We recently had a virtual sit down with Zach Silber from Kivvit to discuss the ways COVID-19 is impacting the PR industry and how agencies’ responsibilities have changed during these last 30 days. Zach is the Chief Innovation Officer at Kivvit, a national data-driven public affairs & strategic communications agency. Prior to Kivvit, Zach ran the business side of political media properties at the Observer. He is a veteran of campaigns and got his start working for political strategists James Carville and Mary Matalin.

Kivvit specializes in data-driven public affairs work, reputation management, and crisis communications. The company was recognized this year at the Reed Awards as Public Affairs Firm of the Year and won gold prizes for Most Innovative Agency and Best Large Agency at the Bulldog Stars of PR Awards.

As the CIO, Zach oversees Kivvit’s investment in data tools and technologies and leads the Kivvit Insights team, which supports the firm’s research and analytics functions.

As we’re all learning, there is no playbook for the crisis we are facing. But Zach and his team are utilizing leading-edge technology and analytics to find the trends. Earlier this week, Zach was able to underscore for us the importance of applying real-time data to monitor the ever-evolving story of COVID-19.

Brett Lofgren (President, NewsWhip): Zach, thanks for joining us. Roughly five weeks ago, we were chatting over dinner and now we are conducting a virtual Q&A session. The world has changed, but I am sure our readers are curious to understand how the role of PR — and more specifically how supporting client relationships — have changed since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Zach Silber (CIO, Kivvit): One major change is the accelerated pace of work. The environment is moving at an unprecedented pace and clients require strategic guidance on at least a daily basis, if not multiple times per day. As a public affairs firm, we are built for crisis environments, but the extraordinary magnitude of COVID-19 has required us to scale our focus to ensure all of our clients are kept informed of the latest developments and taking advantage of Kivvit’s data tools to better understand and execute in this new environment.

BL: What is the most important “thing” that you can provide to your clients right now? How do you anticipate that changing over time?

ZS: There is so much information that it’s breathtaking. Distilling the day’s firehose of content into crisp, actionable insights for our clients has been one thing we started providing out of the gate to help our clients understand what’s breaking through and what isn’t. For many clients, NewsWhip is one of the tools we use to produce a daily report called “What’s Breaking Through Today?” In these newsletters, we curate which news stories and communications from government officials are predicted to drive attention that day. We tailor this outreach for our clients’ industries and geographic markets, and it provides a helpful, intuitive touchpoint for our clients to produce more effective communications and better understand their environment as it evolves in real time.

Also, as the stay-at-home lifestyle sets in over the coming weeks, my Insights team is producing more in-depth, analytical reports that explore specific issues and audiences for clients who are hungry for more information. In Newswhip terms, that equates to continuing to use Spike every day for newsletters, but ramping up use of Analytics to identify trends.

BL: How has coronavirus been similar/different to a normal crisis situation? How do you approach that differently?

ZS: Often, a client sees a challenging issue as a ‘crisis’ because it affects them so directly. But when you look at the larger context, you learn that the story isn’t getting nearly as much attention as you think, and you gain a much better perspective to decide what action – if any action – is required.

While that context still matters, COVID-19 has created a unique situation in that every business is facing some sort of actual crisis. Whether it is changing communications to adapt to remote work settings, realigning operations to support the “war effort,” or preparing to seek stimulus funds, every company is being forced to adapt to what truly amounts to a crisis — in real time. What is even more unique than the scope of companies in crisis is that they are not alone. Their customers, suppliers, regulators, and shareholders are also all facing personal crises.

At the same time, digital engagement is up across the board. Kivvit has been crunching and reporting data that shows dramatic increases in readership, social media, advertising consumption, and advocacy. On one hand, this means there is higher risk associated with every decision because there is simply more attention. But on the other hand, it means that there is a unique opportunity to engage with audiences who are glued to their devices. 

BL: How does data inform all of the work you do? Do you use different data in different aspects of the business?

ZS: Data is the fuel for everything we do — that hasn’t changed because of COVID-19. I would say that because the environment we are operating in is both rapidly changing and has become more digital than ever before, we are now even more data-driven in everything we do for and with our clients. That opens up significant opportunities for data analytics and digital targeting, because everyone is leaving a data trail when they read news, share content, or take an advocacy action. Our online polling platforms are seeing increased response rates too, so we are measuring changes in sentiment and engagement in unison to form a comprehensive view of the changing environment. The best part about working in public affairs – Kivvit’s specialty area – is that our clients make real world impacts from their use of our data and research capabilities.

BL: Brand participation. Much has been written about the brand response to COVID-19. Audible provides free audiobooks to children during the crisis. Or how Target and Texas-based chain H-E-B also are boosting pay by $2 an hour. How do you advise clients on how to manage being helpful vs opportunistic? 

ZS: There is no question that there is a market for good news. When I look at readership data from news publishers, it’s the stories about brands and organizations helping people that are getting the most reads. That trend is similarly reflected in NewsWhip data illustrating which stories are generating the most interactions.

You have to be authentic. As long as you are doing well by doing good — aiding frontline workers, helping customers or employees or communities, or supporting the “war effort” — there is an opportunity to elevate your brand.

When Starbucks announced it was giving free coffee to first responders and healthcare workers, our data team noticed that their news coverage received the most social media engagement of any Fortune 500 brand that week. Similarly, Dollar General was one of the earliest companies to designate senior shopping hours. News coverage from their announcement generated one of the largest spikes in attention of any Fortune 500 company in the month of March. We are tracking these trends on NewsWhip to learn what works and what doesn’t so that our clients have the most up-to-date best practices in this new environment.

BL: We live in extraordinary times, Zach. What are you most concerned — or optimistic, maybe — about within your role as a communications leader?

ZS: When I get in bed at night the past few weeks — and this might seem strange to some, I’m sure — I have found solace in documentaries about very trying times in history. The Vietnam War. The Dust Bowl. I’m obviously too young to have experienced those moments, but documentaries have given me perspective on the major challenges our country has overcome before. In each case, we didn’t return to the same normalcy. Society evolved and took a different, often more resilient path. I am trying to find optimism by believing we are going through that kind of realignment today. And from where I sit, I’m using my role and the tools at my disposal for our clients to identify the trends that are emerging and telling us where we are headed next.  

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We’d like to thank Zach for taking the time to sit down and talk with us, and providing some insight into what has changed and what has remained the same. Life and work is changing dramatically for all of us as we shift to new work habits and requirements, and it’s great to hear other perspectives on that to feel a little more connected as we’re more physically distant than we’ve ever been in the modern age. 

For our full resources on COVID-19 and the response, head over to our hub, or check out our live tracker.