Among the platitudes of the COVID-19 commentary, something stood out to me. Novelist Arundhati Roy said the pandemic “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. There’s a sense that we’ve stepped into a parallel universe in which a lot of things look the same. But, beware: they’re not.
One of the biggest challenges facing corporate comms teams this autumn will be regaining control after months of reacting to crises. But how do we do that when much of what has changed won’t be clear for years? The answer lies in strategic comms techniques such as scenario planning.
We know the following five themes will drive the corporate agenda in Q4; the best comms teams are already thinking about how each could play out, what that would mean, and what to do now to prepare.
A shift in political priorities
The political agenda was kiboshed in 2020, but the Government needs to deliver it before the next election. ‘Levelling up’ will have to address inequalities laid bare by the pandemic, as well as investment outside London. The need to repay debt, now at 100 per cent of GDP, will transform fiscal policy, and corporate lobbying will focus on the Budget and Spending Review in October. After a bruising 18 months of bottomless Budget-level interventions, the Treasury will prioritise engagement with companies with clear plans to rebuild the economy.
Recruitment and retention
The paralysing effect of COVID-19 led to hiring freezes and people staying put. But the recovery has rapidly driven the need for comms people; vacancies outnumber candidates, churn is high, wage inflation is rocketing, and the expectations of teams about how and where they work is different. Companies will have to be more than employers; we will all have to prove that our people really are our most valuable asset.
Brexit and reputational risk
The challenges posed to complex supply chains by Brexit have been magnified by COVID-19. Whatever the medium-term benefits of leaving the EU, shortages that have mostly been confined to less essential items will affect more critical ones. There will be a particular media focus in the run-up to Christmas, with manufacturers, retailers and logistics companies needing to ensure the finger isn’t pointed at them.
Demand for climate action
Anyone who has ignored the calls for corporate climate action is now well behind the curve. COP26 in November presents opportunities for businesses with a genuine story to tell; but, for those without clear climate action plans, the reputational, political and investor risk will be huge.
COVID-19 isn’t over
Regaining some of our pre-pandemic lives masks the fact that cases will rise again, flu cases will likely surge, and interventions in Q4 are possible. Corporate comms teams demonstrated real value in the height of COVID-19, but boards are demanding a focus on ‘highly unlikely’ issues they once dismissed. Future pandemics, the impacts of climate change, migration and economic shocks all keep corporate leaders awake. The challenge, and opportunity, for comms teams is to ensure we’re not only the ones who think through issues well before they happen, we can also solve them.
Gabe Winn is chief executive of Blakeney