It’s not an overstatement to say that the pandemic upended the PR industry, with agencies and organisations having had to scramble for solutions. One of the bigger areas that agencies such as Golin were increasingly allocating resources on was reputation building for clients—especially around repositioning company purpose and values.
“What we saw was a renaissance of classic corporate comms in a way,” Darren Burns, APAC president for Golin said at PRWeek Connect. “Crisis management, issues management, a lot of reputation building. We thought a lot of those things had maybe died, but Covid really recatalysed the industry. Employee engagement was also one of the growing areas for us in the agency last year, particularly in Singapore and Hong Kong.”
ESG became a component that wasn’t just a nice-to-have. In the past perhaps during a crisis or difficult time, it’s an area that may get pushed aside. But Covid has shown that ESG is no more optional, but rather a given. It’s no more an area that’s looked after a CSR department or leader, but rather, an organisation’s driving force led by C-suite.
“CSR really took off from a comms perspective years ago but what see now is purpose and ESG metrics at the centre of an organisation, not at the side. That’s a big change,” said Burns.
“We’ve also seen the business roundtable expand to beyond just consisting of shareholders to other stakeholders. For example, Mastercard leaders now have ESG-related metrics against their bonuses and renumeration. It’s purpose-driven companies that have done well in the pandemic because they’ve led with their values. And when you have those values already, it’s very easy to lead in a crisis.”
Linda Lim, APAC business communications director for Dow, added that the pandemic may have increased consumer sophistication in thinking and talking about certain issues such as single-use plastics. And given this increased sophistication, it makes good business sense for organisations to provide those solutions driven by ESG.
“If consumers are demanding the right kind of solutions, it becomes more and more commercially viable for businesses to come up with those solutions. There is a very strong business case in ESG,” said Lim.
Ways of working
With face-to-face connections and relationship-building out the window for a good part of last year, Lim said that she needed to rethink team culture.
“If we look at employee communications, being informative is far from enough. We needed to connect minds and hearts. How do we maintain and evolve team culture? How do we align business strategy and priorities virtually? We have to work a lot harder to provide direction, participation and encouragement,” she said.
One thing she noticed was providing communications and ideas in small doses, due to “virtual meeting fatigue”. Burns concurred: “I think Covid really created an opportunity to have more one-on-one groups, small catch-ups, and a lot more comms from a bite-sized approach. Less of those three- to four-hour meetings; they’re much more targeted, much more focused.”
He added that one of the few upsides of Covid is the democratisation of comms in a hierarchal office structure. “We found that people have more opportunity to talk to the CEO of a company, and have more direct conversations where previously that might not have happened. That’s helped us become much flatter as an organisation,” he said.
When it comes to pitching and presentations, doing it virtually certainly took some adjusting for Burns and his colleagues. In real life “pitch threatre” can be amped up and small talk can be conducted before an actual pitch to gauge the person before a presentation. Virtually, however, the atmosphere tends to be more cold with rows of literal talking heads plastered on-screen.
Burns said: “We try and do some ice-breakers and make it a bit more fun upfront so it’s not so cold. And we try and get everyone’s video cameras on, especially on the client side so that we can watch their reactions—gauge if they’re listening, and whether we need to change the dynamic of the presentation.”
More generally, both Lim and Burns also observed a surge of kindness and understanding in the agency-client dynamic. “There was a kind of rise of humanity and kindness with agency staff, I’ve never seen that before. I think because we all have a shared experience and everybody was in the same boat, there was a lot more understanding about what was happening in people’s lives. More understanding around deadlines. Just having a more open frank discussion, and this has stayed with us until now,” said Burns.
Lim said she liked the change towards more patient and kind relationships. “Everyone is a lot more understanding about the new demands we’re facing, whether it’s WFH or childcare,” she said.
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