How to Plan a Promotional Event in the Age of Physical Distancing

As companies around the world continue to feel the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting your business model is key to long-term success and survival. As a PR agency that hosts regular in-person meetings, launch parties, and media events on behalf of our restaurant clients, we’ve been working hard to adjust to our temporary new normal and engage with media and consumers in safe and responsible ways.  

So, how do you bring people together when we’re supposed to be staying apart? 

If you’re looking for creative strategies to connect with audiences and showcase your business while maintaining physical distance, here are a few first-hand ideas from SMC Communications and other PR pros to help get the word out about your clients without putting anyone at risk. 

Host a Q&A session for journalists

With many regions implementing restrictions on large indoor and outdoor gatherings, press conferences and media briefings are off the table for now – but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep reporters informed. 

If you’ve got timely information to share on a new product launch an important business update from a client, why not generate buzz by hosting a virtual press conference that conveys a sense of excitement and gives journalists the opportunity to get the scoop. Facebook Live, ezTalks, ZOOM, and Microsoft Teams are just a few digital platforms that brands can utilize to host interactive Q&A sessions and conferences to connect directly with journalists who are working remotely. 

Going digital means that you can cast a wider geographic net and expand your reach among a larger audience. Plus, you’ll be able to record the session and share it afterward for those who can’t attend the live event as it happens. 

Plan a media drop

Hosting large-scale parties for product launches or store openings isn’t possible in the current COVID-19 climate, but that doesn’t mean you can’t show off the goods. Instead of inviting media and influencers to come to you, think about how you can adapt your offerings to bring news-worthy experiences and products to them. If you’re trying to get the word out about a new restaurant, consider delivering a special meal kit – complete with branded packaging – to give recipients a taste of the concept before they have a chance to visit in person. 

“As part of our launch strategy for Pastificio di Luigi, the latest project from Kitchen Table hospitality group, we delivered gift packages of fresh handmade Italian pasta, sauces, and specialty items to select media and influencers in Vancouver,” explains SMC Communications Principal Shelley McArthur Everett. “Details about the Italian pop-up were included with each delivery along with social handles and suggested hashtags to encourage recipients to post about the Pastificio di Luigi launch on their platforms.” 

The curated packages were well received among journalists and influencers, with many posting images of the items – and their finished dishes – across social media. The strategic media drops enabled our team to drive awareness for the new culinary concept and boost engagement for the restaurant’s branded social channels.

Show off your expertise

When you can’t network in person, consider ways you can engage with your target audience by positioning yourself as a subject-matter expert in a virtual space. Hosting online workshops is a great way to build exposure for your business – or yourself – and keep brands top-of-mind during a challenging time. Consumers are looking to their screens more than ever as a way to stay connected and combat feelings of isolation and boredom, so now’s the time to capitalize on those attentive eyeballs and figure out a way to put your clients front and center. 

From makeup tutorials to at-home workout routines to live cooking demos, there are plenty of ways to showcase your clients’ expertise through online skill-building classes that are both educational and entertaining. Positioning your client as a thought-leader on a particular topic will also encourage journalists to think of them down the road for future interview opportunities. 

Plan a trivia night

A popular pastime in the days before physical distancing, Trivia Nights are a fun, interactive way to bring people together – and can easily be adapted as an online experience. Game-based learning platform Kahoot! allows businesses to create personalized virtual quizzes on any subject matter. The interactive platform can be customized with branded design features and quizzes can be broadcast in real-time to connect with live audiences. 

Earlier this year, BROOKSIDE Chocolate partnered with Toronto-based lifestyle blog She Does the City for a series of nostalgic 2000’s-era virtual trivia nights. The pop-culture-themed consumer events were free to attend, and high-scoring winners were sent chocolate goodie bag prizes afterward. Not only were these virtual game nights a great brand-building promotion for BROOKSIDE, but the company was also able to collect participant contact information and follow up with additional marketing activities.

Nurture media relationships, from a distance 

Sometimes, you just can’t beat face to face communication. With fewer networking events and large-scale parties in our social calendars this year, now is a good time to foster one-on-one connections with media, clients, and industry partners – whether that’s in person from a distance or online. 

If you’re in lockdown, try setting up a virtual Happy Hour over Zoom (bonus points if you deliver an at-home cocktail kit beforehand) to foster a sense of connection. If you’re in an area with fewer restrictions, suggest meeting up in an outdoor space where you can stay at least two meters apart while enjoying some good old-fashioned face time. 

Host a small, safe, socially distant event

As physical distancing limitations ease up in your city, think about ways you can bring media together in small groups for safe in-person experiences. In honor of the launch of Vancouver’s first-ever Dine Outside Vancouver Festival in August 2020, SMC hosted more than 40 media guests at outdoor dining locations across the city. “Journalists and influencers were paired up with close friends and colleagues in their existing social circles to enjoy outdoor patios and picnic experiences,” says McArthur Everett. “The unique event allowed media to rediscover local restaurants and take part in the culinary festival in a safe and physically distant manner.”  

In September, beloved BC brands White Spot and Triple O’s enlisted SMC to help them celebrate the launch of the Impossible™ Burger on all menus. As part of our overarching media strategy, the SMC team planned and executed a safe, socially distant media event that featured four staggered one-hour time slots for media attendees (with no more than 10 guests at a time), branded floor markers, and signage to encourage guests to maintain a two-meter distance, and colorful Instagram-worthy custom burger face masks for all staff and guests.

With the COVID-19 situation changing on a daily basis, it’s more important than ever for PR agencies to be agile and flexible when it comes to hosting promotional events for clients. And while screen fatigue may be setting in for some consumers and media, virtual press conferences, online trivia contests, and social events continue to be a safe and effective way to engage with audiences. That said, originality and creativity are key when it comes to planning and hosting a successful digital activation as part of your overall public relations plan. 

And if you’re thinking about hosting an in-person initiative, it’s important to adhere to current health and safety guidelines in your region while also keeping personal comfort levels in mind. Be mindful of people’s boundaries and limitations when it comes to socializing outside the home; some individuals may be happy to interact with people beyond their household bubble as long as masks are worn and hygiene protocols are in place, while others might want to stay close to home and would prefer to receive a media drop delivered directly to their door. 

While the ongoing global crisis has impacted our ability to congregate for person gatherings and parties, it has also brought us together in ways we could have never imagined. The agency team at SMC Communications has learned how to adapt on a dime in order to effectively navigate the ever-changing challenges and restrictions posed by the pandemic. And by developing new and creative ways to connect with media and consumers in-person and online, we’ve been able to keep our clients top of mind and find success against all odds.


Cover photo by Gabriel Benois

About the Author:

SMC Communications is an award-winning Vancouver-based public relations firm and digital marketing agency, provides strategic communications services for food-related brands, including independent restaurants, hospitality groups, agricultural organizations, and culinary events.


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