How are communicators looking ahead through COVID-19?

by | Jul 22, 2020 | Covid-19, Public Relations

What lies on the other side of COVID for the communications industry? A new report from the Institute for Public Relations and Peppercomm focuses on critical topics affecting the public relations industry while looking ahead to the future of public relations and communication.

The new e-book, Leadership Perspectives: Leading and Looking Ahead Through COVID-19, features 30 profiles and interviews with communication executives and senior leaders from corporations, public relations agencies, nonprofits, and universities. In addition to talking about the impact of COVID-19 and the increased importance of internal communication, other topics include the return to work; the future of business and the industry; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and the impact of Black Lives Matter protests; and corporate purpose.

“Organizations had to pivot quickly from external promotion to internal engagement when COVID-19 began,” said Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, in a news release. “Communication executives have had to be more nimble, make decisions quicker, and not get stymied by the process as more stakeholders increasingly expect companies to be catalysts for positive change.”

Jennifer Mauer, Head of Global Corporate Communications at Merck, said this pandemic has elevated the value of communication. “We know that in times of great uncertainty, people seek transparency, guidance, and help to make sense of what has happened,” said Mauer, in the release. “The role of communication has become even more important with the majority of employees telling us that they trust communications from their own organization more than other sources.”

Return to work

Plans for returning to the workplace are still in development, as communication executives are heavily involved in helping manage the return to work, including multiple “office” openings on a global scale and timeline, which depends on country-specific governmental and local guidance, science, and other factors.

Many leaders mentioned a phased approach for returning to the office to promote social distancing, including other measures such as rearranged workspaces, personal protective equipment, and temperature checks. Some leaders are helping manage the communication of facilities where employees have already physically returned or never left, especially essential workers in healthcare or PPE producers, research facilities, or those on the frontline.

Ray Day, Vice Chair of Marketing and Communications at Stagwell, said, “As we all eventually seek a return to normalcy, we know it will be a slow and phased return across the country. American workers have asked for safety before returning to the office, and employers will need to take that into account and remain flexible.”

The future of business—and the industry

Many leaders agree that business will never be the same as before COVID-19. Communication executives predict that more business will take place virtually, including more digital advocacy, transformative technologies, and telemedicine in the healthcare industry.

“I think that this pandemic will undoubtedly catalyze change,” said Sarah Crawshaw, Managing Director, Asia Pacific, at Taylor Bennett Heyman. “Businesses will adjust to a new world that is much more localized. I think they will ultimately create more headcount in countries where they have local business operations, but they’ll do so having slimmed down on their regional centers.”

Executives also said the traditional concept of “work” will change, including the physical office space and a flexible work approach.

“While it’s hard to predict the depth of the impact on the business world overall, one thing we all will agree on is that the pre-COVID-19 office as we knew it will no longer exist,” said Geoff Curtis, Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Chief Communications Officer for Horizon Therapeutics.

Additionally, stakeholders trust companies more and expect them to help solve major global issues and important policy matters.

Diversion, equity & inclusion

While leaders acknowledged the ongoing importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in their companies during COVID-19, the death of George Floyd and the global protests that followed were a “turning point” or catalyst for more inclusive programming.

“Our goal at Conagra is to work together in a peaceful and constructive manner, where everyone has a voice and must be heard,” said Jon Harris, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at Conagra. “We used our internal and external channels to underscore our belief that racial injustice is wrong and to promote our timeless values, which include integrity, broad-mindedness, and leadership.”

Many leaders said that DE&I programs at their companies remained a priority throughout COVID-19, referencing that DE&I is embedded in their corporate purpose. A vast majority of respondents said their organizations are improving or expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. Some noted their companies still have some work to do to strengthen DE&I.

However, some were skeptical about the long-term commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement due to the past performance of the industry.

“Within public relations, D&I has mostly been lip service,” said Jennefer Witter, CEO and Founder of The Boreland Group. “But let’s see what companies do. It’s easy to say you support Black Lives Matter now, and it’s easy to do the black square. But let’s see where you are in six months. Let’s see if you’ve taken the talk and made it into the walk.”

Corporate purpose

Corporate purpose and company values have served as a “North Star” for communication executives, serving as their primary guide for decision-making during COVID-19. Most noted that purpose is embedded in the organization, and the health and safety of their stakeholders were most important.

“As a purpose-driven organization rooted in CSR-based management, responding to global health crises locally and globally, and working to ensure access to health is at the heart of what we do,” said Moyra Knight, Vice President, Corporate Communications, Astellas US, President, Astellas Global Health Foundation.

Many respondents who mentioned corporate purpose also noted the importance of giving back and shared how they actively contributed to the community through in-kind donations, monetary support, and matching employee donations.

“Astellas has provided financial assistance to support local and global communities; supported employee volunteerism and company-matched donations to humanitarian organizations; and supported legislative policies focused on the wellbeing of our employees, healthcare professionals, patients, and partners,” said Knight.

Read the new e-book here.

This e-book is the third co-branded report during COVID-19 by IPR and Peppercomm. The first two reports were quantitative. The first report, COVID-19: How Businesses Are Handling the Crisis, focused on how communication executives were handling COVID-19. The second report, Special Report: How Companies Are Engaging Employees During COVID-19, focused in-depth on how companies were communicating internally. In addition, IPR has compiled a robust research center focused on COVID-19.

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Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 12 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richardc@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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