Outlook: Francis Ingham

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FRANCIS Ingham, director general at the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), shares his outlook on the industry.  

Covid-19 has inflicted an appalling toll on the world – much of it obvious and immediate. But most of it hidden and long term. Anyone who says they can guess where we land ultimately is a genius or a fool. But here’s my take on what we can see right now for the PR industry and for business as a whole.

In the main, business survival has been achieved. Our industry is smaller than it was a year ago, but it transformed itself with exceptional speed. And it is growing again strongly. 

Last year, 2020, was the worst year our industry has ever endured. But it did indeed endure it. And 2021 will be a year of exceptional growth; that’s obvious from the comments of the industry leaders I speak with daily. Experiences haven’t been uniform of course and neither are future prospects. And it is also obviously sad but true to say that many good people and many good companies went under. But our industry is emerging from this period of shock and in far better shape than many – including me – feared it might. 

The extent of industry transformation has been remarkable. It has been built on the strengths which we at the PRCA and ICCO have identified for many years now: CEOs investing in organizational reputation; the blending of creative disciplines; PR practitioners broadening their offering; and the rise and rise of digital. Each of these strengths has been compounded over the past months. They guarantee the PR industry’s future in the years ahead.

What are the broader business lessons? 

That we don’t need to commute every day; but that human contact is essential to creativity and to creating and maintaining a sense of team. That we can transform working patterns and social norms at a pace which we never thought possible; but that there are costs attached – the current, and I suspect long-lasting, mental health deterioration being one of those costs. That we can compete (often frantically during this period, let’s be honest) for business; but also share and empathize with rivals. 

Many of the changes this period has brought forward, accelerated, or created afresh are good. But let’s be honest – this crisis has been endured, not enjoyed.

Where now? 

Economies and PR industries are growing. Hiring is back. Office life is returning. The trends powering the growth of the PR industry for the past ten years are still with us. So, in a sense, we are returning to normality. 

Except we’re not. Black Lives Matter shone a spotlight on our too-often unacknowledged behavior; Covid threatened to crucify not just our working lives but our very lives. And expectations have shifted. The public is tired of businesses and employers that don’t have any values. On the flip side, the public rewards those who’ve behaved with compassion, nuance, and simple humanity. These are good things, those achieved at an awful cost. 

A terrible period, now almost over, to be accompanied by a massive sigh of relief at its end. Transformed business and transformed society. For our industry and many others, brighter although still uncertain times ahead.  And for me, that counts as a win.