28 May

Small Business Pandemic Survival: the Pause, the Pivot, and the Push Forward (Part One)

By Mimi Rasor, APR, President

A little over a year ago, we were getting ready to celebrate our 15th year in business. Things were good. We had built some momentum as a mid-size Cincinnati marketing and communications agency and were starting to hit our stride. We had a decent pipeline for new business. Clients were happy and growing. And our culture was strong. We were in the first year of an aggressive three-year growth plan, targeting prospects beyond our region and looking to gain more traction nationally.

We all know what happened next. We learned what COVID-19 stood for and the path of destruction in its wake. If you had asked me then, where we would have been one month or one year later, I couldn’t tell you. We leaned into the discomfort of not knowing and kicked off a plan that would not only see us through, but build a stronger, more resilient foundation.

The Pause: The two-week mandatory shut down of all “non-essential” businesses immediately impacted our clients, and consequently, our business. I pulled our senior leadership team together and scheduled weekly Monday morning meetings to walk through a needs forecast for every client. What happened last week? What did we expect the next two? At the time, our weekly client portfolio was consistently around 25-30 across a range of industries – public sector transportation projects, B2B, B2C, and healthcare. We had a balance of essential and non-essential businesses in the mix, which was good, but still unclear how their needs for marketing communications would shake out.

During this time of unpredictability, we err’d on the side of caution and cut back staff hours across the board by 10 percent. It was the first time in our history we had ever cut staff time due to a predicted work slowdown, so it was a bit of gut punch for me, but we pressed forward. We also applied for PPP assistance.

The Pivot: Based on our projections, some work slowdown was inevitable. But instead of wringing our hands, we immediately did what we do best and turned our team into an agency marketing machine. The team met weekly, developed a plan, and began immediate execution.

Our guiding principles were compassion and sustainability. The country and our economy were in a fragile place. We felt the best way to lead through this was to jump into the trenches with our clients and truly, anyone who needed help, and figure out how to help them survive their specific situation. We responded to any and every client need, dove into the world of virtual public involvement for our transportation clients, and reached out to prospects in hard-hit sectors like retail and restaurants to offer our help at below market rates.

On the marketing side, we contacted one of our long-time market research partners and joined forces to survey consumers nationally on how they were viewing brands during the first intense months of the quarantine. Which messages were resonating? Which ones were tired and off the mark? And importantly, how did these messages shape perception? I wrote a white paper based on the results and we promoted it through both paid and earned media, including a couple of podcasts. We also kicked off a weekly e-newsletter that sought to offer advice from the field, some good news, something to make readers smile, and something to make them smart. And we customized a version for our public works division to support engineers and public officials navigating how to engage the public virtually.

Check back here in two weeks to read Part Two: diving into what came next for the agency and key takeaways that can boost your business too.