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How has Covid affected the future of PR and Comms?

HOXBY ROSANNA HEAD DISCUSSES THE FUTURE OF PR AND OPPORTUNITIES IN THE WAKE OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.


March 18, 2021

The last year has seen a wave of unprecedented change as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. And with the change has followed an emotional response.

But now, in line with the imminent easing of lockdown, it seems as a nation we’re feeling optimistic about how our lives will play out once things return to some kind of normal. This week’s Office of National Statistics Opinion and Lifestyle Survey reported gradual improvements in the nation's happiness level. A good thing, surely.

So what does this mean for the global workforces who are homeworking? There has never been a more significant opportunity for organisations to become future-ready, with agencies now having the capabilities and opportunities to offer a more expansive and open world of work to their workforce and their clients globally.

The impact of Covid-19 on the PR and comms industry

As practitioners, we’ve had to shapeshift: deal with new ways of working and engaging with colleagues, job losses, new business pitches via zoom, interview rejections, all sorts – and it’s been an interesting path to watch people adjust. We’ve stepped outside our safety boxes to consider smarter, faster and more streamlined ways of working.

What once was important isn’t now. Priorities have changed, and focus has shifted onto value, authenticity and purpose-led PR and communications. But we’ve found ways to make this work for the better, batting away the restrictions that Covid-19 once threw at us.

How Hoxby is ahead of the curve

As a freelancer, the draw of a business like Hoxby is strong. With a mission to create a happier, more fulfilled society through a world of work without bias, Hoxby and The Hoxby Foundation are leading the Workstyle Revolution. My aim is for work to no longer direct my life and I believe that post-Covid-19, many of us will want to balance work and life but still do the same job that we love and deliver excellent results for clients.

The opportunity to work alongside experts across the globe is fantastic, with collective brainpower at a fraction of the cost. Hoxby’s approach to working offers an unrivalled diverse pool of expertise to meet any challenge head on. Just this week, I read that another two global agencies have made moves to invite a more diverse and less London-centric workforce, hiring people from across the nation on new flexible working arrangements. It’s a refreshing change – and what better way to attract a unique pool of talent with no restraints of location?

As stated in a recent article by Leona Deakin, ‘Death and taxes aside, change is one of the few certainties in life. Right now, the pace of change within organisations is particularly rapid – and relentless.’ Our old lives, and the way we interact with others, has changed, potentially for the better, but with the imminent and imperative need to be flexible and resilient with what the future may hold.

The experts’ view on the future of PR

To understand more about how the industry felt, I invited colleagues, acquaintances, leaders, ex-tutors and friends to share their thoughts on the impact of Covid-19, post-pandemic opportunities and PR industry trends, and to discuss what the future holds for practitioners and brands.

​John Harrington, editor, PR Week

‘It almost goes without saying that the comms industry has had a difficult time during the pandemic, but there are significant opportunities ahead. The ending of lockdown and the opening up of the economy will likely see a big marketing push by consumer brands to satisfy pent-up demand. PR will likely be a crucial element of this.

‘The rise of ESG and corporate ‘purpose’ will continue to require wise counsel from comms experts, while the increased importance of specialisms such as employee engagement, healthcare communications, tech PR and b2b comms point to yet more opportunities. Meanwhile, many organisations would have learnt a valuable lesson about the value of crisis comms in this tumultuous era.’

Bev Aujla, global head of public relations and policy at Kelkoo Group

‘We’re all looking at life differently since Covid-19 forced us to change our ways. The reset button has been pressed, affording us a golden opportunity to change for the better. But it isn’t about reinventing the wheel for the sake of it. It’s about embracing change for the right reasons. Much is being said about being “authentic” and having a “purpose”, but it begs the question as practitioners what were we advising pre-Covid-19 and what were brands communicating if it wasn’t authentic or purpose-led? As PR and communications practitioners advising businesses either inhouse or agency side, it's up to us to read our audiences and, in turn, their audiences. What mattered then may not matter now, priorities have shifted, and value sets redefined.”

‘For me, it’s about empathy and ethics underpinning relevant communications that strike a chord with the man or woman on the street, your clients or your customers. The contribution that businesses make to grassroots society will become even more important. In the same way life insurers moved away from scaremongering comms to messaging that centred around protecting those you love the most, brands must also demonstrate real empathy and ethics and move with the times.’

Harriet Small, internal communications lead at Hackney London Borough Council

‘As the recovery starts, employee experience is going to be critical. Understandably, this will be harder with a blended workforce, as it relates to where workers particularly choose to call their office, be it at home or at the corporate headquarters. However, we have to go back to basics and understand what the fundamentals and non-negotiables are.

‘The role of the internal communications and employee engagement function will play an active role in how the business retains its people, makes the new strategy relevant, and ensures there is a constant two-way dialogue.’

Ben Fox, strategy & planning director, Fox & Hare

‘Positive impact, be that environmental or social impact, isn't a new concept in comms by any stretch of the imagination, but it's clear to see that the pandemic has accelerated strategic thinking in this space. The danger with anything shiny and new is infiltrating unchartered territory without considering the consequences.

‘We've all seen disastrous efforts from a purpose-led comms lens, but what isn't always clear is why they've been so unsuccessful. My advice would always be to focus on the substantial and shy away from the symbolic – if your ideas and concepts feel too unnecessarily woke or disingenuous, scrap them.

‘There's nothing worse than trying to float an idea to a brand that just doesn't have the credentials in the impact space – do the leg work first and reap the rewards second. More importantly, don't be afraid to use a specialist in this space. There are plenty out there who’ve got all of their failures out the way so you don't have to with your best client. The golden opportunity here is doing the right thing. Audiences will understand if your brand isn't perfect – but putting everything into improving and doing the best it can to make this world a better place, for now and for the future, is a step in the right direction.’

Bieneosa Ebite, corporate communications leader

‘Covid-19 has reminded us just how interconnected we are. Regardless of our background, we have all experienced fear, anxiety, pain, tragedy and loss over this past year. Together we have shed tears listening to the stories of people who have lost loved ones; we were angry when the elderly in care homes were let down; we clapped in solidarity and praise for NHS workers. Now, we marvel at the brilliant advances in science which have led to the rapid development of vaccines.

‘So what does this all mean for communicators in a post-Covid world? It means we should get back to basics: understanding the human condition and getting to the heart of how people think and feel by listening and understanding their story in an authentic and empathetic way. While this may seem like a fundamental premise for communication professionals, the pandemic has amplified the importance of connection. Only when we truly understand and connect with people can we earn the right to influence how they think, feel and act.’

Karun Jung, senior account manager at Sassy Films, Global Content and Communications

‘The broadcast landscape has inevitably changed since the start of the Coronavirus Pandemic – with obvious considerations such as the heavily populated news agenda, the lack of in-person events and TV producers working away from studios.

‘Careful planning and research around potential “news stealing” headlines have become a must to ensure cut-through moving forward. There certainly seems to be light at the end of the tunnel at the turn of the year though, with broadcasters beginning to show more of an appetite for non-Covid-19 related stories.’

Angela Oakes, joint president of Global Women in PR

‘The Covid pandemic has led to many PR women experiencing burnout over the last year, as they try to juggle homeschooling and lack of childcare while working from home. It’s certainly not been easy. However, at the same time, these women have embraced remote working, as this has allowed them to create their own schedule, by not having to commute to an office and conform to traditional nine-to-five office hours.

‘This is a real positive outcome and is backed up by our research, which shows 69% would be more likely to choose a job that offered flexible working over one that did not. When we have come through this current crisis, we sincerely hope that employers will continue to offer flexible working to help retain women in the PR industry.’

Richard Bailey, editor of PR Place Insights at PR Academy Ltd

‘In the darkest hours of the Second World War, the Beveridge Report outlined the vision for a welfare state. Post-war Britain, impoverished and dependent on Marshall Plan funding from the US, still managed to establish the NHS – and also to build an independent nuclear deterrent. The country had to be made safe and made a better place to live in.

‘The current political slogan is “build back better”, and public relations advisers and comms experts should all be thinking of ways to contribute to this challenge.

‘How to build on the greater focus through the lockdown on employee comms and wellbeing? How to rebuild a sense of community? How to move on from the divisions of the Brexit debate and the wounds of the Black Lives Matter protests? How to address the climate crisis without damaging business? Public relations does not and cannot answer all these questions, but we should be asking these questions and putting them to our leaders and colleagues.’

Feeroza Patel, director of communications London & Partners

‘Like many organisations, the pandemic had a profound impact on how London & Partners operates. As the trade, investment and promotion agency for London, a key part of our role is to attract international visitors to London, something we could no longer do.

‘Instead, we reassessed our business plan and pivoted our activity to a domestic local audience through our #BecauseImALondoner campaign, which in fact turned out to be one of our best-performing campaigns in recent years. One of the factors in its success was the sense of a wider purpose. By tapping into Londoners’ sense of community and pride for their city, we were able to encourage them to play their part in its recovery.

‘For me, it was evidence of one of several shifts in the communications landscape, which became apparent last year and which I think is meaningful for us as comms professionals as we look towards operating in a post-covid world.

  • Audiences are paying increasing attention to values and purpose – this is not just a comms activity in isolation; audiences expect us to walk the walk as well as talk the talk and comms is uniquely placed to help organisations do that.
  • The importance of internal comms should not be underestimated. For us it became a key tool to help keep our colleagues informed, connected and engaged, and a means of managing our messaging across a global organisation. As practitioners, there’s an opportunity to build on this and recognise internal comms as a critical organisational function.
  • Crisis communications have come to the fore – you could argue that we were operating in a near-constant state of crisis throughout last year. As with internal comms, crisis communications too became more widely understood as a critical organisational function. There are lessons we can learn for our future planning as comms professionals but also opportunities for this area of the comms landscape to grow.’

Hoxby is a global communications agency, a PR agency and much more. Hoxby delivers unparalleled diversity, scale and expertise through collective intelligence in 43+ local markets. To find out more or to brief us, get in touch at hello@hoxby.com

Rosanna J Head is a senior communications consultant and part of the Hoxby community.


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