The pandemic helped PR pros nab a seat in the boardroom, and they aren't giving it back

The pandemic helped PR pros nab a seat in the boardroom, and they aren't giving it back

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Since the pandemic hit in 2020, businesses had to reassess their operations as well as factor in the health and safety of their employees. This also led to changes in purchasing and media consumption habits following lockdowns and the onset of work-from-home - advertising budgets were cut and organisations turned to PR for messaging efforts.

Nonetheless, according to PR professionals MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to, the pandemic may have also presented professionals in the field with more say and clout within a company. “For years I’ve attended conferences with at least one session dedicated to addressing an existential anxiety that pervades the industry: How can PR ‘win a seat at the table’ in organisations?” If nothing else, the pandemic has given PR ample opportunity to gain that seat,” said Andrew Nicholls, MD, Carma Asia. 

Over the course of the pandemic, business leaders have realised that in times of crises, communication is key and PR professionals are the gatekeepers to the image of their company, keeping all relevant stakeholders informed, and winning their trust over especially through troubled and uncertain times. For instance, in March 2020, Diageo, maker of Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff, pledged to enable the creation of more than eight million bottles of hand sanitiser, by donating up to two million litres of alcohol to manufacturing partners, to help protect frontline healthcare workers in the fight against COVID-19. The world’s leading distiller provided Grain Neutral Spirit – a 96% strength ethyl alcohol used primarily in production of vodka and gin – and made it available at no cost to hand sanitiser producers in multiple countries, to help overcome shortages in healthcare systems.

Meanwhile, The Coca-Cola Company went dark shifting its marketing resources to support COVID-19 prevention and relief efforts during the initial phase of the global public health crisis. Operating groups redeployed ad spending to supply healthcare workers and vulnerable communities with medical equipment, beverages, food and other critical supplies. Coca-Cola Philippines was the first of many markets to pause advertising for all brands in mid-March 2020, posting social media messages about its plans to go “off air” and channel funding to relief organizations. Most markets followed suit, with many opting to remain dark through the second quarter.

In a relatively short space of time, organisations have been forced to rethink fundamentals like supply chain, distribution, health and safety and staff work practices. In many cases the pandemic’s impact on revenues has led to pay cuts and layoffs, Nicholls added.

“As the public looks for guidance and a plan to get through the situation, there are expectations of leaders in government and industry to frequently make and communicate key decisions. Naturally this stimulates public debate that can have reputational impact. Moreover, as advertising budgets were cut, more messaging through PR efforts were seem,” he said.  

The pandemic has confirmed that PR is not just fluff or glamourous as others often want to frame it, added on Lavinia Rajaram, Asia head of PR, Expedia Group. “We have the capability to manage or mitigate a crisis at speed. We have the ability to strengthen relationships internally and externally, and with that, the power to build trust with our communities.” 

As brands reassessed how to reach their audience in the most cost-effective way, it became the public relations role to take lead. Rajaram added:

With some thoughtful and creative positioning, PR took the leading role to help brands navigate through each hurdle, and played a pivotal role in protecting, preserving, and promoting our brand. 

However, being thrust into the spotlight did not come without its challenges, as PR professionals MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to agreed that the pandemic proved to be a learning curve for them as well. They agreed that the pandemic saw PR professionals write their own playbook as they navigated through the volatility of the PR scene, reassessing what works and experimenting with new ways to engage consumers. Rajaram said that the process has made many in the PR industry “much stronger, braver, resilient and better placed” to reshape the narrative.

"From a purely creative point of view, the pandemic has clearly presented the PR function with an opportunity to experiment and consider new ways to do things we took for granted. Switching to crisis mode forced us to act quickly and at speed, but it also freed us to evolve,” she added. 

Preeti Gupta, corporate affairs director and sustainability lead, BMW Asia also said, “I believe this has had a positive impact on the industry, challenging everyone to not necessarily just think outside of the box, but completely throw the box away and start with a clean slate.” 

The role within the company - not just in the boardroom

Naushaba Salahuddin, director, head of PR and Communications at Zilingo and and Abhijit Dutta, senior director - communications and government affairs, APAC, Kimberly-Clark Corporation (KCC), further added that the PR industry’s importance within organisations grew significantly as well.  

“As a company, we took a closer look at our people and how PR can be used as a tool for motivation, compassion and empathy,” Salahuddin said. “We asked ourselves how we could use internal communications as a lever to take care of employees’ mental health, and that became of utmost priority, and really being there for each other as people and not just colleagues.” 

Meanwhile, Dutta revealed that he now spends a much greater proportion of his time to ascertain if his team is alright – emotionally, physically, and family-wise. “We are only as good as our ability to be present and effective and we can't be those things if our lives are compromised. This pandemic has made me focus less on the technical aspects and more on the people aspects of what we do,” he added.  

Additionally, PR professionals’ array of responsibilities has expanded during the pandemic. For instance, Gupta and Rajaram said that since the pandemic, their roles have expanded to provide communications support to various internal departments and even partner communications.  Dutta and his team took on business leadership roles when they were tasked with leading the COVID-19 response team for KCC APAC. “This meant a much deeper collaboration with supply chain, HR, legal, finance and country teams than otherwise,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rajaram said that her team also juggled between playing strategic counsel to the business and the broader marketing functions and being on the frontline as brand custodians. “Frequent engagements with the media became a critical area for the team. This allowed us to forge closer relationships with our key media partners, and over time, it helped us grow our brand footprint in the media space,” she added.

"Although the pandemic will be forever remembered for its many calamities, it also shined a light on long overlooked issues and spurred positive changes in the way organisations invest in their public relations functions, and shrewd organisational leaders who stayed the course with their PR investment will undoubtedly reap the long-term benefits in a post-pandemic world," she said.

But can PR teams really hold on to the glory they've gotten?

Safe to say, PR will continue to play a significant role in organisations' communications efforts, even after the pandemic. According to Deloitte’s 2022 Global Marketing Trends Report, 57% of consumers are more loyal to brands that commit to actionably addressing social inequities.

At the same time, Forrester predicts that Asia Pacific organisations will lead the charge in building customer trust and tackling climate change. According to Rajaram, this means that PR will help brands and businesses be part of the solutions to societal problems by steering brand communications to more sustainability engagements and compassion communication, which would, in turn, generate positive dividends for them. Nicholls said,

The key for the PR industry now is to capitalise on the opportunity to retain that seat at the table and ensure CEO’s and policymakers understand that PR can play a variety of roles beyond a crisis.

“Organisations with strong PR leadership have realised the value of those skills in navigating change and the importance of good communication with staff and customers. Those without it have also realised they need it,” he added.

Rajaram added that more than ever, PR has now made its way to the center of business continuity. On top of its role as relationship builders, PR also came out on top as trust-builder and promoter when the crisis threatened to erode the bond between businesses and their external and internal stakeholders.

“There have been surveys and studies that show people expect brands to do more for society during the pandemic. This means brands and businesses should be part of the solutions to societal problems and care more about the public interest. We see PR is successfully steering brand communications to more sustainability engagements and compassion communication. And I believe this behavior generates positive dividends for organisations,” said Rajaram, adding that this is very evident when leading local and multinational companies reap praises and establish better patronage of their brands when executives exercise strong benevolent leadership during this time. 

She added that more business owners and leaders now realise that it is PR that needs to handhold organisations to adapt to new social realities, and it is PR that executives turn to, to manage uncomfortable issues. “A lot of soul-searching currently being done by organisations, and PR plays a critical role. More and more business leaders are realising they need the resilient PR to overcome the humps and maintain stability,” she said.

Photo courtesy: 123RF

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