SWAT mentality will persist after COVID-19

Communications teams have led a change in culture at organizations that is a necessary and overdue disruption.

Mark Twain famously said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Well, modern PR pros need to not only communicate with brevity but also do it quickly. And that is a tough set of skills to wrangle, especially in high-pressure crisis environments.

Last year’s seminal analysis of the PR industry by PRWeek and Boston University reflected an industry being held back by what were characterized as “dinosaurs” in the boardroom.

It painted a picture of in-house PR teams stifled by out-of-touch leadership and corporate cultures that mired initiative in cloying bureaucracy.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, throwing the world into shutdown and chaos and bringing on an unprecedented economic downturn.

While they are obviously painful and unpleasant to endure, recessions do by definition breed a sense of urgency and disruption. They force innovation upon enterprises and speed up developments that may already have been on the agenda but were caught up in the endless pipeline of those inert structures identified in the survey.

The health crisis emphasized the importance of smart and agile communications and elevated it to the top of the corporate agenda. And this was backed up in our 2020 Communications Bellwether Survey.

From crisis response to employee engagement to purpose to the integration of PR and marketing to the use of communications technology and beyond, in-house teams have pivoted and upped their game during a febrile period of coronavirus, racial injustice and a brutally divisive presidential election campaign.

Effective PR pros have transitioned from pure communications to becoming culture challengers, kick-starting their organizations into the evolution and revolution required to survive and prosper during and post-COVID-19.

A SWAT mentality has been adopted by many in-house teams that attempts to get away from the previously heavy and ponderous communication favored by corporations, especially in regulated industries.

Long, multi-layered messages underpinned by numerous caveats and legal get-out clauses have been replaced by the “smart brevity” style pioneered by the likes of news website Axios.

Smart brevity doesn’t have to mean dumbing down and smart counsel is actually required more than ever in this fast-paced environment where messaging has to be quick, informed and effective.

As one CCO told me this week, “the ability to not say anything is a thing of the past.” But what you do say still has to be considered and empathetic.

If we wanted a reminder of the negative impact of egregious communication from the top, we need only look at this week’s revelation of a pronouncement to employees in June by Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf that his company couldn’t find diverse hires because there is a “very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from” in the corporate world.

The newish CEO of the troubled bank that can’t seem to get out of its own way after years of crises apologized for “an insensitive comment reflecting my own unconscious bias.”

Fair play to him for fronting it up and showing genuine remorse but, honestly, CEOs have to do better than that these days and the communications team has to be involved in wrangling the messaging more effectively.

Compare Scharf's response to General Motors' CEO Mary Barra, who after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis said in a letter to employees: “Let’s stop asking ‘why’ and start asking ‘what.’ What are we going to do? In this moment, we each must decide what we can do — individually and collectively — to drive change… meaningful, deliberate change.”

She told Fortune that, as an action-oriented engineer, she wanted to drive real change in her company and the communities in which it operates, not just release a statement of solidarity. That's an agile and purposeful CEO acting quickly and thoughtfully, with her head of communications an intrinsic part of the automaker's inclusion advisory board.

Both incidents are also, by the way, perfect examples of how employee engagement is now the first line of external communications.

At the risk of banging the drum too loudly, I return again to the findings of our Communications Bellwether Survey, which shows agility is a prerequisite for communicating during times of crisis and dramatic change.

As BU’s Don Wright says: “It significantly influences positive organizational and comms outcomes and… is what is needed to prepare for a post-viral world.”

Like many disruptions that have occurred in light of the health pandemic and incidents of racial injustice, the agility illustrated by PR’s adoption of a SWAT mentality will persist beyond the current hiatus in normality to become the new normal.

And it makes the role of the CCO and their communications teams more essential than ever.

* Download the third annual Premium Edition of PRWeek and Boston University's Communications Bellwether Survey here.

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