Interview: Covid crisis proves critical importance of PR

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FOR the most part, there has been a rise in public relations and communications in 2020. Yet, it hasn’t been without its challenges. Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) in the UK, recently shared his experiences with Orla Clancy during a Zoom interview.

According to Ingham, the entire public relations and communications industry has changed. “Some sectors have been hit harder than others,” he said. “Hospitality and entertainment PR specialists are the prime example at one end of the spectrum while public affairs and city and financial specialists are at the other. Public sector communications has been critical at every stage of this crisis and it has proved its centrality to everything the state does.”

Business challenges

He said PRCA UK members have been taking steps to overcome the impact of Covid-19, both for their own businesses and their clients or the organisations they represent. “It’s about doing more with less. The majority of PR firms and teams I’ve spoken with have managed costs downwards and reconfigured their structures, while working harder. In many cases, the client-agency relationship has prospered as they’ve worked together in partnership. On the in-house side, the relationship between the PR team and their colleagues has been strengthened.”

“The year began strongly for many industries all around the world. And then Covid hit. When that happened, it was a question first of survival; then of changing how services were delivered; then overhead cuts; then a recovery. Many businesses around the world have improved their cashflow by delaying the payment of bills. Later this year, those debts – or a large portion of them – will have to be repaid. Businesses need to be planning for that crunch moment,” Ingham said.

Social challenges

“Separately, there’s been the challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement. In my view, the industry around the world has acknowledged its current state, and the mistakes of the past, and has committed to action now and in the future. I don’t underestimate the magnitude of what needs to be done, but I know that individuals, agencies, and associations around the world are committed to doing it.”

Lasting changes

The conversation then moved to recent changes that are likely to remain in place for businesses. “I think some enforced changes will stick – there will be more events and meetings using Zoom and other platforms. People will work less often from the office. There will consequently be office downsizing. There won’t be consistency across the industry – individuals and individual organisations will behave in their own individual ways. But overall, these things will happen – the big question is the scale of these changes – will it be three days a week in the office? Will it be one? It’s too early to say how business will look in the future, but it won’t be how it looked in the past.”

Going global

The PRCA has been collaborating with peers to share perspectives across the globe and runs an umbrella body for 41 associations around the world, ICCO. Ingham described how the PRCA has engaged with all of those associations and their 3,000 agency members through weekly calls with industry leaders. PRCA training has been made available for free to help those struggling in difficult times and an industry taskforce has been developed, drawn from senior leaders from around the world offering free, confidential business advice to agency or in-house professionals. “Because all of our events have moved online,” he said, “we’ve been able to make them all available to practitioners from all around the world. That’s been a huge success – our March international summit attracted 748 people from 35 countries. It’s truly been a global few months.”

What changes does Ingham predict in the industry in the next five years? “More accelerated shift to digital; greater prominence of PR within organisations; more emphasis on evaluation; more strategic and fewer pieces of tactical work; and growth. The crisis has proved to many sceptics the critical importance of PR.”