PR pathways in a pandemic world

By Ron Murray

The COVID-19 maelstrom battered just about every sphere of human activity last year. The rampant spread of the virus and its crippling effects on business and life in general were stunning.

To the good fortune of Kiwis, New Zealand managed to control the virus, and life currently resembles normality here but there’s the ever-present risk that COVID might breach quarantine and put our communities into lockdown again.

Our PR consultancy survived the year intact and through much of the year was able to maintain a flow of services and support for our clients.

But like any management discipline facing a radically changed operating environment, PR needs to adjust and do some things differently.  What are the notable trends and shifts in our game? What will be PR look like for practitioners and clients in 2021 and beyond?

At a macro, society level, it’s fair to say COVID-19 has forced a re-set on how we look at just about everything. Travel, consumerism, trade, public debt, social inequality, healthcare, working from the office versus the home, buying online rather than from stores, commuting – COVID has jolted us on many fronts.

It’s tougher for many through the impact of job losses. On other fronts, we face a runaway housing market as well as the continuing and unaddressed issue of poverty in this country, and the role of the Government has definitely expanded as we expect our political leaders to take charge, address these issues and support us through tough times. There’s a double-edge to that development, however, as the Government is becoming increasingly woven into our daily lives – COVID tracing anyone?

We’re also seeing a rise in promotion of te reo Māori as a language and tikanga Māori, and a growing push for diversity in general to be recognised and promoted.

Social responsibility to the fore

It’s very clear that sustainability and social responsibility are on the up – that’s Wright Communications’ speciality niche and we’re delighted to see interest in this area gather pace. The pandemic also dramatically upped the importance of good internal comms and underlined the need for organisations to have strong health and safety values to protect their employees during the pandemic. That should persist.

Against that backdrop, listening well to stakeholders and crystal-clear communications are more relevant than ever. Public Relations must be authentic, compassionate where the occasion calls for it, and decent in its activities and messages. Opulence and glossiness are out; humility and thrift are in. Amid a world also beset by the VUCA bug (metaphorically speaking) – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity - the task of clearly communicating your messages is more challenging than ever.

In that environment, brevity and clarity will count. The story-telling needs to be relevant and compelling. With more clutter than usual and an added layer of confusion, creative approaches to get cut-through will pay dividends.

PR also has to navigate the stormy waters of “fake news”; how can we communicate in the news space credibly and authentically? The power of reliable data to support messages will be prominent.

A word on authenticity: the trend to working through influencers and celebrities hit a few rocks in recent times and any voicing of the message or endorsement needs to be believable. As the COVID experience has borne out, for serious topics the messages need to come from the knowledgeable – experts like the Michael Bakers and Ashley Bloomfields of the world.

Channel changes

The channels PR uses are also changing. To survive financially, media are increasingly steering submitted or pitched news into paid channels. Working from home has elevated “Zoom” meetings from being an occasional discussion medium to a regular and increasingly sophisticated forum. Online shopping has boomed, putting pressure on marketers to align what they do with that trend, and video continues to grow as a preferred way to get and receive information. It’s no longer a specialised skill to make a video…pre-schoolers can do it.

Expect more action in the webinar and podcast space; these technologies work well in the COVID world. Then there’s the whole brave new world – now not so - of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), expanding the experience consumers and stakeholders can have, with huge room for creativity.

Social media channels are still massively active and prominent, if under attack increasingly as their shortcomings are illuminated.

PR is about getting good news out and managing bad news. In relation to the latter there will be growing resistance to responses that smack of legalese (“lawyering up”), fudging the issue, going missing and taking ages to respond, and weak apologies or expressions of contrition. Errors need to be quickly remedied with an authentic and appropriate apology.

All of which suggests PR practitioners and the organisations they serve should have a new and informed conversation about their strategies and programmes as 2021 unfolds. The “tried and true” may not necessarily be the predominant option.

Latest Blog Posts

Get in Touch

Give us a call, send us a message or call in and see us.  We’d love to hear from you.