With most crises, it’s relatively certain an end will come. As we enter yet another week of the pandemic, some medical experts remain unsure about the end. COVID-19 could become an endemic disease, joining measles, chicken pox and HIV, they say.
Likewise, our latest PRNEWS survey finds a significant majority of PR pros (70 percent) say “uncertainty about the future” is the most difficult issue to handle (see chart 5). Yet, an even larger group (88 percent) believes PR will exit the pandemic stronger than it went in, or roughly the same size, though not immediately (see chart 8). That is a remarkable finding as layoffs and furloughs corrode the PR industry and the economy.
In addition, the survey of 200 executives, conducted May 11-22, exposes a paucity of communication about diversity and inclusion (see chart 1). And 70 percent say the pandemic has made them rethink crisis communication “a bit” or significantly (see chart 7).
Source: PRNEWS, 200 respondents (May 11-22, 2020)
Despite these trying times, the pandemic has allowed PR to innovate. “It’s ironic,” but in a business that centers on face-to-face relationships, “we’ve never had more conversations” with companies and organizations we represent, says Laura Ryan, EVP, corporate communication, Ruder Finn. “We’ve never been closer to them...It’s a unique time for PR,” she says.
In addition, PR’s ability to provide strategic guidance from a wide perspective, inside a company and across industries, is making the value of communicators clear. “If there ever was a time to be there” for those you represent, “it’s now,” Ryan adds.
Says Nigel Glennie, Hilton’s VP, corporate communication, communicators can help companies seeking
a stronger connection to their people and customers, and the scenario planning and stakeholder analysis skills PR pros offer are in demand. “And just as important, the empathy and sensitivity we bring to the conversation has never been more needed.”
Positivity in PR
Much of the survey reflects the positivity of Ryan and Glennie. The critical role PR is playing during the pandemic will cement the need for it after the pandemic. This explains in part why nearly 90 percent of respondents believe PR will return to it previous size after the pandemic.
Not all the survey data is as sanguine. For example, nearly half (47 percent) believe “it’s impossible to say” when it will be time to slow the cadence of pandemic-related internal communication (chart 2).
Contrast that with responses to a question about advance planning. A total of 24 percent of respondents say the virus “has not changed our advance planning” and just 10 percent believe “our inability to plan ahead during this moment is a concern.”
In addition, just 11 percent are “barely planning ahead at all,” and 54 percent are planning 2-4 weeks ahead.
The question in chart 1, about diversity & inclusion (D&I) is relevant in light of recent events in the US. Nearly 40 percent of respondents tell us D&I is not part of their communication.
The survey began May 11, days after a video surfaced of two white citizens shooting Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, in suburban Atlanta. Video of now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck appeared May 25, days after the survey’s close.
“These numbers are telling,” says Angela Chitkara, a researcher on D&I issues with the “World in 2020” report. She sees two camps: those who are keeping D&I central to their communications and those who are not. The first camp, she says, “understands empathy and the need to connect with stakeholders, primarily, their employees. The other camp seems out of touch with realities and stakeholders.”
D&I, Chitkara adds, ties with the inclusiveness and sense of belonging within an organization. Moreover, D&I expresses the company's values and purpose through its actions. A lack of D&I poses social risks to organizations, according to the World in 2020 report, she says.
Adds Soon Mee Kim, EVP, global diversity, equity & inclusion leader, Porter Novelli, “D&I should be integrated into everything." She puts the survey’s D&I question on its head: “‘How are you incorporating sameness and exclusion in your communication?’ In truth, that’s likely a very high percentage, but it should be 0 percent.”
Internal: Empathy and Rapid Cadence
Chart 3 shows the cadence of internal communication remains vibrant, with 68 percent saying they reach out more to employees now. In addition, 46 percent say internal engagement is stronger.
That is likely to be more important after the pandemic, since 60 percent of communicators expect to spend at least some time working from home (see chart 6).
Moreover, 56 percent say communication with employees is “more personal and empathetic than before the pandemic.” That surprises Ryan, who expected a higher number.
Lacking All The Answers
“Employees are starved for information in a world without a lot of answers…that’s why you’re seeing town halls and more communication.” Staff want to hear from corporate leaders even when [corporate leaders] don’t have answers, “and they want a human approach and a regular cadence.” As a result, internal communication has “taken on a very different turn for a lot of companies.”
The feeling of shared experience and that ‘We’re all in this together’ is driving the demand for more and personal internal communication, Glennie believes.
Despite the pandemic’s influence on internal communication, Glennie argues certain fundamentals remain true. Internal communication, he says, must focus on the needs of the audience and delivered through the right channels at the right time. “There may also be new and interesting reasons driving the frequency of internal communications, from sharing stories of much-needed optimism to helping create a more consistent and ongoing connection.”
Chart 4 offers good news for measurement, another somewhat neglected part of communications. 27 percent said measurement is playing a larger role during the virus period.
“This shows a clear shift in mindset: Data analytics in hand during a crisis eliminates a lot of guesswork and gives you the ability to move faster,” says Eric Koefoot, president and CEO, PublicRelay, the analytics firm. “We’ve seen this positive impact of quality analytics with our clients for years.”
Though Glennie hasn’t changed his crisis approach as a result of the pandemic (chart 7), “What I might have considered a reputation-impacting crisis six months ago, pales in comparison” to the pandemic. In addition, he’s thinking more about pandemic-plus preparedness. Instead of preparing for a single crisis, he’s thinking of pandemic-plus-hurricane or -plus-earthquake scenarios.
Note: A version of this content appeared in the June 2020 edition of PRNEWS. For subscription information, please visit: http://www.prnewsonline.com/about/info
Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him @skarenstein