Taryam Al Subaihi, MEPRA Chair & Head of Corporate Communications at EWEC, and Jennifer Love, MEPRA Youth Board President and Senior Account Director at Brazen MENA, offer a dual perspective on how 2020 transformed the 2021 PR industry.
What were the lessons from 2020 and the Covid crisis? How did they affect the industry?
Taryam Al Subaihi. The Covid-19 crisis has brought a significant shift to every aspect of our lives and proven challenging to all industries. For the communications industry in particular, our lessons have been plentiful. If I were to focus on our biggest lessons learned, it would be allowing communications strategies to be adaptable. We have also learned the valuable lessons of listening more, communicating with empathy, and focusing on being more of a service to the wider community.
To communicate efficiently during the pandemic, communicators learned very quickly that our communication strategies had to be constantly evolving. Listening and monitoring the news cycle were key and this led communications efforts to either utilize the opportunity to send a message or to put initiatives on hold. Strategies remained fluid throughout 2020, which was an unprecedented experience for all communicators. From learning to accept the adjustment of having to stay at home for months, with all its challenges, to more devasting issues related to unemployment, mental health, and losing a loved one just to name a few, everyone faced their own struggles. As the pandemic began, we immediately started to practice and instill empathy and consideration in our communication strategies.
We are all in this together and servicing the community helps us all. When planning communication strategies efficiently and effectively, thought was given to working together with other partners and organizations to provide communications that would benefit the whole. Even though many communication campaigns were put on hold, best practice was to help drive community initiatives to not only see change but also encourage others to support the same causes. The better we work together, the faster we will overcome the challenges placed on us by the pandemic.
Jennifer Love. The crisis taught us that we need to be resilient, agile, and courageous as PR practitioners. A report showed that 65% of consumers admitted that how brands responded to COVID-19 had a huge impact on their likelihood to buy products; so, we advised our clients to have empathy, showcase safety measures, and have a real purpose – important factors which are still relevant today.
The crisis also taught us to be more mindful of mental health. We work in a people-orientated industry, and with work from home and social distancing amongst other factors, it was a topic high on the industry agenda. In 2020, the MEPRA Youth Board conducted a survey and it found that 60% of young communicators saw mental health as one of their biggest challenges. Agility and resilience meant we had to reevaluate and reassess plans on a continual basis. This subsequently led us to draw on other skills that weren’t used as regularly – e.g., counselling on internal communication contingency plans such as HR guidelines, as well as direct customer engagement communication.
The pandemic also forced us further into a digital world with less human interaction; so, it came as no surprise that there was a huge spike in the need for digital skills and content creation.
What are the main challenges to address this year and what are the new opportunities?
T.A.S. Our challenges this year are to move forward, utilizing the many lessons learned as communicators during 2020. With the vaccine being distributed worldwide, we are hopefully on our way to getting the situation under control. Once things start to improve, it is easy to forget and almost block out the challenges faced in communicating; but it is vital that we track and show the impact of previous communications on business outcomes as well as community outreach, using data beyond audience reach, engagement, and advertising spend. The pandemic took us out of our comfort zone, forcing us to think innovatively, and lessons learnt throughout the COVID-19 situation must be remembered and applied in our industry moving forward to guarantee progress as well as knowledge transfer.
J.L. There is an air of confidence for the PR industry. This is mainly due to the multi-faceted capabilities which PR & communications professionals bring to the table; our skills and talent allow us to be more adaptable. Certain elements will very much be the same this year in the sense that we need to continue to be resilient, agile, and get through the year, as the world is still in a pandemic state.
That said, the end is in sight with the vaccine roll out. Naturally, some brands are cautious with budgets and certain sectors are still affected. It’s our job as PR practitioners to guide clients through the choppy waters of uncertainty with intelligent campaigns that really impact the bottom line.
Do you expect growth in the industry, and if so, why and how?
T.A.S. Pre-Covid, many communicators across the board struggled with being an afterthought of business functions and decisions. During the pandemic, we saw a significant change in this perception, which led to growth in our industry’s value. Communications initiatives and campaigns highlighted how important communications is to businesses. Organizations are now moving more towards fully integrated communications as an important element in business planning. It is now up to us to ‘raise the head,’ as we say in Arabic, and keep this new understanding of communications fresh in the minds of our businesses by creating strategies that provide greater value and by continuing to maintain the utmost accuracy and accountability in the information we communicate.
J.L. There will absolutely be growth, especially in certain areas such as tech, fintech, IT, and corporate communications. Some areas will remain slightly stagnant this year; many will continue to rebuild and recover. [But] the economic impact of 2020 is still very much with us. PR will grow because it is a cost-effective communications medium, and brands who invest in PR certainly receive a ROI. At Brazen MENA, we’ve seen clients move budget from other disciplines and increase budgets – particularly with social media and influencer marketing.
What imminent impact will tech have on PR that you can pinpoint?
T.A.S. Our ability to take the lessons learned from COVID-19 and grasp the opportunity for improvement through an upgrade in our communication channels and digital communications is vital. [We have seen] the power of digital communications, which was traditionally a smaller branch of our strategies, transform into a form of survival, not only in the communications sphere but in every business or commerce. Having witnessed this as an audience, communicators can now focus and increase investment in areas such as data collection and analysis, expanding digital channels and digital platforms not only for external com- munications but also for employee engagement, which we know has rightfully risen to the top of agendas for many organizations.
J.L. The modern-day PR relies on data, and technology has allowed us to harness and access it faster than before. It will continue to support the industry to better source and understand our audiences. 2020 saw a dramatic and fast change in consumer behavior; so, to have access on how to understand and navigate the sentiment was important. Tech also provides us with tools to communicate and reach our audiences in new ways, such as AR or VR, which is very exciting.
How will 2021 be different or not?
T.A.S. 2021 is set to be exciting year for the communications sector. As discussed, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the fueling of digital transformation in every industry, particularly in communications. 2020 has proven that we can function and succeed through digital operations. This year is set to be a time of innovation where we will combine the knowledge we gained in 2020 with our clear objectives and strategies, which have been in the works for some time, climbing towards a recovery that has already begun. We will also see a combination of previous separate functions in our industry. We will be moving away from the traditional concept of PR and focus on inte- grated communications that will include digital communications, marketing communications, and PR – all working in tandem to offer a more holistic communications approach that will drive growth through what is now a more values-based communications strategy.
From a MEPRA point of view, we will also be taking on the lessons learned from 2020 to provide a strategy focused on reinforcing the role of communications professionals to the wider community; re-imagining our engagement with new and existing members; and deepening our value with members. 2021 marks MEPRA’s 20th anniversary and it’s set to be a big year.
J.L. 2021 will be a year of two halves. The first few months have been incredibly busy and exciting; so, I am very optimistic for the year ahead. Even though there was a spike in numbers in Q1, we were able to deal with it in a better way. For the industry, we are equipped to navigate through tough times, taking 2020 learnings with us. By the time we reach H2 of 2021, we would have seen a huge impact of the vaccine roll out and will be a time where we see brands thrive.
There is hope for normality but it is critical that we get there, and the UAE has done an amazing job responding to the pandemic.
This article was published in Communicate’s Q1 edition. You can access the full magazine here.