Longtime IBM comms leader Jon Iwata thinks the crucible of 2020 may create a great generation of conscientious businesspeople.
"I think this generation of business leaders will be remembered as being some of the most capable, adaptive leaders of the modern era because they had to deal with not only the pandemic but social issues, political cycles and massive economic contraction," said Iwata, executive fellow at the Yale School of Management, during the Learn from the Best PRWeek Hall of Fame session on Thursday.
In a year rife with racial injustice, divisive politics and a global pandemic, comms professionals found themselves needed more than ever by brands, companies and stakeholders.
PRWeek VP and editorial director Steve Barrett joined Disney senior EVP and chief communications officer Zenia Mucha; Ford Foundation VP of global communications Michele Moore; and Edelman CEO Richard Edelman to discuss their experiences.
Barrett: How has 2020 changed your view on the communication function? And what would your advice be to communicators looking forward to 2021?
Mucha: We're seen some unprecedented issues as it relates not only to our business but everyone's business that transcended what we would normally look at as a PR issue. Communications groups have had to take on personnel issues, government issues and health and safety protocols in a comprehensive manner due to some of our businesses being closed. For the last eight months, the No. 1 issue for us has been how do we make sure our people still trust our brand when we get our business restarted? We need to make sure people would believe whatever safety and health protocols that we instituted were in the best interest for them and our workers.
Barrett: As a keen student of the communications profession in general, what's been your take on this year?
Iwata: Business deserves a tremendous amount of credit this year because they've had to deal with so much and react to all these things with empathy across multiple stakeholder groups, all while maintaining and transforming business. The purpose of a corporation is to create value for multiple stakeholders. If it was true before this year, this year just turbocharged that. Whether it's the employee, society or the customer, these things need to be taken into consideration as companies adapt.
Barrett: This year also saw horrific incidents of racial injustice. What is your reflection on that as well as this COVID period and business' role in that?
Moore: It was a racial reckoning, and the pandemic environment where everyone was home allowed them to see this happen in real time. There was a jolt of attunement and understanding that had never happened in American society. At the end of the day, the question is, ‘What is your role in having sustainable, meaningful change? What are you investing in? Are you attuned to cultural sensitivities of your employee base?’ The opportunity is how to connect your values and your brand with your employees and their concerns about cultural issues in an impactful way. I think communicators have really become the holders of the organizational culture.
Barrett: Richard, you have a unique perspective running the largest PR firm in the world. What's your perspective been on the changes of the past nine months? And what's going to persist into 2021?
Edelman: The reality is that the order of stakeholders has changed. It used to be shareholder, customer, employee. Now it's employees at the top. It started with the walkout at Google in November 2019. If we want to attract the best and the brightest, we have to make sure that companies are treating employees as equal participants. Not just that they're hired, but they have a voice and they are allowed to talk.
Barrett: Do you see any trends emerging over the next six to nine months?
Edelman: Even though all of us have been affected by COVID, PR has outperformed advertising and digital massively because we are an essential contributor to strategic discussions. We are about action and not just communication. This idea that the agency of record is by default an ad agency is changing. Corporate PR has always been the more stable aspect of our business, and healthcare is burgeoning.
Barrett: It seems the old adage of agreeing to disagree has been lost a bit. How can we get back some sense of that?
Moore: We have created this culture where meanness, disparagement and bullying is free expression. After having a generation built on a society where civility and hearing one another and listening are not going to be practiced arts, the question for us is what can we do across entertainment, news and other places to create these opportunities for listening. Frankly, the advantage of working in this visual, virtual world right now is it allows us to have some of those dialogues and conversations that we might not have otherwise had in person. We need to find common good and common needs and ask what we can start to address together.
Barrett: We've seen the media landscape decimated by other platforms. How has the concept of truth and authenticity changed in communications in light of that?
Iwata: The amount of so called content that businesses now directly produce and distributes overshadows what we recognize as traditional news media. I think that will continue, so it is the responsibility of companies to produce content that has the integrity and intellectual vibrancy typically associated with the Fourth Estate. It's not only the right thing to do, it's going to be a differentiator. And it doesn't have to be on societal issues. It could be about your products, but it has to be authentic and trustworthy.