By Claire Simpson, Communications Consultant at Hard Numbers and Committee Member at CIPR Greater London Group.

Communication has never been more important than during the pandemic, from establishing public trust to supporting business continuity. The question of what to do with this elevated stature formed the central premise of this year’s Annual Lecture from the CIPR Greater London Group.

Titled Comms lessons from the pandemic and what comes next, the event included a roster of senior communications leaders, including a keynote speech from Torod Neptune, Worldwide Group Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at Lenovo.

There were also talks from Laurence Stellings, Vice President EMEA at RepTrak, Tessa Murray, Partners at Tortoise media, Simon Matthews, Strategy Director at Cohere Partners and Chris Webb, Founder and Director at EPiCC and former Strategic Communications Lead for Coronavirus at London Resilience. Mandy Pearse, CIPR President-Elect also delivered the evening’s closing address.

Here are five key themes for communications professionals and the wider business community I took from the discussion:

1 The pandemic has taken reputation management to the next level:

COVID-19 has placed a spotlight on the role of PR and communications to protect brands. As Lenovo’s Neptune pointed out, the pandemic is the most disruptive market event for years and is reshaping organisational understanding of how to leverage communications to deliver business outcomes, rather than simply ‘beat the drum’ with media.

RepTrak's Stellings agreed, noting the reputation stakes have never been higher for businesses. While brands with a good reputation have a ‘magnetic presence’ among their stakeholders, a poor reputation can see nine out of ten fail to buy or recommend a brand’s products and services.

Put simply, there is no shortcut to reputation. Brands must first do the right thing. And with the actions of business under fierce public scrutiny in 2020, communication has come to the fore as a beacon of authenticity to help them do that – in a way that marketing cannot.

2 Looking after employees is no longer a ‘nice to have’:

Reflecting on Lenovo’s global supply chain and workforce, Neptune highlighted that COVID-19 has also accelerated the shift from external to internal stakeholders for brands.

While the pandemic has elevated the primacy of this audience at board level, he explained it’s our responsibility as communicators to advocate for a consistent multi-stakeholder approach. Over the next 12 to 18 months, practitioners must “hold their organisations feet to the fire” to maintain an employee-as-stakeholder view, which drives sustainable ongoing value for organisations both internally and externally.

Stellings offered a similar position that, since March, businesses are increasingly being judged by the way they treat their staff – although this hasn’t always been the case. Before the pandemic, RepTrak data showed that the value of ‘workplace’ had little impact on public perception of a brand or business.

In 2020, this is beginning to change, with a 4% decrease in the importance of a brand’s products and services as a driver of its reputation, compared with a 2.5% increase in the value of workplace in shaping public opinion about the company.

Stellings caveated that it was too soon to say if this shift will have a permanent impact on consumer behaviour. But, at the very least, public-facing organisations have an increased responsibility to talk about looking after their employees.

3 Tackling social injustice and embracing values-led comms as ‘no risk, no reward’:

Turning the attention to the broader social issues that have emerged in 2020, Cohere Partners’ Simon Matthews posited whether COVID-19 has tilted public attitudes around corporate responsibility.

He explained that before the pandemic, it felt at times that we had reached ‘peak purpose’. There was a strong trend in the business community toward replacing vision and mission for purpose, restating organisational priorities beyond creating shareholder value.

The last six months have given rise to a completely different context around purpose for brands and many organisations have stepped up to make meaningful contributions, or smaller acts of kindness, at a time of great public need.

But Matthews added that the pandemic has equally exposed the gap between the walk and talk for brands – as illustrated in the Responsibility 100 Index by Tortoise. Over the summer, for example, many businesses found themselves challenged on issues of inequality and social justice in light of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Matthews explained that such tensions around purpose stem from two things, when social mission statements don’t bear scrutiny – or because a brand is in the early stages of effecting institutional change – and when purpose is treated as a discrete marketing tool rather than a fundamental shift in the way an organisation does business.

Citing one of the most famous showcases of brand purpose during the pandemic, Lenovo’s Neptune agreed that communications has a critical role to play in helping CEOs and organisations at large find their “Ben and Jerry’s lane”. That is to calibrate their role in society and help brands to lean transparently and credibly into societal issues, based on the unique values of their individual organisations.

4 Audiences still need media, but we must first rebuild trust:

The evening’s discussion tackled not only the rising issue of trust in brands but in media institutions too. Tessa Murray, part of the team behind slow-news subscription platform Tortoise, explained that journalism was losing the battle for public trust even before the coronavirus crisis.

According to the Reuters Institute of Journalism, the number of people actively avoiding the news was up from 23% in 2017 to 35% in 2019. The reasons given for news avoidance included 58% of people saying it negatively affected their mood, 40% of people saying it made them feel powerless and 34% of people saying they couldn’t rely on it to be true.

Murray highlighted this sense of isolation and abandonment people feel with the press has been exacerbated by the culling of local and regional newsrooms during the pandemic, with many people feeling they, “no longer have a voice”. This loss of trust holds true for the public sector as well, with reported trust in government down from 68% to 44% between April and June this year.

Now more than ever, society needs the media to hold public figures to account. But, while a majority of people still find news helpful, many don’t trust it or feel locked out.

Murray concluded that, as PR professionals, we need to think carefully about how to help the press rebuild this trust and bridge the inequality gaps within the media landscape.

5 The importance of agile in a crisis:

Turning to a crisis viewpoint in the final talk of the evening, former Head of News at the Metropolitan Police, Chris Webb, stressed the importance of an agile approach when communicating during the pandemic.

Brought in to lead the capital’s COVID-19 response as Strategic Communications Lead for Coronavirus at London Resilience back in March, Webb hired and began training a team of 75 public sector communicators from a cross-sector of public bodies within 24 hours.

Talking about the lessons learned from the initial crisis response, he pointed out that communications strategy should not be the same at the end of a crisis as at the start. Adopting an approach of continuous improvement, Webb explained how he and his team updated London’s coronavirus strategy every week and put contingency measures in place in the event he was taken ill with the virus.

He also discussed the importance of implementing an overarching strategy, underpinned by local communications plans tailored to specific audiences. This involved holding daily meetings for multi-agency communications leads at the likes of London Fire Brigade and keeping a centralised, live tracker of the latest press statements to ensure a consistent yet targeted approach.

Webb encapsulated best practice for crisis communicators as “Prepare - Respond - Recover - Review”. He explained this mantra had become even more critical during COVID-19 due to the unique nature of the pandemic as an ongoing crisis for organisations, governments and their publics.

Summing up the key themes of the evening’s discussion, CIPR President-Elect Mandy Pearse touched on the increased responsibility we now have as communicators in holding our organisations to account, the importance of actions over words for brands and the need to balance thorough planning and flexibility when communicating during challenging situations.

If you missed the event and would like to listen in full, CIPR members can access the recording via the CIPR CPD database and log 5 CPD points.

The next CIPR Greater London Group event How to use AGILE as a strategic management tool in communications is taking place on the 17 November and you can book tickets here.