Penguin Random House | Cape Town, 05/18/2020

How Penguin Random House South Africa Is Handling The Coronavirus Crisis

Subject: Corona, Media & Services, Employees
Country: South Africa
Category: Project

In March, South Africa imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns on its population. Since then, 80 % of Penguin Random House South Africa employees have been working from home. Nevertheless, the publisher is reaching its readers with a wide range of digital activities. For example, Penguin Random House South Africa participated in the worldwide #dontrushchallenge initiative and launched an online newsletter, the “Penguin Post.”

In recent weeks many millions of people all over the world have been experiencing how it feels when their work and private life is turned completely upside down in just a few days as they are forced to deal with the effects of the coronavirus epidemic on a daily basis, whether in the form of lockdowns or working from home and reduced working hours. In South Africa, just three weeks elapsed between the report of the country’s first Covid-19 case in early March and the start of a strict, nationwide lockdown. Penguin Random House South Africa (PRHSA) had already closed its three offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria a few days earlier, and had equipped 80% of the employees to continue their work from home.

“We don’t yet know what things will be like outside once we’re allowed to move around more freely again,” says Steve Connolly, CEO of Penguin Random House South Africa. “I suppose it will be a more careful, quieter world. Even if we are free to go out and move around as normal again, I think people will do so less than before Covid.” South Africa began a gradual easing of the lockdown in early May. Connolly says that in the first few weeks, retail revenues would probably not return to normal levels, while online retail would probably experience strong growth. He has been communicating with employees by email and online since mid-March to keep them abreast of the situation. The publisher’s individual departments have virtual spaces where they can meet and work together. And like its sister publishers in other countries, PRHSA recently held its first virtual townhall meeting.

In addition to the publisher’s official channels, employees in South Africa are also staying in touch with each other personally through various Whatsapp groups, where they share industry news and information about working from home, as well as funny content. The company also provides support for staff with access to a professional telephone advisory service, which they and their families can use day and night.

The publisher’s digital division is also exploring new paths. For example, the team participated in the globally successful #dontrushchallenge initiative on social media. The viral challenge was triggered by a video clip showing the transformation of a group of young black women in their respective homes from a lockdown slob look to a chic party outfit. Edits make it look as if they have changed their look within seconds. The effect is intensified by the passing of an apparently “magical” baton in the form of a cosmetic brush. The clip, accompanied by the song “Don’t Rush” by British rap duo Young T and Bugsey, has been shared millions of times and has inspired “copycat” videos all over the world. One of them is PRHSA, where employees present themselves in their respective kitchens, first in comfortable outfits, then, after the cut, in chic clothing. Instead of a brush, the baton they pass is one of the many cookbooks from the publisher’s program, and the result, a delicious meal, is of course also shown. The video, which was initially only shown in-house, was so well received that the publisher also shared it on social media and turned it into a small video competition for readers.

Among other things, the publisher’s Marketing department launched the “Penguin Post” newsletter during the coronavirus crisis, featuring articles by national and international authors, as well as tips, advice, recipes, and reports from employees about life during lockdown. Again only distributed internally at first, now an adapted version of “Penguin Post” is also being sent to interested parties outside the publishing house. The publisher’s social media channels are the most important instruments for continuing to bring readers together with authors. Here, the range of offerings has been greatly expanded, and authors are happily using these platforms in a variety of ways, reading from their works, participating in online events such as webinars or live discussions, and distributing podcasts about their experiences of the coronavirus crisis. “We’ve achieved a lot up until now, and we’re on the right track,” says CEO Steve Connolly in his first stocktaking after two months of the coronavirus crisis.