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2021 look ahead

Reputational strategy key as firms rebuild in 2021

At the start of 2020 I penned a blog suggesting that synergies would be key for PR practitioners and that collaboration across different functions would be critical for organisations to stay relevant and emerge with their reputation intact.

At the time, of course, those suggestions were ignorant of the crazy times we would all end up experiencing since, but – as it turns out – that has absolutely proven to be the case. Working together, collaborating, being joined-up to achieve a common cause. Those have all really been the traits of comms in 2020 as we have sought to battle through one of the most challenging periods in a generation.

Comms and reputation management have been at the centre of organisations’ responses to those challenges, and good comms and PR advice has really had a chance to shine through.

So what might the key issues for PR and comms professionals in the corporate and financial services space be as we head into 2021? Here, for what they are worth, are my thoughts:

1) Content and Strategy: The impact on the events industry and the inability to undertake face to face meetings has had a massive impact on the BD functions of organisations. One of the repercussions of that has been BD teams needing to find other ways to reach their audiences, and as a result we’ve seen a massive rise in demand for content creation, in all guises. The challenge of that has been to try and make your content cut through and stand out amidst a huge spike in content.

But there’s another challenge too. This resource hungry desire to create content has risked distracting organisations from the bigger picture – the role of their PR teams to guide reputation strategy. It’s no coincidence that HSBC’s Navigator report cited ‘resilience, reputation and responsibility’ as key issues for organisations as we emerge from the pandemic. Those organisations that appreciate the value of PR as a strategic function and as the reputation guardians, and not just as a comms tactical function, that can add real value will be the winners - I wonder if we will finally see the rise of the Chief Reputation Officer role as a consequence.

2) Do and measure - don’t just say. For the IFC world, the pandemic has really accelerated progress on ESG investing. And just as reputation is a key quality as we emerge from the pandemic, responsibility is key too – and we’ve seen that emerge over recent months. The focus has now really turned towards evidencing impact, with investors and boards increasingly looking for data and robust metrics to help them really illustrate their ESG journey. We’re also seeing greater movement on the S and G strands, including in terms of diversity, inclusion, social impact and governance.

To that end PR and comms teams are going to have to work harder than ever to back up their claims on ‘purpose’. If they can’t, they will get found out. This has been a long journey, and as I’ve said before, simply rebadging traditional CSR – planting trees, painting fences, raising money - and calling it purpose won’t cut it. For those that are smart about their measurement and that are able to clearly back up what they are doing and saying, the future is bright.

3) Fully integrated internal comms. We were already seeing a convergence between internal and external comms as organisations were becoming switched on to how important their employees were as key advocates for their business. The consolidation we have been seeing across the IFC space was exacerbating this, but the pandemic and the movement to remote working has underlined it further.

In 2021, organisations are going to be having to manage increasingly dispersed teams and individuals as what we understand by ‘place of work’ and ‘office’ is turned on its head. Keeping teams engaged, connected will be more challenging, but also more important, than ever. PR teams should be fully involved in that.

4) Digital Ethics. We’ve seen a massive rise in digital adoption through 2020 as organisations have been forced to service customers remotely. The pace of digital adoption is set to increase even further in 2021, as organisations looks to enhance productivity and customer engagement and respond to the investor and board needs for ever greater reporting and data quality – and whilst this is positive, the proliferation of digital platforms into all corners of our lives remains a challenging one ethically. Who is this technology really benefiting? Are we fully aware of how data from tech use is being captures and used? We are already seeing just how politically powerful the tech giants are considered through some of the big tech deals this year.

There are reputational issues attached to how tech is being used, and PR teams should be skilled sufficiently and ready to advise in some quite complex areas when it comes to digital adoption. Digital ethics looks set to be a key battleground in 2021.

5) Back to basics: the whole remote working environment has been a challenge in 2020. For some, it’s been a fantastic boost to productivity and a liberating experience. But it’s not the same for everyone – and certainly I’ve found it to be a real struggle at times. It can offer great flexibility, but it can also be isolating and stressful. Being at home this year and the context for why we’ve spent so much time at home, has helped reframe what’s important – and that’s family. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Here's to 2021 everyone!


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