PRCA National Conference

PR leaders share covid comms lessons

7-9 minutes

As the PRCA’s exclusive Monitoring & Analysis partner, we joined the excitement for the UK PR industry’s first major in-person event since the start of the pandemic.

Following eighteen months of virtual meetings and events, the PR community was finally able to meet in person at the PRCA UK National Conference in London last week. An impressive line-up of communications experts – including renowned communications strategist Alastair Campbell, Director General of the PRCA, Francis Ingham, and CARMA’s Co-Managing Partner and CEO for Europe & The Americas, Richard Bagnall – took to the stage to discuss the lasting effects of the Coronavirus crisis on the PR industry.

Top of the agenda was what the next 12 months holds. Less about looking back, and more about how PR can look forward to the future. While the pandemic proved to be the long-awaited opportunity for the value of PR to become crystallised in both the boardroom and in wider society, it also put comms teams under significant pressure, as budgets were scrutinised like never before. It’s crucial now, said the experts, for the industry to build on its platform and support organisations through a hard fought economic recovery, while simultaneously working hard to convey the impact of its work.

In a jam-packed day of panels and presentations, comms leaders shared the most important areas to consider in supporting the PR and Comms industry post-pandemic.

1. The comms industry is resilient and adaptable – and must continue to be so

In his opening remarks, Francis Ingham praised the agility and resilience of the PR community during the last year and a half. PR leaders have been able to respond at pace to changing consumer behaviours and fluctuating trends, and have rapidly created new and innovative strategies. It’s crucial, says Francis, for comms teams to continue to adapt and respond to their audiences priorities, as we navigate our way through an uncertain post-Covid period.

For some, the ability of PR teams to adapt to their new environment has been make or break for the business. Rachel O’Reilly, Director of Communications at Kuoni, reported that her entire team was made redundant during the pandemic, but that generating positive media sentiment, which ensured customer loyalty, was instrumental in keeping the business going through its toughest period. Kuoni did it by recognising the importance of authenticity – considering their actions, not just their words; and setting up a careers support program to find work placements for their much-loved colleagues.

Another formidable example of resilient PR came from Peter Heneghan, Deputy Director of Digital, 10 Downing Street and Cabinet Office Communications. He talked about the focus on keeping the public informed about the progress of the Covid-19 virus, and the need to tackle a significant amount of misinformation through an audience-first and human-led approach which deployed authentic and relatable spokespeople. And to get there, you really must understand your audience.

2. Supporting mental health and wellbeing will be essential

PR is a fast-paced and often intense industry. Burnout has long been cited as an issue, and the pandemic has exacerbated feelings of stress for staff at all levels. Over the last year, the social element that draws many people to the industry disappeared, and we’ve seen employees face real isolation. So it’s perhaps no surprise that staff retention rates have been on the decline.

To boost talent in the market, and as companies rebuild from an unprecedented time, it will be more important than ever for employers to prioritise mental health and wellbeing for their teams, taking staff-centred decisions and communicating regularly and openly with employees.

Hayley Mulenda, International keynote speaker and author, discussed the importance of teamwork, trust and role models in stablishing a positive approach to wellbeing. Sharing a compelling account of her own mental health issues, Hayley asserted the need for authenticity and integrity – ‘real model’” as opposed to traditional ‘role models’, who can draw on lived experiences, and who staff can identify with.

And of course, PR practitioners in attendance were visibly thrilled to be joined by Alastair Campbell, renowned communications strategist and former Press Secretary to Tony Blair. Alastair himself, of course, has been open about his mental health journey and delivered a raw, honest, and energetic mental health keynote with genuine advice and support for PR practitioners in the room, joining virtually, and beyond.

3. The growing importance of purpose

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen authentic and purposeful communications win the day. We’ve already said that purpose and public relations measurement must work hand in hand, in a recent contribution to the blog. CARMA’s own report into vaccine trust showed that when Government spokespeople were seen to be truthful and genuine in their communications, the public was more likely to respond positively – in this case by taking up the Covid-19 vaccine.

Now more than ever, brands want to signify their meaning and purpose – to show what they stand for, and develop real connections with their customers – and PR is uniquely placed to achieve this. Ian Wright, Chief Executive at the Food and Drink Federation, emphasised the need to ‘walk the talk’: putting comms at the core of business-wide management strategies and putting words into action.

The Diversity, Race and Ethnicity Workshop, led by Barbara Phillips, Chair of PRCA’s Race Ethnicity and Equity Board (REEB) also emphasised ‘walking the talk’. During the interactive workshop on tackling race and diversity issues at work, Daniela Flores, Founding Partner, Purpose Union told us that success comes from the top – and that the CEO role is crucial in embodying and championing diversity and inclusion.

4. The robots are coming – but human talent will be make or break

Richard Bagnall, CEO of CARMA, joined a panel discussion on how AI is disrupting the business landscape, reshaping many job functions, including PR and comms.

However, the panel asserted that we won’t see a completely automated future. When it comes to measurement – perhaps the most crucial part of PR today – AI can do the heavy-lifting, but won’t replace human expertise. If AI tells us ‘what’ is happening, then humans are instrumental in telling us ‘why’ it’s happening, and crucially, what we can do about it. In our eyes, it’s only through the eyes of experts that we can gain socio-political understanding, on-the-ground context, and real insight.

Industry advisor and spokesperson Katie King argued that lots of reskilling and education will be needed, however. PR, she says, is not equipped for AI yet – and though there’s room for both human talent and tech solutions, we will be out of a job if we don’t use these tools effectively and leverage the competitive advantages they can bring.

So, plenty to consider for the industry over the next 12 months. It’s no secret that PR has been thrust into the limelight during the pandemic – and, in order to continue to exert our influence and make a real difference to our clients and organisations, it will be crucial that we champion authentic, measurable, diverse communications – and look after our staff, too.

And the reflections upon communications throughout the covid crisis continue at 1PM BST tomorrow. CARMA is hosting presenters and panelists from the UK Government Communication Service, Edelman, Porter Novelli, the PRCA and more besides where we’ll be exploring the key learnings from PR practitioners on the frontline. Register to join us live, or after the event on-demand, here.

If you’d like to catch up on the PRCA National Conference, please contact their events team directly.

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