Accountability, engagement, and tackling misinformation are the names of the game now, says Pranav Rastogi, the managing director of Redhill.
For better or for worse, many big changes are happening globally: new Covid-19 variants, the Great Resignation, tech stock corrections, cryptocurrency volatility, geopolitical and ideological tensions – the war in eastern Europe being the most explosive example – and more.
This ever-shifting landscape is challenging for anyone to navigate, and public relations (PR) practitioners are no different. It is difficult for PR practitioners to effectively put out credible messaging for their clients and help build brands during such a chaotic and turbulent period.
The PR trends we are seeing now are offshoots of the pandemic-driven upheaval that we experienced in 2020 and 2021. The seismic shift that happened across the communications industry – both in medium and message – has yielded new ground that looks set to form the foundations of the foreseeable PR future.
Impact communications will make stronger impressions
The Internet has made an unprecedented wealth of information available online. The Covid-19 pandemic has also meant that more and more people are now spending their time online. Online communications continue to be more the norm than the exception – even as companies wrestle with hybrid models of working.
This accessibility, along with the proliferation of social media and the increased online presence of communities, has made it easier than ever for everyone to broadcast an opinion. Then add issues like filter bubbles, and the result is highly vocal users with high expectations, firm convictions, and a strong impetus for action.
This has an impact on the consumer-business relationship. Consumers expect businesses to do more than just provide products and services; they also want them to be community advocates for important societal and environmental issues. People are more likely to support businesses that willingly take up this mandate and execute it well. On the flip side, they are also quicker to withdraw that support for and/or chastise companies who fail to live up to these expectations.
I believe 2022 is the year that people will double down on holding companies accountable for their actions. There are many large-scale ongoing issues that the world is closely scrutinizing, such as the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the ongoing political tensions around the highly charged Russia/Ukraine conflict. PR practitioners must stay abreast of current developments and develop thoughtful, well-considered strategies to prevent costly PR faux pas for brands.
These strategies must also include personal messaging by brand founders in the public eye. At a time when brands are increasingly being held accountable for their founders’ actions, a founder’s misstep can have severe consequences for the brand.
Community-led storytelling for movements instead of moments
Brands once heavily leveraged the star power of celebrity spokespeople in their PR engagements. This is no longer the case. Consumers don’t want to see picture-perfect personalities promoting unaffordable, inaccessible products. Instead, they want to see people that look and sound like them using real services, which is why customer reviews and testimonials are so valuable to building brand appeal and trust. 97% of people look for user reviews before they make any purchases online.
A modern format for word-of-mouth recommendations, the perceived authenticity of user-generated content (UGC) – such as reviews, photos, and videos – gives it significant influence over consumer brand perception. PR is ultimately about building relationships and trust, and so it seems natural for UGC to become an indispensable part of a brand’s wider PR strategy. If done correctly, this joint storytelling effort between consumer and company can create an especially compelling narrative.
On a wider scale, community-driven storytelling and advocacy that drives real impact increasingly resonate more with consumers than flashy but ephemeral one-off stunts. True memorability is increasingly being defined by movements over moments. People want to know where brands fit into issues that they care about or that matter to them – such as race, diversity, and gender – and what they’re doing to advance these agendas.
Brands that take cues from their community can create valuable engagement and deepen the brand-consumer relationship further. However, they must be sincere and authentic in wanting to drive positive change and participate in community advocacy. Even ostensibly well-meaning gestures can backfire if they appear inauthentic, ineffective, or insubstantial.
Two bars in Sao Paulo announced that they would rename the popular Moscow mule drink to ‘Kyiv mule’ and offered a 10% discount “in solidarity with the Ukrainian nation”. In that same announcement, a local restaurant also declared it would stop serving stroganoff, a dish with Russian roots, to show their support. However, many netizens labeled the gestures as pointless; the restaurant ultimately u-turned on not serving stroganoff within 24 hours.
Brands should have something worthwhile to say or do before deciding to join an issue-based conversation. Without a holistic understanding and a conscientious approach, brands that jump on the bandwagon for publicity’s sake may end up diluting their brand ethos and getting called out by their audience – one deeply jaded by bandwagoning and quick to punish inauthenticity.
Engaging the employee
Brands often concentrate their PR efforts on attracting or engaging the public. However, the truth is that good PR begins at home. The last two years have shown us that there is nothing more business-critical than the employee. In the aftermath of the Great Resignation, workplace culture is coming under increased scrutiny and influencing public brand perception.
People understand, for example, that layoffs have been an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic for many companies. However, brands that take a flippant approach to the exercise will still face reputational repercussions.
In December 2021, Better.com’s chief executive officer, Vishal Garg, fired over 900 employees over a Zoom call. He then told the remaining staff that the dismissed employees’ unproductivity was tantamount to theft. After widespread backlash from employees, as well as several high-profile resignations, both he and Better.com’s board issued apologies and a third-party firm was hired for a leadership and culture assessment. He also took an immediate leave of absence.
Contrast that to how Airbnb’s mass retrenchment exercise, where 1,900 out of 7,500 employees were let go. Chief executive Brian Chesky personally sent a heartfelt company-wide note, acknowledging the impact and detailing the background, thought process, severance, and steps forward. Retrenched employees received 14 weeks of base pay and another week for every year at the company, as well as company shares, months of health insurance coverage, Apple laptops, and job support services.
With the increasing prevalence of remote work and dispersed workforces, it is more important than ever for companies to get internal communications right. Not only is this an opportunity for PR agencies to develop employee communications into a fully-fledged business offering, but this partnership could very well solidify PR’s claim to a seat in the C-suite. More than ever, this proves that communications are not just a supportive business function – it is an essential business strategy.
Tackling the pandemic of disinformation
PR isn’t about putting your best face forward at all costs. It is about creating meaningful connections through authentic, timely messaging and actions that are sustained long-term over multiple encounters. You need to prove – repeatedly – that you’ll walk the talk: stand up and act on the things you say you will, and champion the beliefs you profess to support. That is how credibility is built.
But how can authenticity shine in a world teeming with misinformation and disinformation? The massive amounts of information and the prevalence of a lack of media literacy among consumers often make fact indistinguishable from fiction. Social media companies have proven themselves unwilling and incapable of effective self-regulation, and government regulation is also not ideal due to the latent potential for suppression of dissent.
Given that our industry revolves around building connections through authenticity, it seems natural to say that we can and should help tackle this.
The first step is to be part of the solution, not the problem. As communication counsels, we must take a stand. We can reject requests by clients to spread untrue, misleading, or biased messages. It is our responsibility to educate them on the dangers of inauthenticity and intolerance, as well as hold them accountable if they persist.
We can also invest in leveraging data and analytics, as well as other tools that can help counter the spread of disinformation. We can run campaigns that teach the public at large how to identify and protect themselves against misinformation, and we can work with third parties to amplify that message further.
The common thread that ties these trends together is authenticity. At the end of the day, forget the buzzwords and the bandwagons. PR should never be done for the sake of PR – that is no longer acceptable.
People want brands to stand for something larger than themselves, and to do business in a way that contributes to a better society. As long as brands accept and embrace this responsibility with sincerity, positive PR efforts, initiatives, and outcomes will come naturally.
Pranav Rastogi is the managing director of Redhill