Interview: Purpose and CSR take center stage

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HAYLEY Clements is the general manager of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). She recently spoke with Orla Clancy about the PRCA MENA, how it is helping its members during uncharted territory, and emerging business practices. 

Crisis management is a fundamental part of the PR and communications industry. This year, practitioners were faced with a situation where they had to manage a crisis that impacted both their own lives and businesses directly and the clients or organizations they represent. 

When asked about some of the biggest changes experienced by PRCA MENA this year and what is emerging as best practice, Clements responded “The initial shock of Covid-19 was immensely challenging for us and our agency and in-house members. The challenge was configuring new delivery models and finding a way to prosper in new circumstances. Our training and events switched to fully online and we found we adapted reasonably quickly with working from home. But, I think one of the key challenges we’ve all faced as an industry, and continue to face, is striking the right balance between home and work life. How do you switch off from work while working from home? How do you manage Zoom fatigue? So emphasizing mental health and strong internal communications has been a key priority.”

We often hear the words ‘business as usual’. The way of doing business has changed – perhaps irrevocably – on a global scale in 2020. 

“Embracing the technology available to work remotely has been a game-changer. Organizations are seeing the productivity and the amount of work that can be achieved while working from home. So, I think business leaders are now open to more flexible, remote working moving forward. PR pros are also looking beyond their own regions and networking and sharing ideas with their international colleagues on platforms like our PRCA Virtual International Summit, which had delegates from over 30 countries.”

“Further, the crisis has seen an acceleration in the use of tech and digital. Comms agencies in the MENA region had already relied heavily on digital, but we’re seeing it even more now. We’ve also seen C-level executives step-up and adopt digital approaches to relay important information.”

“We’re still living in the Covid-19 era, but what we have learnt this year is how resilient our industry is in tackling business with positivity.”

The conversation then moved on to the different approaches to PR and communications in the current climate. 

“There’s been a renewed emphasis on internal communications and stakeholder communications during the pandemic. And the organizations who have responded the best have typically been those who have prioritized CSR. At the PRCA we offered free membership for six months to those who were greatly impacted by Covid-19. We also have offered free select training, shared discounted PR services and resources, and our Global Covid-19 Communications Taskforce has provided vital practical support to PR practitioners over the past few months. The Taskforce, chaired by Lansons’ chief executive Tony Langham, provided free and confidential advice to peers who needed advice during the crisis. We also held Taskforce Forums, which brought together communications leaders from around the world to discuss current issues facing the global industry.”

“We have seen a tremendous collaboration within the industry. For instance, Tish Tash launched the SME Collective as a way to rally PR agencies and freelancers to support SMEs who lacked the resources to deliver company objectives.”

Elaborating further on CSR, Clements went on to say that the PRCA MENA Taskforce Forums have provided a tremendous platform for collaboration across the world. “We’ve had leaders from India, Hong Kong, China, USA, UK, and here in Dubai, come together and share their knowledge in an easily accessible way. We’ve also had our weekly Global Industry Calls which brings a guest speaker to talk about their key area of expertise.”

The role of ‘purpose’ and how it interlinks with communications is now a recurring topic worldwide. “There’s a real demand from consumers on brands to have ‘purpose’ and take a stand on social issues such as equality and the environment. That demand from the consumer is not as fully realized in other regions in the world. The way brands approach their communications strategies can vary widely across the world. But, purpose is certainly something that is emerging everywhere.”

A recent PRCA MENA survey of agency and in-house leaders revealed an industry divided on a physical return to the office. Sharing the findings, Clements said that 15 percent said they would like to return to the office as soon as possible, 23 percent said they are reluctant to return, and 15 percent said they didn’t want to return to the office at all.

Does Clements think more businesses will continue working remotely rather than having office based teams? “Leaders will need to be aware that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t be the most effective way to decide when returning to office life is appropriate. Our survey suggested that 38 percent of leaders have mixed feelings about a return to the office. Until confidence is established on that issue, I think we’ll continue to see most teams working from home. Industry leaders will need to adopt a flexible approach to safeguard the physical and mental wellbeing of employees in the months ahead. The new normal will certainly be a combination of office life and working remotely.”

Building relationships and collaboration are key to the industry. When asked if both can be achieved as effectively by teams brainstorming and strategizing through technology instead of in person, Clements said “We are PR professionals and the one thing we are good at is communication. I do not think we will ever get to a stage where technology is more appealing to the industry than face-to-face interaction. It is a great tool, and of course, it has served us well throughout these uncertain times, however, I think I speak for most of us when I say I am very much looking forward to seeing and interacting with my colleagues, members and PR professionals.”

As we gradually emerge from a time of uncertainty, the PR and communications industry is now taking steps to future proof the industry.

“We’re very mindful that we’re still in the Covid-19 era. So we continue to support our members and the industry with small initiatives like the ‘Return to Work Support Package’ to significant pieces of work like the Global Covid-19 Communications Taskforce. In many ways, our role hasn’t changed in the pandemic – we will continue to champion best practice, raise ethical standards and provide organizations with the platform to share best practice and insights so the industry can continue to move forward.”