It is tempting to conclude that the global PR industry has handily cleared the challenges posed by the events of the past two years. That, at least, would be a legitimate reading of our 2022 Global PR Agency Rankings, which revealed that the world's top 250 PR firms grew by 11% in 2021.

Not only did the industry register double-digit growth after declining by 4% during the Covid-wracked depths of 2020 but, in doing so, it also expanded by 7% on the pre-pandemic year of 2019. As Paul Holmes put it, "this is not just business as usual." And Paul is not exactly one for giddy prognostications.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that the pandemic helped public relations demonstrate its value across the board as an increasingly mission-critical discipline. The onset of Covid-19 helped restore the primacy of corporate communications, as CEOs attempted to navigate a turbulent landscape that required them to inspire employees, reassure customers, placate investors, and prove that 'stakeholder capitalism’ was more than just well-meaning rhetoric.

Meanwhile, geopolitical concerns, social issues (most notably seen in the Black Lives Matter movement) and ESG requirements only amplified the expectation that brands could no longer avoid taking a stand. The need for fundamental digital transformation also intensified, as corporate cultures attempted to reorient themselves to the demands of a new era. 

Our ongoing industry research, conducted by Stickybeak in conjunction with other industry partners, has helped to draw out many of these lessons, including consistently high levels of demand in the healthcare, technology and B2B sectors, along with a broad-based consumer marketing recovery over the past 12 months. 

It all adds up to a seductive portrait of the PR industry's fortunes, helping to explain the soaring optimism recorded in our last wave of polling. A 'pandemic dividend', perhaps, in which the Covid-19 crisis reinforces and elevates the critical value of empathetic public relations across multiple stakeholder groups, playing to the industry's undoubted strengths.

Whether this will ultimately translate into a fundamental reappraisal of the public relations discipline, rather than a more short-term rebound, remains to be seen — and will also require measurement and evaluation challenges to be tangibly addressed. The hope, no doubt, is that the recent elevation is rather more inexorable than previous gains, enabling the in-house communications function to settle at a higher perch, rather than receding once the sense of crisis has subsided.

That is just one of the lessons to emerge from our annual Rankings research. The others are perhaps more sobering. The rush to herald a new era in public relations should not obscure the painful changes that societies and individuals have had to grapple with for much of the past two years. It is a process that has hastened a reckoning on many fronts, not least in terms of the future of work, and the demands of a 24/7 industry that has sometimes appeared at odds with employee wellbeing.

To its credit, the PR industry has responded with admirable alacrity to these demands, ushering in a considerably more human take on working culture and connection. It seems fair to conclude that these efforts, many of which are detailed in our Three Things feature, have helped to underpin the strong performances we have seen from PR firms in 2021, even as they found themselves contesting a fierce war for talent. 

Accordingly, if there are grounds for optimism, they must surely start with the human, collaborative resilience that the PR industry has displayed when confronted with some daunting challenges. Because it seems unlikely that we are out of the woods just yet. Covid still remains at large, a relentless war is being fought in Ukraine, and inflationary pressures suggest that economic conditions may yet worsen as we head towards 2023. 

All of which underlines why the lessons learned from the Covid era cannot be forgotten as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, particularly if PR firms and in-house communications departments hope to consolidate the gains they have made during a period of profound disruption. You could describe the industry's double-digit 2021 surge as opportunistic. Even so, it is a long-term opportunity that it cannot afford to squander.