The coronavirus outbreak will have a wide-ranging long-term effect on communications, according to a new global survey by PRovoke, ICCO and research platform Stickybeak.

As well as quantitative research which found that 77% of PR firms expect loss of earnings as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, the study asked in-house and agency leaders for their views and comments on two key areas: what the critical factors are for their corporate communications/their clients’ communications, and what they think the long-term impact will be on the PR industry.

The responses suggest that, although some think it’s too early to say, the general mood it that the long-term effect of Covid-19 on communications as an industry and discipline will be significant, with comments including: “the crisis will completely change the way we work,” “it’ll never be the same,” “the impact is going to be huge and we have to reinvent ourselves,” “I think the impact will be felt for a very long time to come,” and “it will kill PR.”

Not surprisingly, one of the areas of concern was on the future shape of the agency world, especially for those who mainly look after consumer brands: “I think the smaller shops and especially consumer boutiques, are going to have it the toughest. Many will struggle to survive,” said one respondent.

Other similarly bleak comments included: “traditional consumer marketing agencies will go under,” “It’s very worrying how many campaigns and retainers are negatively impacted already. Huge negative consequences expected, especially on the consumer side,” “Sadly, many agencies that specialize in tourism, consumer and events PR may not survive,” “PR will be facing some really tough times in terms of payment and it will take time to recover the losses,” and “there will be layoffs and teams downsizing.”

However, out of 266 responses to the question on the long-term effect on the industry, the most negative comments only made up a small proportion, with the overall sentiment being more pragmatic and even optimistic. While accepting that business will be tough for most (with guesstimates of this lasting for between six and 18 months) most respondents said the comms industry as a whole will not only survive, but some of the huge changes that businesses of all stripes are being forced to make may actually have a positive impact.

The biggest area of commentary was around the rapid shift that the global communications industry – agency and in-house – has had to make to working from home, which many see as a positive demonstration that it can be far more flexible after the crisis. One respondent said that the industry would evolve to working more “efficiently, creatively and digitally” with “less hopping on planes and fewer high-stakes events.”

Another added: “The future of work will be at play from now onwards and I see a lot of flexibility for employees as we adapt ourselves to a totally new work culture. Working from home will become more acceptable, contract engagement could gain precedence over payroll, client servicing will assume new dimensions and technology will play a big part in delivery.”

Allied to this, multiple respondents noted that the virtual agency model was likely to come out particularly strongly: “More people will realise that the shift to virtual agency is less difficult than they think,” said one, with another stating: “We are seeing that it is possible to not just function but work effectively with less travel, virtual meetings and remote work. Agencies that take the right lessons once the crisis has passed will be more efficient and productive than those who revert to the pre-coronavirus way of doing things.”

Related to the industry’s greater reliance on digital technology – not only to carry on functioning, but as a communications channel, including the need to pivot to online events – many of those who commented said they expected to see this continue. Comments included: “Video storytelling and social media channels will be strengthened,” “Reduced number of conferences and trade shows and a greater shift towards virtual, digital and social engagement,” and “As offline events are cancelled, marketers re redirect to online efforts will have an opportunity to write a new narrative."

Most encouragingly, a large proportion of respondents said they believed the crisis would lead to a greater recognition of the value and effectiveness of communications, with internal/employee communications, senior leadership counsel, crisis and issues preparedness and management, strategic communications and digital all seen as areas that would come out of the coronavirus era stronger, including those who “protect reputation and activate purpose.”

Even consumer brand communications could come out fighting, especially in regard to greater trust in brands that have been good to customers and employees during the crisis (although rebuilding trust in those who have been publicly shamed for behaving badly will be an interesting challenge) and a new focus on society, sustainability and being a good corporate citizen.

“It will be a difficult year,” said one respondent, “but we will bounce back, and be stronger as a result: more agile, efficient and resilient.” Another added: “We can expect a surge as the crisis diminishes, as PR can ramp up much faster than other marketing disciplines.”

In terms of critical communications factors during the crisis, in-house professionals said the number one concern was getting messaging right, in all its facets, from speed in a rapidly-changing environment, to clarity and consistency, to being credible and authentic, to the tone of communications.

A related common theme was showing a more emotional side than might usually feature in corporate communications, with the importance of empathy, humanity and compassion all being mentioned multiple times. A focus on internal/employee communications as well as talking to external audiences was a concern for many, including looking after staff mental health and wellbeing (including within the wider comms team: “We cannot run on adrenaline and coffee”) and creating a sense of community.

The role of effective communications in ensuring the future of the business was made again here by a number of in-house respondents, from helping to move events or sales online, to preparing for “near-future post-pandemic scenarios.”

Agency leaders were also asked about what they were seeing as the critical factors for their clients’ communications. There was some overlap with the in-house responses, particularly in terms of showing empathy and compassion – “we need to be human first, and a business second” – as well as transparency, clarity and consistency. Agencies were also concerned about three additional areas: relevance, sensitivity and misinformation.

Relevance was mentioned by multiple respondents, both in terms of clients being included in relevant industry sector stories and the challenge of staying relevant and maintaining momentum during lockdown when their products or services may have become irrelevant.

Demonstrating that clients were being good corporate citizens also needed to be balanced with a sensitive and appropriate approach – it seems that many agencies are having to advise clients on avoiding “ambulance chasing” and taking advantage of the crisis to push sales messages, or coming across as exploiting or gaining benefit from the situation.

And the need to correct misinformation immediately – in a time when we are all seeing a flood of misinformation, rumour and conflicting data across social and even traditional media channels – was also a key concern for agencies thinking about their clients’ communications.