The “confluence of crises” in 2020 is a mandate for communicators to act as a “conduit to truth” according to agency and brand leaders speaking at the ProvokeGlobal summit this week.

Edelman’s global president and chief operating officer Matt Harrington kicked off the discussion with an overview of the dramatically altered operating environment that this year has presented, and the vital role that communicators are playing in navigating the pandemic, a deep economic recession, calls for racial justice, political polarisation and a worsening climate situation.

“These conditions are reshaping expectations for business and certainly reshaping the mindset of the consumer and impact our mandate as leaders, marketers and communicators,” said Harrington. “We all have to help fill a very large void at this moment – the lack of factual information. As communicators we have the ability to champion trust, foster dialogue and better collaborate in order to enable the kind of environment where we can thrive in the future.”

Harrington said that the nature of truth and trust was evolving even more quickly this year than it had in the previous 20 years of the Edelman Trust Report: “In 2020 we have to continually ask ourselves, who do we trust, what truth is it, what truth are you looking for and what truth do you want to hear? The complexities of where and how to find accurate information have been painfully on display during the pandemic.”

He said Edelman’s recent research had established how trust had been impacted by Covid: “There is a real infodemic: there’s a plethora of information, and little of it is credible.” A third of respondents said they had to hear, read or see something in the mainstream media at least three to five times to believe it, and while three quarters said they believed doctors and healthcare providers, only 21% were getting their info from doctors: “There is a fundamental mismatch between where we’re getting our information and our belief in that information.”

What does this mean for communicators? Harrington said it was a call to rally against misinformation: “False information spreads on twitter faster than the truth. No wonder more than three quarters of the public worry about fake news being used as a weapon. The importance of what we do has never been greater.”

As a result, Harrington said there was a “new and powerful mandate” for communicators: “We need to be truth tellers, conduits to factual information and guardians of stakeholder trust. There cannot be versions of the truth. We must integrate and be respectful of science and data, ensuring clients, employees and the media can have access to and operate with the facts.”

Harrington said this mandate came to life through five key actions: acting with compassion; helping to solve today’s macro challenges; taking action to solve racial and social injustice; understanding the implications of the news and information economy; and mitigating the outcomes of accelerated digital transformation.

Also on the panel was Kym White, chief communications officer of CVS Health, who said the pandemic had been a “surprisingly great” accelerator to the company’s strategy: “We’re so much more than a corner drug store, and we’re now transforming the way healthcare is delivered.”

White said Covid had “forced us very quickly into testing,” starting with a parking lot in Massachusetts and now offering testing in 4,000 locations across the country: “I never could have imagined that’s where we’re going, and it will take us squarely into vaccinations next year, where we’re gearing up to be ready on the frontline, being a trusted source in a face-to-face setting.”

In terms of how communications strategy had changed, White said the healthcare provider had gone “hyper-local” in its approach, with media relations at city and community level: “We’re into wave 15 of local publicity. The New York Times doesn’t care if you can get your test on Main Street, Illinois. We are face-to-face, trusted pharmacists. Amazon can’t deliver your vaccine and talk to you about side effects and timelines so we feel a real responsibility to arm customer-facing colleagues with information so they can do their jobs.”

Franz Paasche, corporate affairs SVP at PayPal, also took part in the discussion. He agreed that internal communications had been one of the biggest areas of focus this year: “We had to address how to get sufficient information to tens of thousands of employees around the world about health and safety, the move to working from home, how it would work and expectations.

“We immediately set up a portal called Stay Informed as a single source of truth, where all questions are answered, and there are all policies and announcements, including special provision for crisis leave, mental health benefits and flexible time arrangements.”

“We tried to equip all leaders with training and communications toolkits they needed to be able to translate the company’s care and concern. With difficult times around social justice and racial inequity, we created opportunities for safe place discussions and the kind of conversations that can be difficult to have across different political views, across the company, for a constructive, community-building outcome.”

In terms of how PayPal is building on and continuing dialogue – particularly around Black Lives Matter – with internal and external stakeholders, Paasche said: “We’ve been saying, it’s not a moment, it’s a movement. We’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time, through the lens of how Paypal acts in communities and supports non-profits and small businesses.”

In response to the movement, PayPal made immediate grants to small Black-owned businesses and invested in non-profit organisations in Black communities who had deeper expertise in supporting and sustaining black businesses, out of a pledged $530 million fund. “It was an all-in company effort, and we have more volunteers than we can handle,” said Paasche.

At CVS Health, White said the firm was also involved in the community for the long-term, and was frank about the time it had taken to reboot this commitment in the light of this year’s challenges: “We had good work underway, but we knew we had to refresh commitments and know they were the right thing for this time, that would go the distance.”

She said: “We chose to take a step back, hen many big corporations were stepping forward and writing the check. We took a more conservative approach to work out whether what the good things we were doing were the right things. It took 45 days, which can feel like forever in the world of communications when the news cycle is all focused on great companies and great initiatives.”

White admitted: “We were behind in some respects – it took us a while to step forward and commit $600 million over the next five years – and by the time we were ready to go public, the news cycle had moved on. It’s a delicate balancing act between wanting to be responsive, and thoughtful.”