Steve Barrett on PR: 10 snapshots from 2020

The essential images that defined a year nobody anticipated.

Times Square in NYC was unrecognizable as COVID-19 stripped the normally packed streets of buzz and atmosphere. (Pic: Getty Images.)
Times Square in NYC was unrecognizable as COVID-19 stripped the normally packed streets of buzz and atmosphere. (Pic: Getty Images.)

Unprecedented. Extraordinary. Crazy. Challenging. Desperate.

All these adjectives and more are suffering from repetitive strain injury as a brutal year draws to a close.

Here are the 10 things that defined the past 12 months at PRWeek for me:

1. Coronavirus lockdown

The note from PRWeek owner Haymarket Media’s CEO Lee Maniscalco came through on Thursday, March 12, one week prior to the original planned date for the annual PRWeek Awards ceremony – the Oscars of the PR Industry and the biggest night of the year for us.

“We have decided to begin network stress tests to prepare for the event of a partial-or full-business mandatory work from home period. These tests will begin tomorrow Friday, March 13, and run through Tuesday, March 17, for all Haymarket Media US employees. Beginning Friday, and Monday, we will operate with 50% of our staff working from home; on Tuesday, 100% of our staff will work remotely. We will then operate on a voluntary work-from-home basis until at least Tuesday, March 24, pending guidance from state, local and federal government agencies. Your managers will be in touch with your schedule shortly.”

By Sunday, March 15 we were working from home “until further notice” and, like most of the PR and many other industries, more than nine months on we are still working from home with no immediate prospect of returning to the office. I’ve been back once in that time to pick up a few things and it was like walking into the Marie Celeste, with magazine pages pinned up on the wall frozen in the time they were created and an eerie silence pervading the empty building.

Like the PR industry we cover, PRWeek has pivoted, scrambled, rearranged, innovated, reimagined, gone virtual and stepped up to the plate in the crisis. Through difficult personal circumstances the team has proved it can get the job done from home and we have narrated the process through which PR professionals have also delivered.

If there are still any doubters who believe working from home means jobs won’t get done, they are few and far between now. Life, in general and especially the world of work have changed forever.

2. Essential workers

For many people in the United States, working from home was not - and is not - an option. Essential workers across healthcare, retail, delivery, garbage collection, transportation, agriculture, food production, energy, e-commerce, manufacturing, law enforcement and other first responders have all been going about their business diligently over the past nine months to keep the country going, to care for and protect us.

We owe them all a tremendous debt and I hope the daily tributes to healthcare workers during the summer are not forgotten moving forward and that we continue to appreciate the amazing contribution many ordinary Americans make on a daily basis – they are true unsung heroes and we should never again underestimate what they do.

One of my favorite memories of the year was seeing USPS truck drivers being applauded in the streets by hundreds of citizens after the election in November. As the year draws to a close, let’s extend that gratitude and applause to every essential worker across the country. In an increasingly celebrity-obsessed world, it was good to see a reset of values and a reawakening of appreciation for the hard-working and decent people who make up the fabric of America.   

3. Viral stories

Every so often, one of our stories will go viral, extending its reach beyond the PRWeek community and into the wider world, often propelled by exposure on Google or attention highlighted by a celebrity or someone else with a large online audience or profile.

Topics can be anything from a crisis situation such as our honoring of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz as our Communicator of the Year one month before a passenger was brutally hauled off one of his planes and the ensuing uproar, or the debate around the MMR vaccine and disinformation peddled by anti-vaxxers or, most often, by a brand story that has gone viral on social media.

Last weekend saw the latest iteration of this, as PRWeek’s Diana Bradley detailed the reaction to Petco’s new branding, which saw the removal of the brand’s beloved dog and cat – Ruff and Mews – from its logo. The move was part of a wider rebranding of Petco to position itself as a health and wellness company rather than animal supplies.

Customers were outraged, calling the new logo “cold and lifeless” and Petco backtracked swiftly, reassuring stakeholders that Ruff and Mews were going nowhere, were “here to stay” and would still be essential brand advocates moving forward – though not part of the Petco logo.

It’s another chance to revisit the merits of the “all publicity is good publicity” debate, but to me it seemed to demonstrate a lack of empathy with the brand’s customers. We all know how much Americans love their pets, especially during these lockdown months, and playing with that essential brand quality seemed to be misguided at best, tone deaf at worst.

Let’s see how it plays out. Many of these social media furors blow over soon enough. But there are obvious lessons for communicators and marketers of all stripes and these types of story are consistently popular on PRWeek.

Other articles that popped in a similar way in 2020 included a plant-based food fight as Impossible Foods hit back at competitor Lightlife’s Clean Break campaign, AT&T’s backing of its spokeswoman Milana Vayntrub after she received horrendous abuse and harassment online, Lysol and Clorox responding to President Trump’s comments about injecting bleach to fight COVID-19, Wendy’s directly naming competitor McDonald’s in one of its trolling tweets and Uber having fun with someone’s Walking Buddy suggestion on social media.

4. COVID-19 vaccines

Once the realities of lockdown life had become clear it soon became evident that the key to transitioning into a post-COVID-19 scenario would revolve around minimizing health risks until vaccines came on stream.

Back in the early days it was pointed out that vaccine production, clinical trials, approval and regulation was a lengthy and tortuous process, which in many ways is how it should be. Nobody wants dangerous drugs out there in circulation and the process of good science needs to be followed at all times.

However, the intense need for solutions in this case of global stasis had never been more urgent, and scientists, pharma brands and healthcare regulators have really stepped up to get vaccines to market in record time, with Pfizer/BioNTech/Fosun Pharma winning the race to be the first drug approved in the U.S. The first individuals have been immunized starting Monday this week.

Other vaccines in Phase 3 clinical trials include Moderna, AstraZeneca/University of Oxford/IQVIA/Serum Institute of India, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax.

The story about the rollout of vaccines and communications around the need to take a shot will dominate 2021 and PR, healthcare and marketing professionals will play key roles in establishing the narratives. Vice President Mike Pence got a shot live on TV Friday morning and stemming the COVID-19 death toll and infection rate will be priority number one for the incoming Biden/Harris administration.  

At Haymarket, we established a Coronavirus Briefing newsletter early in the pandemic, drawing on content from PRWeek and our sister titles across the U.S. and the world to produce an informative round-up of COVID-19 intelligence. We will ramp up similar products around vaccine comms in 2021, in partnership with our sister titles MM+M and Campaign.

5. Michael Phelps shapes mental health narrative

Awareness of issues around mental health and stress have gained a much higher profile in recent years and was really put under the spotlight during COVID-19 as people struggled with life in lockdown and the intense challenges of dealing with a totally new isolated reality.

PRWeek had already decided to honor Olympic hero Michael Phelps as our 2020 Communicator of the Year for his advocacy around mental health. The pandemic made this choice even more relevant and we were delighted to welcome him to our PRWeek Awards ceremony, which eventually went ahead in July in a virtual format.

What struck me was how humble Phelps was and how open he was about the intense struggles he has experienced, and continues to experience, despite him being the greatest Olympian of all time and seemingly impervious to the emotional travails that trouble the rest of the population. July’s award coincided with the premier of a documentary on HBO Sports presented by Phelps that profiled other elite athletes who suffer from serious depression and mental health issues, sometimes ending in tragic circumstances.

Phelps was candid in explaining how the COVID-19 lockdown had further heaped on the challenges for himself and others. It was highlight of the year for me to get to interview him and an example of the impact that high-profile individuals such as Phelps can have in raising awareness of issues and encouraging people to not be afraid to seek help if they are suffering.

6. Hall of Fame superstar endorsement

Virtual events were the order of the day for PRWeek in 2020, with our 40 Under 40, PRDecoded conference, Purpose Awards, Hall of Femme and Hall of Fame all transitioning online from live in-person formats. We also introduced new virtual events via our PRWeek Convene series, the Racial Equity Summit and various partner content initiatives with sponsors.

The Hall of Fame was a particular highlight for me, with the incredible stature of the individuals who joined the virtual show to pay tribute to our 2020 inductees a tribute not only to them, but also to the importance of the event and the esteem with which PR and the PRWeek brand are held by those individuals.

President George W. Bush, celebrities Sharon Stone, Billy Crystal (pictured above), Rosie O'Donnell, Billie Jean King and Norah O'Donnell, and high-profile multinational CEOs and business leaders including J&J’s Alex Gorsky, Coca-Cola’s James Quincey, Microsoft’s Brad Smith and CNN Worldwide’s Jeff Zucker all stopped by to honor their communications leaders. Let no one ever again say that PR doesn’t have a seat at the table!

7. Racial reckoning

I will never forget watching the eight minutes and 46 second video of George Floyd being killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. As Officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground with a knee on his neck, bystanders at the scene and everybody who subsequently viewed the horrific film could see the life draining out of the 46-year-old Black man.

Every fiber of your body was screaming out for Chauvin to release the pressure and restrain the man in a less egregious manner. Bystanders cried out repeatedly for him to stop, knowing that if they tried to intervene they could be subject to similar treatment by officers. By the end of that video I was in tears, as no doubt were many others. I couldn’t believe such a thing could happen in a modern, civilized society.

But, as we know, not only do such things happen, they are also not isolated incidents.

On March 13, 26-year-old Black medical worker Breonna Taylor was shot dead by police officers in Louisville, KY when they broke into her apartment around midnight using a no-knock search warrant. On February 23, 25-year-old Black man Ahmaud Arbery was chased and shot dead by two armed white residents of a South Georgia suburb while he was out jogging near a local park. The duo were subsequently charged with murder, although it had taken two months for them to be arrested.

These deaths follow similar incidents in prior years, including the killing of Philando Castile in St Paul, MN in July 2016, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Philadelphia in November 2014 in Cleveland, OH, Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in August 2014 and Eric Garner in New York City in July 2014.

Past deaths had prompted protests and resulted in confrontations with police, but Floyd’s death felt like a watershed moment, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the United States and the rest of the world, with ordinary citizens of all types joining forces to say enough is enough. It produced a racial reckoning across all aspects of society, including business, brands and PR, marketing and communication.

If any good can come from that horrific video of Floyd’s killing, one can only hope it results in real change in society after decades of mealy mouthed words and tokenistic responses.

PRWeek has made a conscious effort to not only convene debates through a racial injustice panel discussion, our Racial Equity Summit, profiles of our Power List 2020 number one Damon Jones from Procter & Gamble and many other interviews with BIPOC PR professionals, but also to try and plot a course toward real change.

As we move into 2021 it is vital that the issue is not forgotten or swept under the carpet, that dialogue and self-reflection turn into real actionable change, and that we finally move toward a more equitable society where everyone is given an equal chance to succeed, regardless of their skin color, gender, sexuality, age or ability/disability.  

8. A divided country

A record 81.3 million people voted for President-elect Joe Biden in last month’s general election, while 74.2 million voted for President Donald Trump – the second-highest figure ever posted by a U.S. electoral candidate, but still well short of what was required to form another government.

The new Biden/Harris administration has a strong mandate in terms of Electoral College votes and the popular vote, but a voting bloc of the size of the soon-to-be former President’s is not a constituency that can be ignored. The U.S. population is uniquely divided.

Much will also depend on the outcome of two runoffs in Georgia on January 5 that will decide who controls the Senate moving forward and, consequently, how much freedom Biden will have to implement his policies.

But, first up, Biden needs to do everything he can to deliver on his promise to govern for all people and, most importantly of all, get a handle on the health pandemic that is infecting and killing people across the U.S. in record numbers.

Over 3,000 people are dying of COVID-19 every single day at the moment. Let’s put that in perspective for a moment: that is more than the number of people who perished during the 9/11 terrorist attacks dying every single day. What a horrendous and shameful statistic to consider as a year draws to a close when 311,000 people have died in the U.S. from coronavirus and 17.3 million have been infected.

So, while brands and corporations of all types will be constructing strategies for advocating during the new administration and working out how to best position themselves in what will hopefully be a more stable and less toxic environment moving forward, the top priority for the new commander-in-chief simply has to be wresting control of this terrible virus and helping the country get healthy again.

Too many families will be mourning loved ones who are no longer with us over the forthcoming holiday period. We owe it to their memories to all pull together as a country under new leadership. Let’s make America healthy again.

9. Healthcare communication and leadership

PRWeek teams up with our sister brand MM+M every November to celebrate the top 50 Health Influencers of the year. This year’s list of course reflected an unprecedented year and recognized the amazing contributions of the medical, scientific, educational and business communities across the U.S. and the world who have led on numerous health issues in fighting and stemming the negative effects of the pandemic.

But there was really only one person we could place at the top of the list: Dr. Anthony Fauci. Fauci has crossed over from being a lifelong civil servant into a personality who epitomizes the common sense and fact-based approach to fighting the coronavirus.

His qualities were sorely tested in the febrile political atmosphere surrounding the pandemic, in which disinformation and obfuscation were being peddled from the highest levels of government. But he stayed resolute and continued putting forward science-based communications on as many channels as he could throughout the COVID-19 hiatus.

Lately, freed from the opprobrium poured on him from certain quarters he has approached the task with renewed vigor. It is hoped that he, along with many other loyal and patriotic public servants, will now be given the mandate to directly address the pandemic unencumbered by political expedience.

Leadership during COVID-19 has been demonstrated by many leaders in business, science, and local authorities through clear and effective communication - Fauci demonstrates those skills expertly and we will need his continued influence in the fight ahead.

10. Future of work

While everyone has become accustomed to the new reality of working from home and all the attendant impacts that has on lifestyles dependent on personal circumstances, business leaders have been trying to assess what this means for their enterprises moving forward.

As the milestone of vast real estate portfolios lying empty for a whole year looms on the horizon, big decisions are being made.

The owner of PR firms BCW, Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Ogilvy (which is back in the PR game) this week unveiled a strategy it says will result in £600 million of savings in annual costs from new ways of working, including £100 million from property because, as CEO Mark Read stated, “we think we need 15-20% less space.”

He added that a further £150 million will be generated by “operating model savings” from “new ways of working”, driven by the rise of remote working and a cut in travel and hotel costs of about a third.

All the other holding companies are conducting similar exercises. We will never return to the days of old and these changes in the world of work will have fundamental implications for our daily lives, talent recruitment and retention and the way business is done.

Finally, let me sincerely wish you and your families a restful holiday period. I hope you are all able to escape for some downtime before the madness restarts. I have been exceptionally proud and impressed by the efforts of the PR industry as it pivoted over the past nine months. Much as I expected it of you, it is still wonderful to behold.

Thanks all for your support this year and moving forward – let’s reconvene in January as we say welcome to 2021. Who knows what that has in store for us!

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