who are still able to spend.  Of course, travel has been one of the hardest hit sectors, but we think it is on track to come back stronger than ever. The UK staycation trend will grow with ‘familiarists not tourists’ booking both British hotels and self-catering options, and by early summer European get-aways will boom, but we anticipate that longer-haul will have to wait until Q4. We have recently won a very exciting new hospitality client, who is defining a new segment, ‘budget luxe’, which is particularly apt for this time. Towards the end of the year, we expect larger villa destinations internationally to thrive where families can re-connect after time apart – we expect our private villa estate client Samujana on Koh Samui to see a significant uptick in enquiries. Travellers are certainly more likely to indulge in further-flung holidays for longer periods of time.

Overall, real estate is one sector that has certainly performed well during the last year, especially country boltholes as many more people plan to escape the city. We have also identified a ‘workation’ trend, where ‘WFH’ office workers can now set up wherever they want (with an internet connection), so international properties have seen increased enquiries. Meanwhile clients such as Old Course Hotel in St Andrews have started to see longer term bookings, and the neighbouring Hamilton Grand residences are giving guests a unique opportunity to stay there through a rental programme. Unsurprisingly, interior design has also boomed with home studies being a top request, alongside general aspirations for upgrades and refreshes as we all stare at the same old four walls.

Our sister company, Mercury Yachts, has not seen a downturn in sales interest, although charters have been slower due to travel restrictions. We expect yachting to flourish once we are let loose from this lockdown as it is a very Covid safe leisure pursuit, and private jets have already and will continue to see good trade.

Do you feel it is a good time for CEOs and other corporate voices to discuss the progress of their sector?

It is an essential time for op-eds and thought leadership – connecting a relatable face to a brand is incredibly compelling, especially when product launches have slowed down. Communicating revised key messages and commenting on relevant trends which position a brand’s C-suite individuals as excellent analysts of the market, able to provide reflection, projections and avant-garde solutions.

As a former journalist, I am obsessed with figures, and we have recently commissioned a white paper on the ‘Future of Entrepreneurship’ for one of our clients – the elite international boarding school Institut auf dem Rosenberg. The content-rich topic was an excellent talking point for the headmaster, in addition to his constantly evolving, very advanced video teaching interface, which saves parents from having to endure traditional online home schooling.

Can you tell us about a particular piece of client work from 2020/21 of which you are proud?

Supporting Knightsbridge Circle, an exclusive travel and lifestyle service based in London (Monaco and Miami outposts are set to launch later this year) with a unique 1:5 staff:member ratio, which last week became the first in the world to provide the vaccine privately. We offered an exclusive to The Telegraph Luxury, which propelled the story to go viral globally. It is a sensitive issue, especially when it is being offered by an elite organisation to its affluent members. Requests started to roll in from literally all over the world and from everyone you would expect, including a full complement of key US outlets: The New York Times, The New Yorker Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, ABC, NBC and CBS, plus wires such as AP, and from the other side of the world, a Japanese TV station.

We turned down the media outlets we suspected would cover the story in a sensationalised manner and only engaged with outlets that had relevant demographics, who would appreciate the pioneering aspect. With tight key messages, we ensured that our clients moral and ethical stance was considered, since they were giving the vaccine to only over 65-year-olds, and only in the UAE, where their general public were already being vaccinated. Mercury is now overseeing a second phase of communications around extending the offering to non-members, coining a new term ‘vaccine vacations.’

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