PR disaster? Good comms people are proving their worth

How was 2020 for you? If you work in comms, it’s probably been a mixed bag at best.

COVID-19 wreaked huge damage on parts of the sector, with jobs and businesses lost. Many who stayed in work, in the public and private sector, were much busier and more stressed. They worked under a cloud of uncertainty, responding to constantly changing events.

There will be learning points from this. On balance though, comms professionals can be proud of how they supported the COVID-19 response. They helped organisations adapt, kept the public and stakeholders informed and saved lives. Need convincing? Check out these examples of how the NHS is responding across all these fronts on #FuturePRoof’s website.

It’s a great shame, then, to see comments about ‘PR disasters’ when mistakes happen. It featured in commentary on the government’s COVID response, around issues created and managed (badly) by people like Dominic Cummings. Its cousin – the ‘comms failing’ – was name-checked when local leaders raised legitimate concerns at being out of the loop on important policy announcements affecting their areas.

These are challenging reputational situations, it’s true. But we could say they are a process or political leadership disaster too. Without knowing if comms people were even in the room to discuss these issues, noone can claim that PR should own the ‘disaster’ tag.

I know, however, that these ‘disasters’ don’t reflect the communications I saw or supported in 2020.

Comms with impact

Working at pace, around the clock with integrity, comms professionals earned their corn last year.

Locally, they updated people and businesses about what’s happening and provided regular information on the support available. The Christmas response to the M20 congestion crisis as Brexit and COVID converged on Kent is a great example of this. Discussions around planning to support Operation Brock were happening more than two years ago. We should thank comms people from government and local authorities across Kent for their preparation and work over Christmas.

There have been many examples of businesses responding well too, adapting to customers’ changing needs, keeping them updated and supporting their teams.    

And we’ve seen campaigns to change things for the better, supported by comms people. Marcus Rashford’s calls on government to provide funding support for groups to feed children during school holidays succeeded where politicians tried without success. We’ve been proud to support the Big Community Sew project, which got people across the country making face masks for friends, family and neighbours as the government declared them essential items.

Proving our worth

Good communications is at the heart of this work. Like a decent football referee, people don’t notice it when it works well. When things go wrong, the ‘PR disaster’ tag sticks – whether comms is involved or not.

A first step for addressing this risk is for good comms people to be in the room at the right time. If they are, they can help avoid ‘disaster’. Trust matters, especially now. But it won’t just happen. It takes clarity, empathy, judgement and collaboration. Good comms people demonstrated these qualities in spades in 2020, at all hours and without fanfare.

It’s also true that we’ve a way to go before public relations’ importance as a strategic function is widely appreciated. As I write this, an industry of 80,000 people has just 400 chartered practitioners. This number is increasing, and it needs to. Taking professional development seriously will get us in the room.  

There will be more ‘PR disasters’ in 2021. I’ll bet that a fair number of them won’t have much to do with PR professionals at the outset.

Those who are in the room and trusted by colleagues will carry on providing brilliant advice and support this year. They will make a big difference to their oraganisations and the communities they serve. With an uncertain start to the year ahead and a national vaccine programme to deliver, God knows we’ll need them.

If you’re one of those, thanks for everything you do. I look forward to working with some of you in 2021.

If you’ve got a ‘comms problem’, I’d love to chat with you about how to address it.

Photo by Grooveland Designs on Unsplash