While the coronavirus pandemic may have brought PR and communications to the fore, it’s important they continue to be part of long-term business planning, says Ashgrove’s Annie Macleod
Reflecting back on the past year has been an interesting one from a PR perspective. In many ways it has given PR practitioners an opportunity to excel, with the need for good customer and stakeholder communications shooting to the top of the agenda.
But it has also underlined that PR is still a very tactical tool for so many businesses, just brought out to deal with a problem and then put away until another crisis occurs.
According to a recent Communications Benchmark Report put together for Ragan Communications Leadership Council and based on a survey of professional communicators worldwide, 79% of respondents reported an increased workload due to Covid. This is hardly surprising, given that the pandemic turned traditional commerce upside down, often extremely rapidly, triggering crisis plans and crisis comms.
Interestingly the report revealed that 46% of respondents did not create a crisis communications plan in 2020 but 69% said they had a crisis plan prior to 2020, suggesting that many moved forward with these plans without needing to radically change them.
More worryingly, a small but statistically significant number answered questions about a crisis plan with “Don’t know”. One hopes they have seen the value of having a plan now!
One of the positives to come out of Covid for PR practitioners, and reflected in the report, is that 42% of respondents said they had forged stronger relationships with other company departments and just over 20% said they now had better access to the CEO.
It is a recurring frustration for many communications teams – whether they operate internally in a business or externally through an agency – that they are continually sidelined by other areas of the business and only called upon when there is a problem to solve or a message to write. So often communications are tagged on the end of a new project or a new product, or called in only when a problem has escalated to become a big issue in some shape or form.
This leads to very reactive rather than pro-active communications where external events, rather than the brand, are often dictating the messaging. It’s also a very ineffective use of resources.
One of the main complaints of comms teams in the report is the number of last-minute requests they receive. These often need to be completed on the hoof without proper planning and preparation, or sometimes even the scrutiny, they deserve.
This can result in disjointed, perhaps even contradictory, messaging that may solve an immediate problem but doesn’t uphold the long-term brand proposition or the company’s market position.
Putting comms and PR at the heart of the organisation, with clear sight of the company’s strategic aims and plans, is a much more sensible and productive approach. Not only will your team be able to formulate how company comms can be rolled out to support the business objectives, they can also provide valuable customer insight and raise flags about potentially sensitive areas to which other teams might be oblivious.
PR is as much about preparedness and contingency planning as it is about providing a positive reflection of the business. It is a management discipline and one that should be treated with the same gravity as finance, operations or R&D. Words should be equally as important as numbers in the C-Suite!
Other interesting observations from the report are that PR and comms practitioners are expecting an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in the next few years, as well as responding to the ongoing need for communication with remote or non-desk workers. Tellingly, a majority of respondents (66%) believed that remote or flexible working arrangements will be a permanent option in their companies going forward.
It’s also anticipated that technology and new channels will shape the way forwards with more communication by mobiles, more virtual and personalised communication and a greater reliance on social media.
All of this is relevant to businesses on the Isle of Man. PR and comms teams here –whether in-house or hired externally – face the same hurdles around integration into the wider business and access to the CEO/decision makers just like teams in much bigger international businesses. They are also afforded the same opportunities if they are allowed to take them.
At Ashgrove, we are often amazed at the number of companies we meet that do not feature PR/comms in their annual business plan. It is a strange omission when you consider the value that can be added both internally and externally.
Hopefully, the past year will have demonstrated to many business owners just how critical it is to have a good communications team. Now they need to make sure they make the best use of them going forward.