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For Communications Pros, The Recovery Will Be Different

By Paul Mottram

For public relations, 2020 was all about the pandemic and implacable reality of a life-threatening disease, mass lockdowns and economic turmoil. With economies beginning to show signs of new life and even a possible boom, it’s time to rethink our role as communicators. While the shutdown of 2020 was in many ways binary, the recovery will be significantly more complex, multivariate and nuanced as organizations and brands move from reactivity to proactivity.

The shift will call for a different set of communications skills and techniques. Whereas much of the value add from PR professionals in 2020 was dominated by reputation management, in 2021 the focus will shift back to an emphasis on marketing and reputation consulting.

The experience of the pandemic was essentially similar for everyone in communications. The recovery will be different for every sector:

  • What can tech companies do to drive brand preference as flexible working gives the individual a greater voice in corporate IT?

  • How will travel firms deal with asymmetric reopening of travel routes and evolving expectations of safety standards?

  • Can express delivery companies build on the rise of ecommerce to make their premium offerings the de facto standard?

  • How will credit scoring companies adjust their processes and policies to optimize credit ratings of consumers recovering from the “black swan” event that was the pandemic?

Beyond the specific circumstances of the markets they serve, bigger trends are also out there ripe for creative and courageous communications. Zeno data revealed that even before the pandemic, consumer sentiment and purchasing behavior was already impacted by awareness of a brand’s corporate purpose, with consumers across Asia being at least four times more likely to buy from brands whose purpose aligns with their expectations. Indications are that these preferences have only deepened in the meantime.

For Generation Z also, our research shows that the reality of disrupted education and job prospects has certainly bitten, and the importance of young people to marketers has never been greater.

Marketers in every industry and sector need to understand how to use this massive shock to the system to identify opportunities in recovery and respond quickly to establish competitive advantages for their business. So how should communicators respond and what skills are required?

Listen carefully and often: consumer and executive attitudes have shifted during the pandemic. Frequent research and analysis of first- and third-party data will offer insights into transitory attitude shifts and more permanent changes in values that create new motivations for action. Research and data analytics capabilities are essential, and this is no time to be learning on the job.

Be agile: the recovery will be asymmetric and staggered. Different geographies, markets and audiences responding at different times. Campaigns need to be built under common brand promises, but with locally varied proof points. That means flexible implementation and frictionless communications under a clear global direction.

Think integrated: the pandemic has deepened people’s engagement with paid, owned and earned digital channels. While a brilliant story will still get traditional media attention, business and brands need people who can tell that story creatively across channels to drive action among audiences on whatever channels they choose.

We're not there yet of course. Globally, more than 60,000 people died of Covid-19 just last week and the pandemic will continue to have severe consequences for many months. Organizations too have a long road ahead in terms of adapting to changed employee expectations and making the new normal truly normal.

But now is the time for communicators to change their mindset. Start looking beyond reactive reputation management and work with business colleagues to get deep into recovery opportunities and challenge the status quo for the long term. Use the close ties established with the board level in handling the crisis to now drive decisive marketing strategies to win the recovery.