Outlook: A golden era is upon us

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By Padraig McKeon (pictured), president of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII), and director, board and CEO level communications advisor

EIGHTEEN months ago, I was asked to speak to a group of business leaders about communications in the Covid-impaired workplace. I didn’t address their position but instead asked them to put themselves in the shoes of each of several cited stakeholders to their organization – internal and external.

In that context, they quickly recognized the universal need. People needed information. The consensus was that there was no grand campaign or strategy wanting. Faced with uncertainty, people just wanted to know what you were doing and what they should be doing. The needs were basic, widespread, and recurring.

The discussion that followed was telling. It acknowledged what those stakeholders needed just then was no different to what they had always needed pre-pandemic, it was just more urgent now. 

For centuries organizations have been led by those who controlled the finances and the money flow. In the modern organization, the flow of information is rapidly becoming an important currency. The pandemic has stripped away presumption. This work must be done with intent and leaders are realizing it is not as easy as it looks, it is not a job that ‘anybody can do’.

The work is complicated by there being more information available than people can absorb and more tools and channels than are needed. Thus, there is a need to make choices and judgements. There is a need to be strategic and more than ever there is a critical need for the expertise of those who can understand the need, shape the delivery, and maintain a flow. This is the work of communicators. 

The result is an unprecedented demand for communications expertise, in house and agency. Whereas in the early stages of the pandemic, employers were looking to release or furlough staff, employment for communicators is now a sellers’ market. 

The opportunity however comes with a responsibility. Communications isn’t in demand ‘just because’. It is being appreciated now because it is seen to be relevant and to serve a purpose. The opportunity for continued influence and growth rests on communicators being able to provide insight and direction on the key challenges faced by employers and clients. 

It also comes with an expectation of flexibility and agility. It isn’t just about being the experts in communications. The modern communications professional must know something about everything, and also why that ‘something’ is important.

The challenge now is to recognize that what we have isn’t just a changed working environment. It is one that will keep changing continuously. 

We must avoid our version of ‘founders’ syndrome’ – of believing that because we provided the direction and the impetus that brought us here, we know what needs to happen next. If we are in any doubt, we need only look at how movements – like XR or BLM – have become the carriers of change, bottom up and socially moderated.

If a moment existed during which we could have dwelled on communications finally being seen by others for the value we have always believed it could offer, well, that moment has passed. We must evolve a new body of competencies and processes for the practitioner of tomorrow.

There is an opportunity here. We must double down and invest in consolidating and growing our possibilities; search out the knowledge and skills to stay relevant and; critically, embrace new talent with diverse perspectives that map the changing world we work in. 

What got us here won’t make us better, but in terms of growth and opportunity, if we are prepared to work at being better, more informed and relevant, this is just the end of the beginning.