Interview: The first call in a crisis

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DR Martina Byrne, chief executive officer of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) in Ireland, spoke with Orla Clancy about how members have been adapting to Covid-19 and what is emerging in the industry.

Public affairs

The upsurge in crisis communication management and internal communications has been spoken about regularly in recent months. Another area of the industry that has seen more demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic is public affairs. In a recent PRII survey, 20 per cent of respondents reported they were doing more public affairs work.

The reason is that you had large sector groups – retailers, vintners, the travel industry, airlines, farmers – that needed to move rapidly to let the government and local authorities know about the impact of the various shutdowns, for example, on markets for livestock and food continuity and food security and export issues. No sector was unaffected, really. Then you had special interest groups, let’s say trade unions who had to get across the concerns of their membership to the powers that be. Then, you also had bodies that would perhaps never have had to consider lobbying in the past, who now had to because of Covid-19 impacts. Everybody from those who look after the elderly to every charity in the country had to make their case and do so rapidly. Bodies that never needed to before, needed to rapidly get their concerns and viewpoints in front of those who were rapidly making and changing policies. So public affairs advisors have been extraordinarily busy.”

Media relations

Since mid-March 2020, there has been a shift, rather than a decline, in media relations and the PRII survey found a forty three percent increase in the area. Asked about the tone and relatability of messages, Dr Byrne said “Having lived through those early days and weeks, it was instinctive to people to understand that there wasn’t an appetite or capacity for non-Covid related messages. In fact, they could backfire. Even if someone did have a story to tell, there wasn’t the bandwidth within the media to deal with it. What you saw was the more socially engaged and civic minded organizations, in both the public and private sector, rallying to use their channels to support one another. Everyone rallied to the call. We did ourselves here in the Institute, we put out a call for PR volunteers and matched them to charities who desperately needed help with social and online platforms, fundraising, media relations etc.”.

Pandemic reaction

55 per cent of the participants in the PRII survey said they were doing more crisis and issues management due to Covid-19. While the industry is renowned for planning ahead before an issue or crisis arises, the response to the pandemic was largely reactive.

“You might have seen it (a pandemic) mentioned in risk analyses that were being carried out, but it would have been way down on the list after cyber attack, after political instability, after industrial relations, after product contamination, all the way down the list.”

From now on you’re going to see many  more business continuity plans that will include catering for half a team being moved home immediately so that if anything happens in an office or in a city there’s half a staff that can operate or half a management team that can operate online safely from home.”

Dr Byrne believes that we are now emerging from that reactive phase of Covid-19. “We are now at the stage where we can actually plan, be proactive, work around the reality of Covid-19.”

Crisis management

The first call a CEO makes in a crisis situation is to the communications expert. “They were the first to be called in March – the calls to the lawyers and accountants could wait. You need to let your employees know what is happening in the next hour; what’s happening in the next 24 hours; can they access work sites; what’s going to happen to their salaries; are they going to lose their jobs? You may have to reassure your suppliers, your consumer brands, and other stakeholders. The communications around all of this had to be done and it had to be done phenomenally quickly without a run-in time. That continued for some weeks. As things change and as we go through the phases of unlocking, it’s bringing with it more challenges and situations that require ongoing communications.”

The conversation then moved to managing a crisis – any crisis – while teams operate remotely. “The idea that public relations and communications teams and all sorts of other professional services people are going to move en masse to work from home, 100 per cent of their time, I don’t think that’s realistic long term. If you have a difficult or fractious negotiation to carry out with a client or a stakeholder or with an employee or an employer, we know as human beings that we require in-depth communication in those situations. We crave to have the 3D effects, the interpersonal and the non-verbal cues, so I think people and teams will want and will need to have that option there to meet, albeit in smaller groups perhaps and less often.”

The future

When asked if, in six months’ time, the way the industry operates will have changed for good or have reverted back to the way it was 12 months ago, Dr Byrne opined that “In many ways public relations and communications is going to be strengthened and seen as even more critical to business objectives, organizational objectives. I think it’s going to maintain its hard won place at the senior management and planning tables. I see a lot of positives, particularly around public affairs being seen as the representative voice of the smaller stakeholders and smaller civic groups as well as the larger corporates.”

Overall, in terms of how Ireland has handled Covid-19, Dr Byrne says “It’s also now recognized that clear and consistent communication is critical and that it literally saves lives.”

Dr Byrne continued by referring to the broad scope of communications. “In our profession we have to be responsible for all stakeholders and end users and service users. Hence, the business of internal comms, the business of public affairs, the business of strategic comms, the business of corporate comms, the business of those advising market analysts. And that is to our strength, the fact that we have so many different responsibilities.”

From the client perspective and from the management perspective, there has certainly been an upswing in terms of respect for the work that communications does. We’ve always been pushing to be at the boardroom table and to be at the senior management discussions and the planning discussions. I think we’ve certainly moved closer to that ideal, if not reached it.”

In terms of internal communications and crisis and issue management, I don’t think anyone will ever again question a communications expert who says we need to do crisis management training, we need to do crisis communication training, we need to do real-life role playing. The fact that Covid has done what it’s done means that no one’s ever going to be able to say again, ‘that couldn’t possibly happen’.”