Steve Barrett on PR: World will never be the same again

The coronavirus pandemic is causing fundamental changes to significant parts of our daily lives that will result in a new normal once COVID-19 is defeated.

Empty streets and non-celebrity heroes presage a new normal post pandemic. (Photo credit: Getty Images.)

Head into any major city around the globe right now and you will find a scene unrecognizable from the bustling metropolises that have defined the last few decades.

Vast numbers of office buildings and other expensive commercial real estate are now lying empty. And, candidly, most office-based workers are successfully continuing to carry out their jobs.

Sure, this comes with challenges, especially for those also charged with homeschooling children or living in cramped apartments with multiple occupants. But, in general, the world of work formerly based in offices has not fallen apart, much of it has continued as normal.

In 2018, the United Nations predicted 89% of North America’s population will live in urban areas by the year 2050, up from 82% when the report was published. That prediction was 68% for the world’s population by 2030, up from 55% in 2018. Global urban populations grew from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018.

Marketing services agency network holding groups have often been compared to property companies, such is the amount of buildings they boast within their portfolios. They have sophisticated departments devoted to managing this real estate and shuffling the pack to maximize usage.

But, at the end of this horrible COVID-19 crisis, the concept of centering marketing and communications agencies and corporate HQs on expensive city-based locations will change. Agency holding companies (all companies) will dial back on real estate, of that there is no doubt. Agencies especially will instead double down on talent and clients.

That doesn’t mean everyone is going to be working from home in the future. But it has been proven WFH can work, and it can work effectively. There will be people who don’t actually want to go back into an office environment and sit in an open office with close proximity to a bunch of other humans.

Honestly, I’ve never been a big proponent of WFH, but I can truly say the team at PRWeek and other teams across the world at our parent company Haymarket Media have truly stepped up to the plate and continued to get the job done in very difficult circumstances.

I for one am certainly not relishing squeezing myself back on to the packed C train and making my way into Manhattan for work. People are going to put their health and the health of their families even more at the top of their priority list – they want to know they are safe.

At the boutique and small agency end of the market, times are going to be very tough, especially in niche areas such as travel, tourism, hospitality and fashion. A Harris Poll on COVID-19 released this week predicted that almost 40% of small businesses could be out of business within a month.

Much as the PR profession rightly touts its increased chops in areas including senior strategic counsel, purpose-related work, crisis and corporate reputation, there is still a large swathe of activity that revolves around events, activations and brand launches. Those are the areas particularly hard hit by the current crisis – and those activities index even more highly in smaller PR firms. The gig economy has also stalled.

According to the 2010 Census, the average population density of the U.S. is 87 people per square mile, rising to 283 in metropolitan areas. But in New York City, the density of the city’s 8.4 million population was a staggering 27,012 people per square mile. Guttenberg, New Jersey had the greatest density of housing units per square mile of land area, at 24,195.

That density of population is one reason why NYC and NJ have been hit so hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in less affluent areas where many residents also work in high-risk and essential occupations such as health services, delivery drivers, shop assistants and transit systems.

Many of those lucky enough to own second or third properties or who have family connections up or down state – or elsewhere in the country – have fled disease-ridden cities to see out the coronavirus crisis in safer harbors.

It is nice for those folks to have options, though it has caused some social discord in communities where locals don’t particularly appreciate a bunch of NY license plates from a COVID-19 hotspot suddenly appearing in their neighborhood. But, generally, if there is to be a serious civil disorder element to this crisis it hasn’t started yet.

Education and healthcare have also been completely upended, though these too have different implications based on income levels. Parents have suddenly been plunged into a world of homeschooling or college-aged children returning home and learning virtually and remotely. Room and board charges may have diminished, but tuition hasn’t. Many will recalibrate the value of such payments, which will in turn lead to reassessments of the whole education system.

For those with younger children, I’m sure it has also led to a new-found respect for the teachers who normally cater for the educational and other needs of their kids on a daily basis.

Other trends that have emerged in recent weeks will also persist long after the coronavirus disappears. People have rediscovered cooking from home. They have reconnected as families. They have doubled down on e-commerce. Classic puzzle companies are so slammed they're not able to handle the weight of orders.

The environment has started to breathe more easily, as airlines slash the number of planes in the sky, factories ease down on production and there are fewer cars on the road. Animals have started reappearing in urban environments vacated by humans who are isolating indoors. And I’m not just talking about rats and foxes.

One group we haven’t missed dominating the airwaves during this time of crisis are celebrities. They might be hunkered down in more luxurious circumstances than their less fortunate brothers and sisters, but the virus has been a great leveler. They are trapped in self-isolation just as much as the next woman or man, and dealing with the same issues.

Tone deaf responses such as celebs getting a bunch of their friends together to sing a John Lennon song have rightly drawn opprobrium and scorn from the public.

Forget the cult of celebrity. People are much more interested in celebrating the new heroes of our time: the healthcare workers on the frontline of the pandemic; the truckers and delivery drivers transporting essential items to Americans; the supermarket and pharmacy workers keeping stores open so we can get our essential supplies; public transit operatives who make sure our new heroes can get to work; factory, farm and warehouse workers keeping the wheels of industry turning; utility and tech workers; garbage collectors and, of course, our first responders and emergency services.

The world will never be the same again. But the main thing that has changed during this extraordinary time is that people have reassessed what matters in their lives and discovered a new respect for the ordinary women and men who go to work every day to put their lives on the line for us and don’t have the luxury of working from home or first-world problems such as sitting on the sofa for hours watching Netflix.

Thanks to all of them from the bottom of my heart.

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