The pandemic has sparked several debates on what it means for the future of public relations. One of the more interesting facets worthy of study has been the relationship between the agency and the client, and how important are the communications functions regarded by organisations.

When the global lockdown began, businesses’ expectations from PR were characterised by a frantic search for the right approach to reach out to their stakeholders. A common mantra during crises has been to “communicate, communicate, communicate”, therefore amidst a crisis of this stature, communicators cannot be blamed to have gotten carried away. YouGov’s Global Covid Monitor, that conducts 30,000 interviews weekly across 29 markets, revealed that more than half the respondents felt that brands are over-communicating with them, something that PR agencies have acknowledged.

The monitor also found that a significant number of people surveyed were “tired of hearing” the phrases (and I wince as I write them) - “in this together” (42%), “unprecedented” (34%), “the new normal” (34%).

“It’s a reset, and an opportunity”

YouGov India also conducted a study with over 100 heads of corporate communications in July 2020, in collaboration with the PR Consultants Association of India (PRCAI) and the School of Communications & Reputation. Deepa Bhatia, GM of YouGov India pointed out that on most counts Indian sentiment resonated with global. However, the findings of this study made it clear that clients and agencies have an increasingly interdependent role in these times.

Our institute hosted an online panel discussion, in which Paresh Chaudhry, group president and corporate brand custodian at Adani Group, called this a tremendous opportunity. This extends beyond businesses having to rethink their modus operandi. It is becoming essential for communications functions to rationalise their messaging and communicate and measure what’s essential. According to the study, two thirds of the corporate communications professionals surveyed regard managing uncertainty, mental health and employee engagement as some of the most important issues that they are grappling with.

While it’s not the first time that agencies and clients are working towards such goals, they are approaching them from frames of mind they have not experienced before. The efforts are driven by not just the need for business prosperity, but for survival - of the business generally, the agency’s top-line and jobs of those involved at large. We are, indeed, in this together.  

Indian PR industry comes together

That collective realisation has driven agencies and the corporate communications profession to come together on various fronts – on more holistic dialogues on expectations, insuring individuals and organisations against uncertainties, and mental wellness. The PRCAI launched an initiative termed #SupportEachOther to drive these fronts. Speaking on it Atul Sharma, vice president of PRCAI and managing director of Ruder Finn India highlighted that this is the first time that the industry came together as a cohesive unit, providing support to other firms, industry peers, their colleagues. It allowed corporate communications teams and PR agencies to evolve their relationships to beyond merely transactional. An outcome of that, as Atul also points out is that the clients are not hesitant to let their agency work directly with their CEOs. This newly found trust has been a most welcome virtue.

Trust and empathy flow both ways

The study indicated that 91% of the Indian corporate communicators felt that communicating empathetically and authentically has become paramount. We are seeing that this empathy and trust that organisations are prioritising for their audiences, percolates back down the value chain too. 83% of corporate communicators also felt that their agencies have the skills and capabilities necessary in these times. They’re trusting that their agencies can deploy those capabilities remotely and under many other constraints.

PR agencies have reciprocated that trust and have been forthcoming about what they can and cannot do. They are also extending the trust to their employees that working effectively from home is possible. Madhavi Jha, director of communications at Boeing India considers this trust as non-negotiable. “If you don't take your communication agency as your business partner and as an extension to your team, you’re not doing justice to the account. They must be empowered as well. It’s a two-way street”.

Seat at the table

These circumstances bring the communications teams to a very opportune point. Jha pointed out that “crises always bring the management to the communications functions’ door”. It only follows that one of the biggest crises of our lifetimes is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of public relations in the biggest way. There has never been a better time than now for the world of corporate communications to earn their presence in the boardroom.

Reputation counsel can at best help organisations recover and thrive under uncertainties, and at least cushion the impact. The ball is in our court – to demonstrate the range of contributions that the communications functions make, and subsequently, build a case for the status that is due.

Hemant Gaule is Dean of Academics at India's School of COmmunications & REputation (SCORE).