Despite—or maybe because of—its many challenges, 2020 heightened the need for communications services, perhaps for good, finds new research from global communications network IPREX about the lessons of last year and implications for 2021 for the independent PR and marketing industry, based on inputs from its offices around the world.
“While the impacts of the pandemic and the economic disruptions weren’t experienced uniformly across sectors or markets, there are some powerful learnings that both give optimism for the year ahead and highlight areas for communications and marketing leaders to prioritize, wherever they operate,” said Julie Exner, global president of IPREX, in a news release. “Challenges abound and vary widely, but solutions without fail include solid communications strategies.”
Uneven disruption and uneven recovery
Firms with deep experience supporting hospitality, tourism, and travel suffered alongside their clients, as the impacts of the pandemic brought much of that sector to an abrupt halt. While these firms continue to recover, many IPREX firms also expect to be impacted by the emergence of new or changed trade dynamics, from the aftermath of Brexit for the E.U. and the U.K., to the next generation of China-U.S. relations under a Biden administration, among a myriad of others.
“In 2020, we saw companies generally follow one of two strategies: to hibernate or accelerate,” said Josh Weiss, president of 10 to 1 Public Relations, in the release. “The companies that chose to hibernate essentially tried to minimize their footprint and costs to conserve cash with the plan to reenter the fray once the pandemic passed. The companies choosing to accelerate were the ones who doubled down by being more aggressive or pivoting their businesses quickly to maximize short term returns in hopes of a long-term positive effect… The number of new prospect inquiries has increased sharply at the end of 2020 and into 2021 from both companies that have been accelerating and those that have been hibernating… As vaccination rates increase, I’m optimistic we’ll see inquiries continue to blossom from companies that want to be well positioned for the PC (Post COVID) economy.”
Global scale challenge reinforces global scale solutions
While each country, region and metropolitan area around the world shaped its response to the challenges of COVID-19 based on local realities, the capacity to share experiences, stories and data created a strong awareness of the value of global connections. Alliance efforts in the future won’t be a return to past practices or models, but new forms of global cooperation, collaboration and partnership with independent firms on-the-ground in key markets operating with the benefits of shared talent, technology and best practices.
The complicated future of facts means more communications needs
Both the pandemic and the accelerating polarization of societies around the world have contributed to the fracturing of traditional sources of public information, undermining citizens’ confidence in official messaging from government and private brands. IPREX firms have seen an increased demand related to developing strategies to reinforce the credibility of those institutional players. This need isn’t likely to abate anytime soon. Specifically, IPREX firms report a rise in the increasing sophistication required in using digital and social media tools for the delivery of effective messaging.
“In the crazy, noisy world of 2021, it has never been easier to push out messages…and never been more difficult to actually be understood. And the work of strategic communications people like those across the IPREX network is about helping clients be understood,” said Kathy Tunheim, president & chief executive officer of Tunheim, in the release. “Increasingly our clients are keenly aware that one-way communications can’t deliver on their business goals and two-way communication has always been at the heart of what we do. We listen, we discern, we deliver real engagement and, over time, understanding.”
Purpose-driven work on the rise
Many corporations supported by IPREX firms are engaging in unprecedented efforts to ensure they are meeting their obligations to all their stakeholders: customers, employees, communities and investors. Corporate social responsibility efforts are moving into new levels of investment and sophistication. IPREX firms report clients are increasingly coming to their agencies for environmental, social and governance (ESG), sustainability and purpose-driven work.
Equity and systemic racism demand thoughtful navigation
Set off by events in the U.S. (in particular, the death of George Floyd), but reverberating around the globe, issues of racial and ethnic equity have now been raised to a level of awareness such that brands and organizations cannot sit on the sidelines. Authentic and inclusive voices, as well as clear intentionality, are now reputational commitments being made by IPREX itself, as well as by the clients IPREX agencies serve through their public relations and strategic communications services.
“The PR industry showed resilience in 2020, and we are poised to navigate our clients around what’s ahead in 2021,” said Natalie Best, chief operating officer at French/West/Vaughan, in the release. “The world has changed forever, but the need for authentic, trustworthy and purposeful communications is needed now more than ever.”