Agency leaders: ‘The pandemic has changed how internal comms, crisis comms and purpose are valued'

Internal comms – regarded by some in the industry as a “poor relation” to external – is having a moment due to the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders of freuds, Grayling and Cicero/AMO highlight the services clients are turning to during the coronavirus crisis.

The PR Show: Arlo Brady, Sarah Scholefield and Iain Anderson discuss how the pandemic will change PR
The PR Show: Arlo Brady, Sarah Scholefield and Iain Anderson discuss how the pandemic will change PR

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of several communications services, but one that has risen up the agenda for agencies and clients alike is internal communications.

Freuds chief executive Arlo Brady believes the global pandemic could forever change the perception of internal comms as a critically important part of running a business.

“Internal comms has always been the poor relation to external comms and I think that will probably be no more,” Brady told PRWeek’s podcast, The PR Show.

“A lot of our clients have seen the critical importance, and it’s also been really important within an agency, particularly if you’ve got 100,000 employees in 100 countries all around the world.

“It’s a critical issue and we’ve been leaning into that quite significantly.”

Freuds' other service areas that have been in high demand include its specialist health and behavioural science practice, crisis comms, purpose campaigns and providing strategic counsel from “senior experts” to retained clients.

Grayling Europe, UK and Ireland chief executive Sarah Scholefield said many of her agency’s clients now view internal comms as “absolutely essential”.

“We’ve seen a lot of requests from clients to help them navigate that. A lot of businesses feel they are quite good at it, but [it’s often management] broadcasting rather than listening to their people, and [it’s also about] being able to communicate in the right tone of voice at the right time,” she said.

Another service area that has evolved and gained prominence is purpose-led work.

“Purpose has been around for a while, but It’s the more humane part of purpose that we will see, which is a slight evolution of pure purpose, which is compassion from business, transparency,” she said. “This has kind of reset everybody, emotionally. It’s like a terrible bereavement in a way, which makes you re-evaluate the things that really matter.

“If businesses don’t re-evaluate what really matters to their stakeholders then they would look completely out of step and tone-deaf.”

The rising prominence of internal comms, crisis comms and purpose comes at a time when agency leaders are prioritising investment in other service areas. It’s another sign of how much the global crisis has shaken up business plans and the industry.

Retainers rule in crisis

Like freuds, Cicero/AMO has benefited from clients on retainer, which has provided stability in an uncertain trading environment.

The agency's executive chairman, Iain Anderson, told The PR Show the industry debate about whether project work is preferable to retainers had been put on ice with all of the uncertainty.

“Having a strong retainer base has proven to be really important right now,” he said. “We went into our deal with Havas at about 75 per cent-plus retained, and that is still maintaining itself through this process.

“The retainer as a form of financial strength through this period is going to be really important for agencies for some time to come. It’s the project that took an initial hit and we are starting to see that come back a bit now as the conversation is moving back to return to office.”

Anderson said that purpose is an area that keeps up with clients.

He added there is a genuine challenge for businesses to define what they did during the “COVID war”.

“Were you good to your employees? Were you good to your customers ? Did you lean in to the public health effort or did you lean away from it?

“I don’t think this is a moment in time," he said. "There are some fundamental drivers at work here, not least the social and economic effect that follow on from the health effect. The kind of space brands and businesses operate in for the foreseeable future [could be defined by] how much they leant in versus how much they leant away.”

Anderson also believes influencers have stolen a march on celebrity endorsements.

“The celebrity endorser has been falling flat on their face, whereas the humanity-driven local influencers, stuff that people can see with health workers in key localities, is resonating more effectively,” he said.

“The rise of the influencer… has been absolutely fascinating to observe.”

The PR Show also explored the impact the coronavirus pandemic was having on business at freuds, Graying and Cicero/AMO, including an update on whether freuds managed to keep its promise of securing staff jobs during the pandemic.

Panellists also discuss how they think the pandemic could forever change the communications industry. This is a podcast you will not want to miss.

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