Opinion: Golden hour for communicators

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AN article in a recent Journal for Communications Studies (Vol.14 No.1 (27) 2021) described the Covid-19 pandemic as a “golden hour for communicators” as their contribution to organizational success – even survival – became more apparent and their skills and advice were increasingly sought by boards and senior management, writes Dr Martina Byrne.

This tallies with what we heard from PRII members. As stunned as anyone when the lockdown was announced, public relations clients and employers of in-house teams quickly realized that communication to stakeholders was business-critical. Employees needed to know if they were deemed essential workers. If they were, would they be safe at work? And if not working, would they be paid? Customers and service users needed to know about service and supply chain security; would there be enough of everything to go round? And everyone wanted to know ‘how can I stay safe?’ and ‘how long will this last?’

From FinTech specialists to consumer relations, from public affairs to internal communications everyone quickly became very busy and so it has continued.

The focus of the profession in the years ahead must be on retaining and growing the respect and recognition garnered. One way is to ensure we capture the lessons learned.

I have no doubt there will be many research theses and books written about ‘Communication in a Time of Covid’ with a view to preparing for ‘the next big crisis.’ 

Here’s five observations of my own:

Crisis preparedness and issue management. These were always important elements of any brand communication plan ‘though they tended to focus on threats that, while serious, were relatively limited in scale – product failure/withdrawal, fire/flood, industrial disputes or supply chain problems. Now, the playbooks and scenario planning must include pandemics, lockdown (for any reason), cyberattack, communication platform outage, and the impact of climate change.

Internal communications. Regardless of the size of the organization, internal communications must be front and central to any organization’s stakeholder engagement. The best management plans or strategies won’t survive beyond the boardroom if employees aren’t informed, involved and engaged. 

Public affairs. As a result of Covid-19, the need for smaller organizations including charities and NGOs, to get their point of view or frontline experience across to legislators and policy makers has shown that the need for public affairs advice is no longer the preserve of large organizations.

Purpose. A word they are unlikely to use, however consumers and service users are increasingly able to assess authentic purpose in organizations. They don’t rate companies who choose inaction in the face of challenges or operate on the principle of ‘never waste a good crisis’ to make changes to services, structures or employment levels. Reserves of trust and loyalty increase when companies and other bodies are seen to be ‘part of the solution, not the problem’. 

Resilience. Being able to keep going, rather than having to keep going. Crisis communications preparedness plans need to have adequate rest breaks and cover for individuals dealing with a crisis or evolving issue in the heat of the 24/7/365 media cycle. Add social media and ‘fake news’ into the mix and you get a recipe for communications team burn out very quickly. Covid-19, the HSE hack, even Brexit, have all shown that some crises can turn into issues that are still smoldering months, even years later. 

The importance of tribe. Since March 2020 the team at the Public Relations Institute has noticed increased engagement from members, with new members joining all the time. There were more phone calls and longer conversations. More people attending events and training and not just because they were online but because that’s where they could find people who understood the pressures of trying to solve more and new communications problems every week. The Institute’s role was to be the place where people could find ‘their tribe’. It’s one of the reasons given for setting up the PRII nearly 70 years ago: “some of us engaged in PR…have discussed the desirability of forming an [institution] which would enable us to exchange information, advance the interests of PR generally and enjoy one another’s company.” 

Here’s to a New Year where we can do all that in person!

Dr Martina Byrne is CEO of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) in Ireland. She is an award-winning communications professional with particular experience in crisis and issue communications in the transport and energy sectors. Prior to attaining a PhD from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 2013, she was director of public affairs at Wilson Hartnell PR. Dr Byrne was awarded a fellowship of the PRII in 2004.