The new normal is a rude awakening for the communications industry.
It is a call to throw those tried, tested and carefully structured communications playbooks of the past out of the window. It is a nudge to shake off formulaic approaches and the so-called golden rules, which had worked well in our pre-Covid life. Many of these proven approaches have failed the stress-test of the pandemic. And now as the economy gradually reopens and we cautiously move into the ‘new normal’, it is time to reboot the industry.
We will be forever reinventing, changing the rules and adopting new models, which not surprisingly, take us back to the fundamentals of communications: Engaging audiences with inspiring messages aimed at behavioural change and moving people.
I see seven trends shaping the communications sector in the post-COVID-19 era, so here goes:
1 Large is resilient
The pandemic has impacted several small-sized firms that served ‘niche’ business sectors. When these industries, such as travel, tourism, hospitality, real estate and retail, were hit, they dragged down with them these boutique firms too. I started small and I feel their pain.
Now, evaluating the landscape, I see the value of scale in our industry: Agencies that are part of global networks, which are right-sized, demonstrated exceptional resilience. They are diversified yet lean and not tied to the fortunes of any one business sector.
The lesson from the crisis is that the communications industry will see more consolidation, mergers and even a few acquisitions. Expect more disruption.
2 Government communications will be the mainstay:
In February, just weeks before the coronavirus gained pandemic proportions, I was moderating the inaugural session of the PRovoke MENA Summit 2020. One of my observations was that government communications and the region’s National Champion companies will help leapfrog the value of Public Relations in the Middle East and North Africa to over US$1 billion by 2030.
Has my point of view changed? No, it has only been reinforced by the pandemic, which sees government communications gaining even more traction. The larger National Champion companies with a growing global footprint and ambition also scaled up their narratives because it was important, perhaps more than ever before, to demonstrate that they are steely warriors with unshakeable long-term objectives. On the flip side, several private sector companies were the first to cut retainers or go on pause mode; a mistaken move, no doubt prompted by short-term outlooks.
3 Purpose and profit are compatible partners
Corporate purpose will assume even more significance, and not at odds with profits. From product-push, corporate communications will increasingly be about problem-solving, and about how they can contribute to the community or champion a cause. That will mean revisiting corporate social responsibility policy, which many organisations have been doing with no real conviction.
Just as organisations define new strategies and business models and must find innovative ways to deliver value beyond profits, they will also need communications partners that can help restore stakeholder trust. In short, it is time to make your purpose real.
We can see this globally with Nike and Colin Kaepernick, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Or with Patagonia and its environmental position. On the other end of the spectrum, you see Facebook facing a growing boycott by its advertisers, including small businesses and large corporates, for its ‘irresponsible’ handling of misinformation and hate speech. I see a new focus on Corporate Purpose in the region.
4 Rise of local talent and genuine employee engagement
I have always advocated the decisive role that local talent plays in shaping our regional sector. More so now. Organisations will increasingly seek talent who understand local nuances. The new normal will see Arabic talent bloom and thrive, so will expat talent with deep knowledge of the region. For organisations and agencies, the new normal will be one when employee engagement and internal communications will assume greater significance. People will continue to be the major differentiator and keeping them engaged, empowered and motivated is key.
5 The era of owned and shared media
The pandemic hit the media sector too as furloughs, salary reductions and job losses take a toll. As media houses experiment with new business models, including paywalls and only-digital editions, the age-old reliance on the PESO (Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned) model will – and must – change. Organisations will move towards more owned and shared media models with high-impact earned at its core. That means a surge in vlogs, blogs, podcasts and digital engagement, all creating data-driven communications relevant to an always-on target audience.
6 Home is where the office is
Work-from-home is here to stay, if not wholly, then in flexible and hybrid ways. As a die-hard proponent of office working, the efficiency and productivity that my team showed during the lockdown has been an eye-opener. The more you trust your team to do their job, the more your teams will surprise you. And this shift in office environment will be pervasive, influencing both agencies and clients. It will contribute to better efficiencies with lesser need for prime commercial space.
7 The demise of the road warrior
I see the demise of the road warriors – people flying in and out for meetings. Less travel will be the new norm without impacting work efficiency as technology brings in a level playing field that is unhindered by geography.
I believe that the global pandemic has brought the fundamentals back to the business of communications: And that is to be hyper-dynamic, evidence-based and value-driven. Going forward, our playbooks will be reinvented in real time – and that will make us agile, flexible and relevant.
I end with a quote by Andy Grove, the famous creator of Intel: “Only the paranoid will survive.”