Op-ed: Reshaping the PR landscape in the wake of COVID-19

Op-ed: Reshaping the PR landscape in the wake of COVID-19

By the Hong Kong Public Relations Professionals’ Association (PRPA)

COVID -19 has ushered in a VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – that continues to change at an unprecedented pace. Similar to nearly every business sector, the PR industry is evolving in response to the pandemic.

Today, companies are embracing a new normal in the wake of COVID-19 which includes a greater reliance on social media and online media, increased misinformation and fake news, breaking trust, calling for social sustainability and changes in the workplace.

“To maintain business continuity, corporates need to meet triple bottom line, namely profit, people and planet in the pandemic era,” explained Clara Shek, Managing Director of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and a PRPA advisor speaking at a recent webinar by the association to mark its silver jubilee celebration. “Battling the virus is not about commercial advantage or profit, it is about doing the right thing for society and showing a company’s care for its employees.”

The PR landscape and the roles of PR have also evolved in the COVID-19 era.

1. Issue Sensitivity and Social Listening
Remaining sensitive to issues will be vital in the post-pandemic era of social divides and degraded trust. PR professionals are uniquely positioned to offer counselling to management on communication strategies, including but not limited to how, what and when to communicate.

The flourishing social media landscape calls for greater need to keep track of the corporates and brands on social media channels. Unlike social monitoring of mentions and conversations, it is vital to perform social listening with the analysis and actionable responses including long-term strategy changes.

An example in this regard is the online rumours about the CU Mask, which quickly turned the focus from the HKSAR Government’s free mask provision – intended to protect the public – to speculation about the transparency of the product’s sourcing and efficacy. Proper and early disclosure of the details should have been provided.

2. Brand and Corporate Reputation Building
In the wake of the pandemic, the general public and individual consumers are looking for companies and brands with social values embracing humanity and showing empathy. Going beyond the traditional CSR mission of helping the underprivileged, consumers now expect socially substantial campaigns.

“Many corporates need to change both their business models and brand image post-COVID-19 (and even during COVID-19). PR professionals should guide corporates through these necessary transformations,” said Richard Tsang, Chairman of Strategic Public Relations Group Ltd and a PRPA advisor.

Fashion labels and groups such as LVMH and Moncler have not only donated money but also adapted their fashion production lines to produce anti-pandemic products such as face masks. Some of them have also announced their support for current social issues like the Black Lives Matter campaign.

On local front, McDonald HK’s brand video #DearHK and A.S. Watson Group’s Smile Inside-out campaign are rolled out to foster positivity among local people impacted emotionally by the social distancing measures and behind the mask.

3. Building Trust
The crisis has led many people looking to brands, businesses and the government to speak the truth, be transparent and accountable in order to retain their trust. PR team should act as the brand guardian.

Consumers expect the two leading Hong Kong supermarket chains to be more transparent over their plans to use part of the government wage subsidies to help the needy. HSBC’s first-ever cancellation of its fourth quarter dividend in 2019 was a PR disaster. It has hurt the bank’s credibility, as many local retail investors have relied on the income from HSBC’s dividends over the years. 

4. Employee Engagement and Internal Communication
COVID-19 has changed our workplaces and highlighted the pressing need for employee engagement with the support of PR. Corporates should support employees as they adjust to new working conditions, following what has been a stressful period for many in the industry. Remote working also requires greater efforts to stimulate cooperation between colleagues.

The pandemic has elevated the importance of internal communications, and communications plan is to be developed to create clarity, increase resilience, instill positive change and boost social wellness among the employees.

Kwan Chuk-fai, Director of Corporate Communications & Investor Relations, Hang Lung Properties and a PRPA advisor cited the example of whether an organisation should apply for the government’s Employment Support Scheme. If they don’t apply, it might lead to speculation that the organisation is contemplating layoffs. This is just one example of how internal communication is a complex and demanding skill that must also align with an organisation’s external messages.

PRPA is an organisation for PR practitioners in Hong Kong. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, PRPA has launched a new Pledge for Public Relations Professionalism this year, creating an important new benchmark for industry practitioners’ professionalism and commitment to excellence. 

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