From the editor-in-chief: 'We're going back to work, but how much have we changed?'

Week 10 working from home, the warm spring mornings continue to bring cheer and I’ve been reading a lot about how we could all WFH forever, as Twitter suggested last week.

Easy to say. More difficult to do. As I write, my home broadband has been down since early this morning and I can’t get hold of Virgin Media to fix it. How I yearn for an IT specialist to help me sort it.

Then there are the practical difficulties of several people, either families or co-sharers living together, all trying to co-exist efficiently and benignly. And who knew, with this spell of unseasonably hot weather, that even the controversial office air conditioning may offer some benefits.

Yes, there is a consensus among the executives to whom I talk, that while WFH has been something of a revelation – and although businesses have genuinely innovated for the better as a result – many people want to get back to something more ‘normal’. This is particularly the case as they see other sectors like retail gradually resuming their operations.

“We really need to re-open our office,” admits the CEO of one mid-sized PR agency. “There are lots of problems to iron out in order to do so, but we need the collaborative environment to drive team spirit and creativity. Our staff have shown amazing flexibility but I feel, after nine weeks, there’s a growing need to renew that goodwill and company culture.”

That’s pretty much where the PR and marketing industry is this week. There are definite green shoots in the economy and some projects are returning. Bosses are getting their heads around the new workplace guidelines and planning assiduously for some sort of return to normality. With ever-evolving social and economic restrictions being set out by government, it’s a tricky process.

There’s also a tangible sense the industry will have changed in ways beyond simply the workplace environment.

Not least is a noticeable shift in the way companies and brands now wish to communicate. In recent years ‘ethical purpose’ has been firmly established within the marketing lexicon alongside brand or product promotion. And significantly, in recent weeks I’ve also heard the acronym ESG mentioned a lot.

The shift towards talking more about Environmental, Social and corporate Governance is important because it shows that companies are now intent on actually measuring their ethical activities; a growing recognition that they are being judged on their behaviour rather than simply their statements of ethical purpose.

As the founder of one small comms consultancy put it to me: “It’s now a time for business, not brand. It’s about a company’s behaviours as opposed to how it markets itself.”

A mid-sized-agency chief agrees: “Clients seem very focused on certain areas of their communications right now. They need to educate their consumers on changes to their own operations as a result of coronavirus; and they want to communicate their policies on society or sustainability.”

The upshot is that companies and brands are acutely aware that they’re in the process of being judged.

In PRWeek’s recent PR Show podcast, Cicero/AMO boss Iain Anderson said: “It’s about which brands and businesses leant in to help during this crisis, and which ones were seen to lean away.”

Let’s be honest, the fact that companies are not currently marketing as normal is a heavy and immediate blow to many professionals and agencies. This is why promotional spend is significantly down and why many people have been furloughed or even made redundant. It may be a temporary pause, but it’s devastating for agencies and professionals relying on standard consumer PR projects.

But what we may be seeing, as Matthew Freud put it recently, is a more fundamental ‘reboot’ of the business world. Freuds' CEO, Arlo Brady, said last week: “I think companies are realising the world briefly stopped and they’re asking: ‘What would we do if we could re-engage in a different direction and didn’t have to follow all the dogma?’”

Crucially, there’s a major opportunity here for comms professionals. Businesses are seeking expertise in this very process of analysing their values, their new strategies – and in communicating all this to stakeholders.

“Companies are looking hard at themselves and how they frame this new narrative. They need staff, customers and governments to understand their vision,” says a director at one of the world’s biggest consultancies.

She adds: “Cause marketing, like linking your brand with Gay Pride, is becoming less relevant, but businesses that have genuinely worked hard on ESG are benefiting and now they’re putting a lot of effort and funds into communicating their clearly understood purpose.”

Another senior consultant tells me: “We are working for a big global brand that is not doing much marketing at the moment, but its ESG work has really ramped up. And you may well see this purpose message become the central part of its Christmas campaign at the end of this year. This is a significant development in our industry.”

Yes, we’re at that point in this crisis when companies, brands and agencies are working out whether things have fundamentally changed in the long run; whether we have all changed; and, if we have, whether we have changed for the better.


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