In the June 2020 issue of O’Dwyer’s, my colleagues at Padilla and I laid out six predictions that we believed would come to bear once we emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our intent was to look beyond the challenge of the day and share thoughts on what professional communicators would be managing over the long term. In the interests of holding ourselves accountable, we thought we would see how we did roughly one year later.
First, let’s acknowledge where we missed:
Our predictions were written and submitted before George Floyd was killed by police, and we experienced nationwide protests, violence and destruction – laying plain the long-simmering frustration of racial injustice and social inequities present in our society. These events sparked a widespread evaluation and acceleration of DE&I commitments and actions that we hope will continue.
We had a presidential election that was anything but routine, with allegations of fraud, a sitting president unwilling to concede and an unprecedented attack on the nation’s Capitol. The wave of attempted state-level election reforms – most based on unfounded claims – has resulted in corporate leaders speaking out against voter suppression – affirmation that companies who had normally tried to remain under the radar now are being compelled to make their opinions known to employees, customers, investors and communities.
And this damn pandemic. I think most of us were hopeful that we would be returning to some sense of normalcy at the beginning of the year, but here we are well into 2021 and while there’s light at the end of the tunnel and many of us have gotten at least that first jab, the fatigue is reaching its limits.
To be fair, we weren’t the only ones who weren’t able to predict these events, so that being said, let’s look at where we hit the mark and what’s next for brands and communicators.
New Stakes for Engagement and Culture
The Prediction: Smart businesses would use the stress of the past year to anticipate and adjust to what kind of employer they wanted to be over the long term – emphasizing the need for employees to be agile and resilient and involving them in shaping the future.
The Evidence: A recent article in Becker’s Hospital Review highlighted how health systems across the country are using employee feedback to bounce back from the pandemic and using the strategic communications tools they created during COVID-19. LinkedIn is leveraging Microsoft Viva, an analytics tool, to survey employees and use that feedback to improve employee well-being after the pandemic more accurately and continuously. Given numerous studies point to a post-pandemic exodus of employees from their current jobs, an emphasis on employee experience and workplace culture will continue for the foreseeable future.
Reinventing the Customer Experience
The Prediction: Innovations introduced during COVID-19 to prevent lost revenue, including re-imagination of digital experiences, would not revert after the pandemic.
The Evidence: OKCupid frequently uses customer surveys to gauge values and behaviors. The online dating app leveraged that feedback to incorporate a new feature related to finding a date who is passionate about climate change. For every Advocate Profile Badge that someone adds to their dating profile, OKCupid will donate $1 to earthday.org. Audi has launched a new flagship store where “the latest innovations from the fields of sustainability, architecture and digitalization” intersect. Digital points of contact throughout the location make it more than your average auto showroom. For many companies, the pandemic ushered in changes to the customer experience that they’ve been wanting to implement for years.
Fighting Anxiety with Clarity and Transparency
The Prediction: Companies requiring financial communications will need to be more diligent about communicating at key inflection points to reduce uncertainty and put important events in perspective.
The Evidence: More than 60 leading public companies have signed on to support the World Economic Forum’s Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics, which outline a commitment to adopt a set of universal, comparable disclosures of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors and help assure progress toward U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A few short years ago it would have been unheard of for companies from different industries to agree to adhere to common metrics on social responsibility.
The Rise of Legal Disputes
The Prediction: Lawsuits challenging how businesses and government entities respond to re-opening would require legal and communications departments to stay in lockstep.
The Evidence: Next to public relations professionals, some of the busiest people during this pandemic have been in the legal profession. New Jersey parents have sued to re-open schools after COVID-19 closures. The State of California has sued the country’s largest chain of senior living communities for misleading consumers on quality ratings relating to COVID-19, and a there’s cottage industry of lawyers writing (and challenging) employee and customer liability waivers.
Community Relations Gains Relevance
The Prediction: Corporate community relations will shift toward addressing inequities in food, health, education and other basic needs. The pandemic and the death of George Floyd exposed gaps in these systems.
The Evidence: Examples exist across the board in every state and in every industry. Retail giants Walmart and Sam’s Club are teaming with Feeding America. A coalition of 35 Minnesota-based companies pooled resources to deliver $2.35 million in grants to address the state’s digital divide, and the University of Minnesota launched a $5 million anti-racism health equity research program with funding from Padilla client Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.
The challenge for communicators is to hold onto the strategic seat at the table they earned by being essential to their company’s success during the pandemic. Across a wide range of industries, we’re seeing communicators rise to the occasion and engage more strategically and more meaningfully with the C-Suite, which is a positive outcome from an incredibly challenging 18 months.