Interview: Covid-19 puts communications in the spotlight

Reading Time: 3 minutes

DURING a virtual interview, Leigh McClusky, national president of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), took the time to share her perspective with Orla Clancy on the role of communications in the pandemic.

Many members of the communications industry have expertise in preempting and managing crises. A global health pandemic on the scale of Covid-19 did not feature on the risk registers of most, if any, crisis plans.

“I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the enormous and ongoing global impact of Covid-19. I think even our practitioners who have crisis communications and management within their remit were – like many of us – completely blindsided by the introduction of Covid-19 into our daily vernacular,” said McClusky.

Yet, since March 2020, the communications industry is central to the management of the Covid-19 crisis. 

“Managing the communications challenges of the pandemic has clearly put crisis comms and internal comms squarely in the spotlight as every industry has been forced to ‘pivot’ to either manage the challenges or maximize the communications opportunities, delivered by the pandemic.”

Representing organizations in different states where the restrictions and guidelines vary is challenging for McClusky and PRIA members. 

“PRIA has traditionally enjoyed a strong network of events, both in individual states and territories, and nationally. However, the evolving and constantly changing border restrictions and constraints between different states and territories has brought that to an abrupt halt.”

“But we’ve grasped that as an opportunity to reinvigorate our online offerings to members and have developed a broad, accessible and affordable calendar of webinar content that has been very successful.”

How are companies changing their communications? “I think what we’re seeing is a community that is less tolerant of ‘spin’ and the need for companies to connect with genuine authenticity has never been greater,” McClusky replied.

“With communities around Australia struggling emotionally and financially with the impacts of Covid-19, they are in no mood for platitudes or blatant, commercial sales pitches. As we eventually transition out of the worst of Covid-19, companies and governments will need to be exceptionally mindful of that.”

McClusky then spoke about challenges in the industry. “Many of our practitioners have been impacted with profound changes to their working conditions and some have dealt with that better than others. Client demands and workloads have changed, remote working has become the norm, and unfortunately, redundancies have also been implemented by many employers, leaving many great practitioners unsure of what the future may hold.”

“The pandemic has produced both winners and losers, as society adjusts to what is currently prioritized and needed from a communications perspective.”

International collaboration across the communications industry has become more common. “We try to stay connected with our network of global friends to best understand our shared challenges and opportunities. Perhaps, not surprisingly, there are many shared experiences and challenges. These challenges have brought us closer as an industry community, as we have shared experiences and supported colleagues and competitors with a new appreciation of the frailty of life.”

Will the industry return to ‘business as usual’ or what changes will remain? “I genuinely have no idea! But I think ‘future’ normal may look very different to the normal of just one year ago,” said McClusky.

On the matter of remote working arrangements and their suitability to the public relations profession, McClusky said, “We are a community of networkers and ‘people’ people. Many practitioners have relished the opportunity to work from home, avoid busy commutes and manage their time and work load more independently. But, it is also true that many people have not enjoyed the experience and crave the collaboration and company of their peers in a busy, office environment. The ‘new’ new for our industry and many others may be a hybrid of both.”

Asked how the industry is positioned into the future, McClusky said, “I think by necessity, we will see a much more agile industry with a stronger focus on appreciating the needs and the benefits of change. Complacency will not have a place in the immediate post-Covid era.”