Yes, this week marks six months since our offices closed back in March and the full impact of the COVID-19 crisis was dawning on us all.
As I write today the mood has darkened once again with fast-rising infections in the UK and across Europe. And just as many of us were returning to our ‘COVID-secure’ offices and were experiencing the joy and inspiration of real life interactions, the Government has told us we must work from home if we can; probably for another six months.
So where does that leave the comms business as we pass the autumn equinox? Well there’s no doubt that business sentiment, along with the weather, has palpably darkened this week.
The Government’s increasing restrictions on our work and social lives will worsen the economic recession and businesses in some sectors will shed more jobs. Needless to say hospitality and travel will be hit hardest but demand for goods and services across many sectors may dip further than it already has.
But as I’ve said here previously, the PR industry will fare better than most throughout this crisis. This is partly because professional communicators are highly adaptable, turning their skills and judgement to the areas that require them; partly because earned, owned and shared media communications (the modern definition of ‘PR') has huge cost and effectiveness benefits over advertising or experiential in this environment.
Moreover a large chunk of the industry has actually experienced higher demand than ever before; namely corporate and public affairs.
As the COVID-19 crisis persists, augmented by the Black Lives Matter movement, how organisations listen, react - and are seen to respond - becomes more critical than ever.
Observing the comms sector of late, corporate and public affairs remain decidedly buoyant. Corporate affairs directors tell me they are being taken more seriously than ever before, their counsel being demanded by the CEO and the whole c-suite on a regular basis.
This week, the world’s largest employer of marketing and comms people, WPP, announced the creation of its first global corporate affairs function under David Henderson.
An experienced agency chief told me last week: “I notice with clients it’s the experienced firefighters who are now proving their value in organisations - the comms professionals who have actually got their hands dirty in crises.”
Nicola Lally, BDO’s comms director, tells PRWeek: ”Overnight, everyone's priorities and approaches were all stripped away, as we all suddenly shared the same priority: how do we get through this? I hope this is a case study to teach new or junior communicators coming into the industry that comms, and particularly PR, is not about 'sell-ins' or 'surveys'. It's about genuine reputation management advice to react in the best way, the use of corporate communications tools to build resilience in your reputation."
And Alex Cole, the hugely experienced chief customer and corporate affairs officer at Bupa Group, says: "We’re often considered a function that 'sees around corners' and that thrives at dealing with curveballs. The pandemic is taking this to a whole new level. It's required corporate affairs teams to dig in, pull together and be more integrated into the management team than ever before."
On the consultancy side, it is significant to contrast the current mood between the bosses of consumer PR agencies and those of corporate/financial shops.
For example, a typical large consumer agency head says: “It just feels like 20 per cent of the revenue has gone out of the market. We’re doing ok and have avoided redundancies so far by managing costs carefully but we’ve completely frozen any pay increases and recruitment this year.”
As compared to a large corporate consultancy chief this week: “Boom is too strong a word but we’re certainly holding our own and we’re hiring about 15 graduates.”
A partner in a boutique corporate consultancy said: “It’s busy at the moment. We’re handling crises around the Black Lives Matter issue, advising big banks on a whole range of reputational issues and advising a major retailer. Indeed we are turning work down, but mainly because we are keen to work only for decent organisations in this age of accountability and purpose.”
The global agency networks are also responding to the growing importance of corporate and public affairs.
This week Edelman’s eponymous global CEO will announce a new emphasis on corporate advisory work. Over the summer Edelman UK has hired political heavyweights Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger to bolster its ESG and public affairs offers.
Last week Weber Shandwick promoted Ed Taylor to managing director of its corporate affairs practice.
Interestingly, there is a noticeable shift in emphasis in corporate affairs towards tangible actions rather than just communications. This is something that Richard Edelman is stressing in a new mantra for his agency.
And the corporate affairs director of one of the UK’s biggest firms told me this week: “I’m learning in the current climate that it’s important for me to drive corporate action as much as give advice. That’s what makes a difference reputationally at the moment. It’s difficult to cut through with good intentions these days so I’m trying to run as much real stuff as possible.”
This throws up the important question of how much has really changed over the past six months. There is the risk that as organisations deal with the crisis, they will go into survival mode, focusing less on proactive sustainability work and other good causes.
As Philip Allport, director of comms and public affairs, for Norwegian Air, says: "It’s going to be difficult for comms professionals to leave behind the permanent state of being in reactive mode all the time."
I put this concern to Richard Edelman this week and he responded: “I’m an optimist”, citing examples of companies such as Unilever and Starbucks where purpose and social responsibility now appears enshrined in their DNA.
Finally, Bupa’s comms chief Alex Cole puts it nicely when she says she believes comms has progressed into the area of proven corporate ‘character’.
“The pandemic has magnified every aspect of corporate affairs and its importance to the performance and sustainability of the organisation. This goes well beyond managing reputation, and right to the heart of shaping the very character of how the organisation responds, adapts and performs in a world of extraordinary and complex demands.”