Keep the faith as a COVID-19 summer turns into fall

The resilience of everyone has been tested to the extreme by the events of this year, but the PR industry has shown it has the strength and resilience to come through the other side battered but unbowed.

(Pic: Getty Images)
(Pic: Getty Images)

So, here we are. Six months into lockdown. With summer about to disappear in the rear-view mirror.

Clichés are clichés for a reason but this genuinely has been one of the most extraordinary periods of time in human history.

When we left the office in March we thought we might be out for a few weeks while “this thing calmed down and blew over.” Little did we know that six months on we’d still be looking at it wondering when we’d return to the office and when some semblance of normal life will return.

Through the really dark days of April and May I would hear a siren blaring in my Brooklyn neighborhood literally every five minutes as another poor soul was transported to hospitals that were overflowing with COVID-19 patients, many of whom would not survive.

At first, given I didn’t normally work from home, I wondered if that wasn’t just the way it always is. Now, as things have settled down on the infection front, I realize that it was – thankfully – a one-off practical representation of the real impact of such a horrendous pandemic.

The U.S. death toll now stands at 187,000 and cases at almost 6.2 million. Worldwide the respective numbers are 869,000 and 26.3 million. The curve has flattened but more than 1,000 people a week are still dying from coronavirus in the U.S. alone.

At the end of May, the horrors of the pandemic were exacerbated by the egregious death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis after a police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until his life was expunged from him.

The video went viral on social media and prompted a movement in protest against the continued unjustified way Black people are treated by the justice system and the police. It renewed attention to the story of the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY in March when police burst into her home and shot her dead.

These incidents followed a long line of deaths of mostly young Black men including the high-profile cases of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL in 2012 and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MI in 2014.

Black Lives Matters protests have escalated in some cases to rioting and looting and mobilized extremists on both sides of the divide looking to exploit the situation to cause the chaos on which their ideologies are underpinned and predicated.

This culminated in a 17-year-old from out of state called Kyle Rittenhouse being charged with homicide after shooting two people during protests in Kenosha, WI following the shooting of another Black man by police. Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by officers and somehow survived, though he remains paralyzed in hospital.  

All this is happening in the midst of a febrile election campaign that will culminate on November 3 that is pitting two sides against each other with seemingly intractable fissures between them that are difficult to see being healed anytime soon.

And parents are dealing with the added stress of navigating the complex issues around school and university reopening having spent months trying to juggle home-schooling with the day jobs and keeping some sense of sanity around the family dynamic.

It’s exhausting enough to watch this play out on our TV screens and on social media, let alone be living in the midst of it.

Last Sunday I was walking through my neighborhood and I heard a guy on the phone talking to another family member, seemingly about his mother. “She says she no longer believes in God,” he exclaimed disbelievingly.

It summed up a lot about the past months for me: everybody’s faith has been tested, whichever god you do or don’t pray to.

But the human spirit is also incredibly resilient. We will come through this unprecedented health crisis. And if anything positive can come out of the continued incidents of racial injustice, it does seem there is a new awareness among the general population, especially white people, that the current situation is unacceptable and has to change.

In the year 2020, it cannot be right that Black people feel unsafe going about their daily business and try to avoid going out after dark for fear of being targeted by cops.

Businesses and brands are stepping into the leadership vacuum, as are athletes from across the sporting spectrum. To do this effectively, they are leaning on PR professionals for counsel about crisis situations, external communications, corporate reputation, employee engagement, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

So while the PR industry has clearly not been unscathed by the economic recession engulfing the country in light of COVID-19 that caused unemployment to hit almost 15% at its peak, it has seen increased demand in certain areas, not least those relating to healthcare.

Brands and PR firms relying on CPG, hospitality, tourism and travel struggled as promotional spending ground to a halt. Those majoring on essential retail, home entertainment, remote working technology and home and garden have thrived.

Overall, data including holding company Q2 financials and anecdotal conversations with industry leaders suggest the PR sector has fallen between 10% and 15% during the pandemic, all after a start to the year in January and February that showed exceptional initial promise for 2020. This compares favorably with, for example, the advertising industry, which has fallen 25-30% in the same period.

At the start of April, I wrote that our world will never be the same. And that, not necessarily particularly prescient but nevertheless important, observation has come true. Despite some green shoots in the PR sector and increased activity, and the chance of a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, there are undoubtedly more tough times ahead as well.

While many people are desperate to escape the confines of their homes and return to the office, few of them are looking forward to commuting and hanging out in large crowds. When we do return, the workplace will look and feel very different to what it used to.

And there’s not much point in traveling into a fixed physical location if all you are going to do is conduct a series of video calls all day from the office rather than the living room at home (cross-legged on the sofa surrounded by your pets in the case of Weber Shandwick CEO Gail Heimann).  

I suspect we’ll end up at a middle ground where people work in the office for part of the week and from home or another distant location the rest of it. For many, it will be “let me WFH or nothing,” because they have physically moved away from the place where their office is based.

Companies as we speak are completely reassessing their attitude to real estate and inner-city locations. Big moves will be activated as leases run their course.

WPP CEO Mark Read confessed to our sister title Campaign’s UK editor Gideon Spanier that his expenses for the last month were just £48 – I doubt that will remain so moving forward but there will definitely be less business travel and more activities conducted via remote working technologies.

People are still fundamentally social and PR and other creative industries are ultimately team sports that rely on people working together and bouncing ideas off each other, so this will not disappear entirely. It can’t if we are to prosper in the long run.

We are, however, becoming a divided nation. Let’s take the sport of basketball and the NBA as one lightning rod. Harris Poll data from surveys in the field last week showed 37% of Americans and 39% of self-described sports fans are watching fewer NBA games these days.

When we asked why, 38% of sports fans say it’s because “the league has become too political,” 28% said games are boring without fans, 19% don’t like the NBA’s relationship with China, and 16% are watching less TV overall, not just sports.

On the other hand, Harris data shows Americans appearing to stand with players speaking out against racial injustice. As support (65%) grows for Black Lives Matter, 62% of fans support leagues and players donating money to local organizations promoting social justice and 56% support speaking out during interviews. Nearly half (47%) of fans support players putting social justice slogans on jerseys and 45% support players kneeling during the national anthem. 

These are the complex dynamics shaping the context within which society is working out where to go next and brands too must be very careful in the way in which they navigate these environments.

I have been impressed by the way PR professionals have knuckled down and got on with the business of representing their brands and servicing their clients over the past six months, often in incredibly difficult circumstances. I remain impressed by the PRWeek and Haymarket teams that have kept this and our other media ships afloat during this crazy period.  

As we contemplate Labor Day weekend and going again when we return for the last third of an extraordinary 2020, I also reiterate what I said back in April:

“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 watching Netflix.”

Stay safe out there, have a relaxed weekend and let’s keep the faith that we will come through this stronger as individuals, families, colleagues, citizens, brands and businesses.

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