Surviving the Covid News Agenda & How to Futureproof Digital PR and Link Building

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On the 23rd March, Boris Johnston took to television screens across the UK and the words “we must do more, you must all stay at home” rang across the nation.

Our lives as we knew them changed. Our industry as we knew it changed.

For many agencies, this was a time of significant growth where they were reporting a 95% increase in sales and revenue; they couldn’t hire new talent quick enough. But for others, it was a nightmare and they’d lost 95% of the clients overnight.

Aira sat somewhere in the middle of this, we were hit hard in the first few months as two weeks into the UK lockdown we lost 50% of our revenue with pauses on contracts. But by the end of the summer, we’d onboarded a number of household name brands and were hiring again.

We thought we’d come out the other side of things as we headed into a New Year but there was something else at play that was affecting our efforts as a digital PR and creative team. Something much bigger… It was so obviously staring us in the face and yet we hadn’t noticed, and the impact it was having on a much deeper level than anything we’d expected or forecasted.

Our kryptonite was the news agenda; we’ve never, ever seen one like this before.

The problem

Over the past 18 months, the media has been consistently busy, over crowded and competitive and it shows no sign of slowing down. This hasn’t just been down to the level of Covid stories that are covered, we’ve seen historical events and movements that will never (and should never) be forgotten covered in the press.

Here’s what it looks like when you’re trying to get your client into said news agenda:

Easy, right? No, not at all.

The space we – and many other agencies – have to play in right now to get our clients campaigns covered is smaller than it ever has been. We pivoted (sorry, had to say it!) or paused more than 75% of our campaigns one month because we knew they wouldn’t get the cut through we were expecting in their current format.

We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve had to tell clients we can’t launch today or we need to change our angle or data. Those emails start just like this:

There was just no way we could launch anything that was meant to inspire people to book flights to the Maldives when cases were increasing – it wasn’t the right thing to do or say at the time. On top of this crazy-busy news agenda, we were also battling a few other things:

  1. Journalists were on furlough or sadly were losing their roles which again meant the pool of contacts we were pitching campaigns to was reducing and increased competition;
  2. We’d spent 5 years putting processes and planning documents in place to launch evergreen data visualisation and some of these were now redundant because it meant we were too slow moving and less reactive than we could or should have been to drive links;
  3. Our clients businesses were under threat meaning that every single point spent with us needed to deliver a return on investment.

Oh, and did I mention the news agenda? I may have.

Because of the pressures and battles we were facing, it’s safe to say that at points, we as an agency and our industry as a whole, have risked quality and relevance in favour of launching a piece quickly. This has meant campaigns go out the door imperfect with the likes of typos included, and we’re having to spin bigger news stories and stunts to get cut through or perhaps we’re going back to the same formats for campaigns because they’re ‘safe’.

This means we’re in danger of producing the same irrelevant and imperfect campaigns over, and over again. Do we think Google wants to reward this long-term? This isn’t sustainable now, it never will be.

The Solution

It’s safe to say that Aira learned some pretty hard lessons whilst in ‘survival mode’. They spanned three key pillars of our campaign delivery:

  • Ideation – coming up with the ideas to drive links, traffic and rankings;
  • Production – using designers and developers to bring the idea to life;
  • Promotion – distributing our content to key writers in the online media.

Today, we’re going to focus on ideation given that every campaign is born from a newsworthy idea. Let’s be honest, there’s also a huge difference between a content idea that could make a great blog post and one that can actually go off to secure links and drive traffic, rankings and revenue.  

So, how can we make that distinction quickly and efficiently when the news agenda is ever changing?

The ROR Framework

When working under time pressure, there are three important factors to validate your idea against and they are; relevancy, opinion and resolution. Think of this as a kind of ‘natural selection’ for ideas so that you’re left with the ones that are going to have a positive impact on search visibility  and ultimately get cut through within the media.

#1 – Relevancy

I have a question for you: should your brand be talking about that specific topic or theme? Now, think again. To help you work out if the brand should be talking about the topic and or theme we need to define them:

  • Topics = 3 to 5 subjects defined at kick off that related directly to the product offering and act as guide rails for the project;
  • Theme = A layer deeper than topics that a brand can have a solid opinion on.

When you have these defined, head over to Reddit and Buzzsumo and plug in the search terms to work out what is trending, what people are talking about and help give you insights as to if your campaign is going to be something your audience will care about and engage with.

Looking at the example of ‘Women in STEM’ you can start to see that Buzzsumo returns topics such as impact on Covid, challenges women are facing and universities or scholarships.

This means that if your idea within engineering explores women in STEM and touches on one of those topics listed, it’s likely to be more successful than if it didn’t because we can see the audience engaging with these things. Who knows, you might be onto a link building winner…

#2 – Opinion

The next step when it comes to validating your idea is ensuring your brand can have a clear, distinctive and unique voice on the subject matter and this should be relevant to your topics and themes.

If you’re unsure on how to create that opinion, a good place to start after identifying your topics and themes would be to consider how your brand can overlay thoughts on:

  1. Time – What will happen in time if this issue isn’t addressed? How have things already changed over time?
  2. Finances – What’s the financial impact of the situation? Is there parity or disparity between two things? Do we need extra funding or support?
  3. Solutions – How can your brand start to change the thinking around offering solutions to the issues highlighted? How do they lead that?

These three things won’t be right for every idea or brand, but they offer a starting point to drawing out insightful opinions from stakeholders that will offer a fresh perspective. Your brand’s opinion should be in the copy and messaging for the campaign and any supporting press material for journalists too.

#3 – Resolution

It’s fair to say that we aren’t going to solve world issues with digital PR campaigns alone.

But, that doesn’t mean your work can’t be meaningful and the campaign can’t offer a brand’s audience an answer to a curious question, or resolution to a problem or challenge they’re facing.

With such a competitive news agenda, we know that writers and journalists are looking for stories that add more value to their audience and readership, so start out by listing questions that they might be interested in or challenges this campaign will solve for them. When you have this list, you can then cross reference it with your campaign idea and see if they’re helping shed light on things.

For example, if we take go back to our example of engineering and women in STEM, you might list questions such as:

  • What universities are best for women looking to study STEM?
  • What are the average degree grades women get at these universities?
  • What’s the cost involved?
  • When can women expect to see a return on their investment in education in STEM?
  • Do women in STEM get paid less than men despite higher qualifications?

If you have a campaign idea that reveals the top universities for women studying STEM, along with qualification grades and then where they went on to get employed, you can feel confident that the idea has satisfied this part of the ROR Framework as you’re directly answering those questions above.

The Framework In Action 

They say that the proof is in the pudding, so it’s important to share a case study with you where you can see the framework in action. Earlier this year Aira began working with a UK based property rental company for digital PR and link building and the framework helped shape our first campaign ‘Royal Rentals’.

The campaign sheds light on how much it would cost to rent royal residences around the UK and where they are based and hits each point of the framework:

  • Relevancy – After spending time researching topics and themes, cross referencing these across Buzzsumo, Reddit and social media platforms we were able to see a sharp increase in the number of threads around royal properties in and around the UK. We can make a direct connection to the brand by overlaying a rental theme.

Here’s a snippet of Reddit:

  • Opinion – The brand was able to take a clear and unique stance on the topic and research taking a financial perspective that was covered in Yahoo! and more: :

Ryan Prince, founder at UNCLE said:

 “The idea of living like royalty is a concept that fascinates many, with TV shows such as The Crown giving us a glimpse into the life of a royal family member. Whether a royal palace, regal castle or a majestic stately home, we wanted to reveal how much it would cost for you to live for a month in luxury like a royal – if they were ever to be up for rent, that is.

“With many of the royal residences being based in the capital, living in these desirable central London locations comes hand-in-hand with a hefty price tag. Even the cheapest royal properties on the ranking, such as Nottingham Cottage in Kensington, would cost you north of £93,000 to rent for one year – that’s triple the average UK annual salary.

  • Resolution – Whilst this campaign doesn’t offer a resolution in that it’s helping people to be able to afford to rent a royal household, it’s instead offering to answer a genuine audience query at a time when the property market was picking back up and the royals were the front and centre of attention. 

And the results? This evergreen campaign secured 44 pieces of coverage including 18 followed links from highly relevant and quality publications such as Yahoo! And House Beautiful.

Now, there’s nothing viral about those numbers but we know that the quality of the sites will have a positive impact on important search metrics. This campaign is part of an ongoing sustainable digital PR strategy that aims to drive true business growth. 


The ROR Framework is designed to help you quickly and effectively validate ideas at a time where the news agenda is a force to be reckoned with and shows no signs of slowing. A reminder of the key points of the framework:

  1. Relevancy– Making sure that your brand should be producing content on a specific topic or theme that’s directly connected to their value proposition.
  2. Opinion– Ensuring your brand has a strong, unique voice on the subject that’s credible and authentic. Don’t say it for the sake of it.
  3. Resolution – Add value beyond just sharing information, answer a genuine query or concern and start to offer a solution for the audience.

The framework can’t guarantee that your campaign will be a sure fire link building success, but it can help you understand the gaps in the concept and more importantly, ensures your idea is relevant to the brand.

Born out of survival mode thinking, it aims to give you and your clients more confidence and certainty at a time when both things have been few and far between and helps drive real business growth.

Shannon McGuirk

Shannon is the Client Services and Delivery Director at Aira where she oversees the Digital PR, Creative, SEO, and Paid teams to help client's businesses grow online through digital marketing channels. Her background is in digital PR and she's worked with some well-known household brands such as Vouchercloud, RS Components, Goodyear Tyres, TravelSupermarket, AXA PPP healthcare and Poundland. 

Disclaimer: The author's views are entirely their own, and don't necessarily reflect the opinions of BuzzStream.
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