Interview: Future proofing is part of PR

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GERARD F Corbett is the founder, chair and CEO at Redphlag in California and, amongst other roles, is past chairman and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) where he also served on the board for eight years. Corbett recently shared his perspectives with Orla Clancy on communications in a changed world.

Crisis plans

Businesses and communities around the globe have largely been in reactive mode this year. While crisis management is part and parcel of PR and communications, could anyone have been prepared for the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Asked if many of his clients or industry peers had prepared for a pandemic in their crisis management plans, Corbett replied “Assess, define and execute! These three actions spell out simply how to move the organization forward regardless of the crisis at hand. The majority of my clients were prepared from a crisis point of view. But, no one expected the magnitude of the crisis. So it was back to assess, define and execute. Those three actions are buttressed by truth, transparency and full disclosure.”

Global reach

For businesses like Redphlag that represent clients in different states, or indeed worldwide, where the restrictions and guidelines vary, there’s an added dimension to communications strategies. 

“Our counsel and support are global. That said, there are formidable challenges, for example, how best do you launch a new category or product into a region of the world from another and distinct region of the world. We develop sharply focused strategies that identify a relevant constituency, plans to tightly target and communicate compelling tactics that are responsible, relevant and resonant, and research that validates desired results.”

Brand protection

A standout observation in the communications industry during Covid-19 is that companies are now more conscious of how their reaction to the pandemic may impact their brands. 

“While there are a few exceptions, I believe that most companies now understand and appreciate how their behaviors and actions can and are impacting how consumers view their brands. Authenticity in their relationships with consumers and customers is critical to sustaining trust. Any contrived responses will fall flat and what remains, if any, credit in the brand trust bank will fall to zero or below.”

Elevation of communications

With the crisis has come an elevation of communications within companies and there is a shift in the perception of this management function, which is emerging as best practice. 

“Crisis communications and crisis management are the most in demand (areas of the industry this year) and both cover all audiences with internal being one of the most vital.”

“The Covid-19 crisis has placed “real-time risk management” at the head of the table. If anything, the crisis has made communications strategy and crisis management two of the most vital functions of the C-suite. That perhaps is the biggest change. Not only is risk management critical for the enterprise, but it is crucial for the personal health of the individual. So, whether a communicator or executive is WFH or at the office, everyone has to be mindful of the health and safety of customers, employees and everyone that is part of the supply chain.”

Business budgets

“The increase in budget consciousness has placed substantial pressure on performance management. No matter the business, people and companies are being driven to do more with less, leaving little time for mistakes or guessing games. Research upfront will help communicators develop more coherent strategies that have a higher chance of success if done well, quickly and efficiently.”

Alignment with company objectives

The conversation then moved to how PR and communications are helping companies to meet their objectives. “Alignment is an ongoing and organic process. It is also a work in progress. With the global health and economic crises of 2020, all bets are off. Enterprises and PR professionals have been compelled to quickly reexamine how to move forward against many obstacles. The order of the day is collaboration and cooperation. We all need to open our eyes to new horizons and possibilities.”

“At this point in time, who can say what is “business as usual.” Every day is a new day. There are many unknowns. Everyone in our field needs to stay alert and be in position to accommodate what comes before us. The true test of successful public relations professionals is the ability to think strategically on our feet at a moment’s notice in real time all of the time.”

International collaboration

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to greater collaboration internationally as experts share their approaches to PR and communications. “Remain accessible, open and always willing to help. As communications practitioners, we need to sustain global relationships and always be willing to provide advice and counsel at the drop of a hat. You sustain relationships by being engaged and supporting those who ask. A broad network that spans the globe is needed in our industry.”

Technology v in person

Many businesses are continuing remote working arrangements into the future. Building relationships and collaboration are key to the industry. When asked if he thinks both can be achieved as effectively by teams brainstorming and strategizing through technology instead of in person, Corbett replied “Technology has given us the ability to telecommunicate not just by voice but by presence. These are true gifts that we need to employ to achieve all that is possible. I have seen what is progress these last few months through telepresence. I have participated in real-time dialogues, brainstorming sessions, scholarship committees, fundraising events, rule-making bodies and leadership assemblies. The tools are there at the ready. Use them!”

Future proofing

“Future proofing is what we do daily. Public relations is the actions taken to foster understanding among people about mission, goals and objectives. What we do as professionals has always been and will always be about managing understanding for the mutual benefit of our constituents.”

“The only change that is constant is the technology we employ to accomplish our objectives. What we do as professionals remains constant. How we do it is a function of the technology and methodology, which are constantly evolving. Fundamentally what we do is to achieve understanding that benefits society.”