How PR helps businesses embrace the new normal in the wake of COVID-19

COVID-19 has ushered us into a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – that continues to change at an unprecedented pace. Many business leaders are struggling to adjust to the new normal. Success in today’s world is about more than just managing this uncertainty, it is about embracing and implementing changes. Hong Kong’s seasoned PR professionals have much to offer that can help businesses meet this challenge head-on and find new ways to thrive.

1) Reliance on social media and online media
The pandemic has turned many of us to a digital lifestyle in which we rely more on social media and online media. According to a report by We Are Social this July, more than 50% of people on the planet now use social media, such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp for information and news. Information circulating on those platforms can go viral in seconds at any time, around the clock.

HKTVmall uploaded a photo post on its Facebook in February, detailing the extensive search led by its CEO Ricky Wong for face mask manufacturers in Taiwan. The post quickly amassed a strong public appreciation of this online shopping platform.

2) Misinformation and fake news abound
Journalists today often turn to online platforms for news. Anyone with a smartphone can now be a news creator. Disinformation, fake news and even harmful content are bound to spread. The panic stockpiling of toilet paper in connection with COVID-19 is a good example of this online disinformation, both in Hong Kong and around the world.

3) Greater awareness of social inequalities and social divides
COVID-19 has highlighted social inequalities and revealed that the community in general is now more socially-divided than ever. Some of the most vulnerable socio-economic groups feel they aren’t getting what they need to survive this crisis. For instance, underprivileged children are marginalised academically amid the pandemic and these children don’t have good internet access or adequate computers for online lessons here and abroad. And low-income black Americans overseas who struggle with poor living conditions and lower access to medical services are suffering from a higher mortality rate.

4) Breaking or building trust
Disinformation and fake news during the COVID-19 outbreak have led to the growing public distrust of institutions and even the government. Many people look to brands, businesses, and the government to speak the truth and to be transparent and accountable to retain trust.

HSBC’s first-ever cancellation of its fourth quarter dividend in 2019 was a PR disaster that damaged investor relations. It hurt the bank’s credibility among its stakeholders in Hong Kong, particularly local retail investors who relied on the income from HSBC’s dividends over the years.

“COVID-19 is the moment of truth’ for many organisations,” explained Clara Shek, managing director of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and an advisor at the Hong Kong Public Relations Professionals Association (PRPA).

“Battling against the virus is not about commercial advantages or profits, it is about doing the right thing for the society and showing a company’s true values and citizenship.”

5) Social sustainability
The life-threatening pandemic has generated not only greater concerns for public health but also a higher preference for solutions that have a human element. COVID-19 has called for even more mindfulness and empathy.

Fashion labels and groups such as LVMH and Moncler have not only donated money but also adapted their fashion production lines to produce anti-pandemic products such as face masks. Some of them have also announced their support for current social issues such as the Black Lives Matter campaign.

“Corporates need long-term strategies in CSR,” said Richard Tsang, chairman of Strategic Public Relations Group and a PRPA advisor.

“With masks becoming more available and affordable, what should corporates do to help the underprivileged? Corporates also need to be consistent in their actions, you can’t on one hand give away masks and lay off the staff at the same time.”

6) Changes in the workplace
In the wake of an economic slump triggered by COVID-19, many businesses are facing downsizing, staff displacement and changes in their business operations and business models. In addition, hybrid working – namely a mix of remote working and working from the office – is gaining traction, as the ongoing pandemic continues to shape the way we work. All these changes in the workplace demand greater staff engagement.

To navigate today’s VUCA world, PR professionals, both in-house and agency, can play a crucial role in helping businesses embrace the new normal and challenges brought about by COVID-19.

1) A trusted advisor to management or clients
(a) Issue monitoring and tracking
A seasoned PR professional can identify and closely monitor potential issues from different sources through analysing traditional and social media coverage, conducting social listening, and understanding internal and external sentiments.

They can provide management situational analysis including community pulse and strategic planning and take proactive actions to prevent issues from blowing up into crises.

Kwan Chuk-fai, director of corporate communications and investor relations at Hang Lung Properties and a PRPA advisor, cited an example of noodle chain Tamjai Yunnan Mixian (譚仔雲南米線) showing prompt actions to rectify and stop the false accusations circulating online by using posts on the group’s Facebook page together with supporting screencaps.

(b) Issue sensitivity
Remaining sensitive to issues will be vital in the post-pandemic era of social divides and degraded trust. PR professionals are uniquely positioned to offer counselling to management on communication strategies, including but not limited to how, what, and when to communicate.

An example of a failure in this regard is the online rumours about the CU Mask, which quickly turned the focus from the Hong Kong Government’s free mask provision – intended to protect the public – to speculation about the transparency of the product’s sourcing and efficacy. Proper and early disclosure of the details should have been provided.

2) Brand and corporate reputation building
In the wake of the pandemic, the general public and individual consumers are looking for companies and brands with social values incorporating human elements and going beyond the traditional CSR mission of helping the underprivileged. Consumers now expect socially substantial campaigns such as female empowerment.

As brand guardians and behavioural scientists, PR professionals can offer insights and forward-looking positioning, assisting corporates to build and transform their brand reputations in a way that creates a reservoir of support and trust among their stakeholders.

Tsang continued, “Many corporates need to change both their business models and brand image during and even after COVID-19. PR professionals can successfully guide corporates through these necessary transformations.”

3) Employee engagement and internal communication
COVID-19 has changed our workplaces and highlighted the pressing needs for employee engagement with the support of PR. Remote working requires greater efforts to stimulate cooperation between colleagues and monitor togetherness. Also, corporates should support employees as they adjust to new working conditions, following what has been a stressful period for many in the industry.

Drawing on his extensive experience in handling staff issues, Kwan commented, “Caring about the staff and boosting morale in adversity is crucial, especially at a time when health and safety are at risk. Precautionary health measures or materials, working arrangements and counselling are all imperative. Internal communication is also vital in a crisis, and management must be seen to ‘walk the talk’.”

He cited the example of whether an organisation should apply for the government’s Employment Support Scheme, which is not an easy decision for many to make. If they don’t apply, it might lead to speculation that the organisation is contemplating layoffs. This is just one example of how internal communication is a complex yet demanding skill that must also align with an organisation’s external messages.

A critical aspect of PR success is that PR professionals must be empowered with the full trust of senior management to effectively contribute to the organisation’s success.

This article is contributed by the Hong Kong Public Relations Professionals Association (PRPA).