In January, I was asked to be part of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) Southeast Asia Global Communications Forum. They wanted us to share our thoughts on what the state of PR might look like in 2021. A straightforward topic, but the answer less so. When the world we once thought was ‘normal’ has been altered so spectacularly, trying to peer into the future is challenging.
In trying to describe the future, I looked back at the past. I reflected on everything we had experienced in 2020 and stripped down the conversations that I’d been having with my clients, my team, and everyone around me. Some common themes quickly began to emerge.
Recently, I saw a headline that really struck a chord with me: “Plague of mistrust follows COVID-19”. It was about the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, which showed how little people trust societal institutions and government leaders around the world.
Misinformation is one of the biggest reasons for this erosion of trust, especially with how widely information can get amplified on social media. In an environment muddled by lies and untruth, consumers are either perpetually confused or highly suspicious of what they consume. The challenge for us in PR is in understanding how we can regain trust and credibility.
PR professionals also bear the responsibility of making sure that clients do not jump onto ‘trendy’ bandwagons or adopt inauthentic postures. This was evident in the strong backlash against businesses who tried to capitalise on the Black Lives Matter movement last year. This ties in very closely with the need for consistent, authentic brand messaging.
Technology has made it much easier for consumers to check whether a brand has historically walked the talk. If they have not, calling them out is just a post or click away and there is a higher chance of the message reaching a much larger number of people. To avoid these major pitfalls, companies will be looking to PR teams to ensure that their communications come across as transparent and without a hidden agenda.
When a company’s revenue is significantly affected, one of the first budgets to be slashed or teams to be laid off are marketing and communications. At the start of the pandemic last year, we braced for the worst. But as the year progressed, we realised that demand was actually growing for PR services. Businesses wanted to increase their exposure, but they also wanted to send the right messages in such chaotic and uncertain times.
There is now a much more obvious link between PR and driving company growth. At the C-Suite level, executives are beginning to see PR in a new light and acknowledging that their work scope can be designed to meet business objectives. With this paradigm shift, I believe that there will be significant changes in how companies build their communications teams moving forward.
There will be a more pronounced occurrence of PR teams becoming an extension of the in-house team, similar to how startups work at an early stage — especially among the larger brands. We will see a shift this year towards increased integration between agencies and in-house communications teams. Besides traditional media pitching and reporting, in-house teams will begin relying on agencies more to manage internal communications as well as working together on large brand campaigns.
Over the past year, the phrase ‘anything can happen’ has become more a mantra than an exaggeration. We’ve seen many unprecedented events in the last few months that repeatedly caught people off guard and had disastrous consequences due to lack of preparation.
The uncertain environment underscores how important crisis management can be. In the early days of the pandemic, we had a client who had manufacturing processes in China, but thought the pandemic fallout would be relatively minor. We explained that it would be a serious matter and prepared a comprehensive plan with multiple actionable pathways for different scenarios. This saved them a lot of time and enabled much faster and accurate communication when the crisis actually hit, which minimised damage to the brand reputation.
With renewed emphasis on how important good communication is for a business, we will start to see brands approaching crisis management much more proactively and being more accepting of the marketing or communications head being in the room when crisis decisions are made. This lays the foundation for a good communication strategy, which can be fed down quickly. If the PR agencies are added to the table, that will further strengthen the power of their communications.
I mentioned earlier that PR is now being seen as a driver of business growth. To that end, we are now seeing PR budgets being tied to success in business objectives, such as higher sales figures or increased market share. We will need to consider how we can solve business challenges through communications and what metrics we should be measuring to demonstrate our contribution in our reporting.
Football is an apt analogy for this topic. At the end of a football game, you will see a lot of data on the game itself — the score, shots on target, percentage of possession. While useful metrics, none of that information really gave you any insight into whether the team performed well or not. Were the shots of a good quality? Was the team simply passing the ball at the back, or were they making incisive passes forward into dangerous areas? Slowly, football has begun displaying analyses that adds more value by connecting statistics to the context of the game itself, which is a better reflection of the team’s performance.
In the same vein, we need to start moving away from just reporting standalone data such as the number of media interviews, or using an influencer’s number of followers to claim improved reach. Are we targeting the right audiences? Are we building share of voice amongst the right audiences? We need to be asking the right questions, finding data to support the possible conclusions and building them into a comprehensive analysis of what’s happening. It will take time to change and educate all the stakeholders, but it has to be done to produce the most effective outcomes.
Public relations is about people. Building relations with people, connecting people, connecting with people. Removing that social connection and in-person interaction makes PR work more challenging. Zoom and other digital communication tools are decent stand-ins, but talking to people virtually can only go so far towards creating human connections.
We have no choice but to adapt to the conditions around us — it will take more effort to connect through the screen, but it can be done. At the start of the pandemic, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast titled ‘How to make meetings less terrible’. There was some very relevant advice there that I try to put into practice myself, such as spending the first few minutes of meetings trying to make meaningful connections, having videos on for eye contact and scheduling meetings only as long as we actually need, not for how long we think we need (if you need 18 minutes, schedule the meeting for 18 minutes, not 30 minutes).
There is no doubt that we are venturing into some uncharted territory — not just as an industry, but as a society. I believe the increased emphasis on authentic messaging, integrated agency-client collaborations, proactive business communications and new measurements of success will ultimately lead to the creation of more genuine relationships between businesses and audiences, which is what we are here to facilitate as PR experts.
The world may be changing, but our mission has not. The PR industry is more than ready for the challenge, and I’m excited to see what the rest of the year has in store for us.