Thought leadership is probably the most effective form of marketing for most professional service firms, so it’s no surprise that the PR industry produces a wealth of surveys and studies.

Excluding our own research, and emphasizing new initiatives or new findings over well-established pieces of intellectual property (particularly those that have made this list in previous years), we have selected the 10 most important thought leadership studies of the past 12 months, as part of our ongoing 2020 Review. You’ll never guess which topic dominated the conversation.

1-5. The Pandemic

Ordinarily, we’d start this section with the ICCO World PR Report, which found that 62% of PR firms around the world have had campaigns cancelled and 61% are expecting a drop in fee income. But since we partnered with ICCO on this research, it doesn’t qualify for this roundup.

So instead, we’ll start with a May study by Carta Communications and Pulse Business, which found that 40% of agency leaders were preparing to keep their staff away from the office “indefinitely,” while a further 36% were planning a cautious approach to returning to the workplace, with agency respondents suggesting dates between June and September. In-house communicators were wither taking the crisis more seriously—or just better at predicting the future—because their expectations of a return to the office appear even further away, with some preparing to leave it until 2021. Overall, only 21% wish to return to the office as soon as possible. The research provided a valuable early glimpse into the way PR professionals were viewing the crisis.

Meanwhile, a Covid-related edition of Edelman’s long-running Trust Barometer research found that employers were receiving high marks for providing credible information on the coronavirus, including its impact on life beyond the company walls. Almost two-thirds (63%) of respondents said that they believe coronavirus information provided by their employers after seeing it once or twice—more credible than information from a government website (58%), a health company website (56%), traditional media (51%) and social media (28%). And respondents also have confidence in their employers’ ability to act, with 62% trusting their employers to respond effectively and responsibly to the crisis.

Another early study focused on how stakeholders were responding the crisis, and found that the Covid-19 pandemic was changing consumers’ world views—impacting priorities, values and relationships—making corporate shows of empathy, support and cooperation critical. The FleishmanHillard study, 'How Pandemic Times Are Shaping Global Consumers,' found that the coronavirus outbreak put a heightened focus on employers and brands, so that the actions companies took in response to the crisis could influence consumers’ buying patterns and employees’ decision-making for years to come. The advice to communicators: living your values; being the best employer; not discussing recovery too soon; and reimagining the fundamentals of business.

There was specific advice from Hill+Knowlton Strategies, too, which found that appeals to people’s good nature and sense of community were the most effective in communicating public health messages, including preventing stockpiling food and other essentials. The agency’s behavioural science unit tested a series of messages with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 members of the UK public, and found that letting people know that their neighbors were not stockpiling was reassuring, and meant they were 20% less likely to stockpile themselves. The research also tested messages on handwashing, face-touching and self-isolation—finding the benefits of focusing on family health and well-being.

By the fall, of course, things had changed considerably, with the focus shifting to a post-Covid world. PRCA’s Global Covid-19 Communications Taskforce, which published a report of lessons from the pandemic, with insights from 75 industry leaders across 23 countries, brought together by taskforce chair and Lansons chief executive Tony Langham. Four key takeaways: collaborate internally and take external advice; this moment could be a major opportunity for significant change that should not be wasted; “Our organisations need to have a clear purpose and live it—and management decisions need to make sense within the corporate story, internally as well as externally,”; and finally, organisations need to understand the importance of trust and reputation and “send the right signals in the visible day-to-day decisions it takes.”

6. The New Post-Pandemic Workplace

A study from Weber Shandwick and subsidiary United Minds found that almost two-thirds of US workers (61%) are contemplating professional or lifestyle changes that will impact the workplace, with 41% planning to work from home either full-time or part-time permanently. The majority of workers say they work as productively or better at home (70%) and have the tools and resources they need (85%). Elsewhere, the survey contained good news and bad news: 88% say their employer allows them the needed flexibility to take care of personal and family needs, but 52% are concerned about the future of their company and job, and 47% worry their employer will bring them back before it is safe. 

7-9. Purpose and the Pandemic

Purpose was one of the dominant themes of last year’s thought leadership roundup, and continued to be a big issue for brands this year, with a global Zeno study founding that brands reap big benefits by having a well-known purpose, with consumers four to six times more likely to buy, trust, champion and defend companies they see as purposeful. Based on a survey of 8,000 people in eight countries (US, Canada, UK, France, China, India, Singapore and Malaysia), the survey found having strong purpose benefits companies across regions and generations, with 94% of global consumers saying they want companies they engage with to have a strong purpose, and 83% said companies should only earn a profit if they have a positive impact. However, only 37% of respondents believe companies actually have a clear and strong purpose.

Other research found that purpose-driven actions were resonating with consumers in the early days of the pandemic. In its ‘Business and the Pandemic: What the Data Shows’ report, reputation intelligence platform Alva analysed the impact of corporate announcements during what it dubbed the “Shock Phase” of the crisis. It found that the top three most impactful messages were, in order: making medical equipment, employee health protection, and executive pay reduction. The single highest ranking initiative in terms of impact was electric car giant Tesla's announcement that it would turn over its production facilities to building ventilators. This was followed by French luxury group LVMH’s announcement that it would manufacture hand sanitizer and Facebook’s $1,000 bonuses for all employees.

Looking to the future, research showed that all of the upheaval from the pandemic is creating new opportunities for companies to get involved in social issues and live their purpose, according to a survey produced by corporate content specialist Speak Media and the PRCA. The research found that 92% of in-house and agency communicators believe there will be new opportunities for business as a result of Covid-19, with 75% expecting that organisations will be able to serve society better and use their business as a platform for positive change. In addition, 79% said their businesses and clients were seeking to become more relevant by adapting to the shifting needs of their customer base, while 69% believe they will be able to create deeper and more meaningful connections with different stakeholder groups as a result of the societal and business shifts engendered by the pandemic.

10. Diversity & Inclusion

The year’s other big social issue was driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, which forced organizations in the US and around the world to take a new look at their diversity initiatives. A study from Muck Rack and researcher Angela Chitkara found a gap between what PR people preach and what they practice when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. The survey found that 97% of PR pros said they are at least “somewhat familiar” with DEI practices and 93% are confident advising clients and stakeholders on issues related to DEI, with 79% providing strategic counsel to clients, colleagues and brand stakeholders. But only 41% said that their organization allocates budget for DEI and 53% said their organization does not require DEI training. More than a third (36%) said “a lack of lived experiences” was their greatest challenge with pitching stories to diverse audiences.