Arun Sudhaman 07 Dec 2020 // 9:59AM GMT
It must sound painfully obvious, but it bears repeating that 2020 was no normal year. The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically reshaped how we live, work and communicate, while simmering racial and political tensions exploded into the business arena.
All of which explains why our 2020 Review kicks off with an expanded list of longreads, up from 10 to 15 to reflect not only the sheer multitude and magnitude of the world's challenges this year, but our extensive efforts to analyze and make sense of them for our readers.
As ever, we disqualify awards and ranking stories as they skew the list. Beyond that, it is worth noting that our Longreads always get the most traction, even ahead of most of our top news articles, which we will rank later this week. And please do bear in mind that, of course, some of these articles are now gated behind our Premium Content section.
For now, enjoy our most popular analysis and features from a year that provided many lessons, even if some we would likely prefer to forget in a hurry:
1. 'PR’s Moment To Shine': Creativity In The Covid-19 Era
The pandemic's first couple of months were characterised by uncertainty, even panic. But even amid the gloom, the bright side beckoned. Could it be that the public relations industry might finally find itself in a position to steer brand creativity rather than being consigned to its traditional supporting role? With companies forced to step back from overt selling amid a dramatic decline in marketing budgets, this analysis explored how PR firms were leading brand building efforts that were defined more by purpose than by profit. The feature was supported by a weekly Creative Showcase that rounded up ongoing creative examples from around the world — in the process demonstrating how the PR discipline's understanding of earned, cultural resonance would become one of the industry's recurring themes in 2020.
2. Why Consulum Isn't Flinching About Promoting Hong Kong
Even as the pandemic raged, the Hong Kong government remained steadfast in its belief that a new PR firm could somehow help the city salvage its battered global reputation. Like last year's failed attempt, though, this one proved similarly troublesome in terms of attracting a credible global PR firm. Step forward Consulum, an under-the-radar firm best known for its willingness to keep working for Saudi Arabia. As this feature examined, Consulum was not about to flinch from the intense scrutiny brought on by the US$6.3m assignment, even if it did raise several uncomfortable questions for the industry and for Hong Kong's long-suffering citizens.
3. Asian Women At The Top: Four PR Network Leaders On How Change Happens
Four large Asia-Pacific PR agency networks are now headed by women with roots in the region. This should not count as news but it does, in a part of the world that has been dominated by expat agency leaders. David Blecken explores why introspection and action at all levels are required to make this something less worthy of coverage.
4. 10 Commitments PR Firms Can Make To Advance Racial Equity
In the wake of George Floyd's murder, a push for real change swept across America and other countries, with corporates and agencies quick to signal their concern and support. But we knew only too well that talk is not enough, given the industry's woeful record on racial and cultural inclusion. Accordingly, this feature drew on research from senior Harvard Business School lecturer Mark Kramer, along with our own coverage and conversations in this area, to come up with 10 commitments PR firms can make right now if they are truly serious about advancing racial equity.
5. What Is The Role Of Diversity & Inclusion In A Post Covid-19 World?
Even before the Black Lives Matter movement ramped up, the Covid-19 pandemic was already causing considerable introspection on the role of business. Angela Chitkara and Michael Marinello, who previously authored The World in 2020: The Age of Transparency and Accountability. Doing What We Say Matters, came together again to explore why organizations that prioritize people over business outcomes will have brighter, long-term futures, calling for "a new and energized focus on a broader set of stakeholders."
6. In Memoriam: Harold Burson
The passing of PR pioneer Harold Burson drew numerous tributes, unsurprising given the outsize impact the Burson-Marsteller founder had on the modern global PR industry. In this one, Paul Holmes offers up recollections of his 35-year relationship with Burson, relayed with wit, warmth and considerable admiration. "Harold was a giant of the industry," wrote Holmes. "Future professionals will not have the opportunity to meet him, but whether they know it or not, they will be influenced by his thinking."
7. Agency Heads Brace For Covid-19 Fallout As Business Outlook Darkens
As the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic came into focus, PRovoke kicked off an invaluable industry study in conjunction with Stickybeak, ICCO and APACD. The first set of findings, reported early on in April, did not make for encouraging reading — with 77% of agency heads expecting a loss of earnings. That prognosis improved markedly in later surveys, but this feature called on agency leaders from across the globe to provide a snapshot of the profound uncertainty that the global PR industry grappled with in 2020.
8. Analysis: Do D&I Leaders Make A Difference?
As BLM protests raged and the PR industry's record on racial inclusion was examined in unsparing detail, Aarti Shah explored a question that has long been on people's minds. Do diversity and inclusion leaders really make a difference at PR firms? The evidence would suggest not. The PR industry remains astonishingly white — calling into question the effectiveness of the D&I leadership role, and whether it merely serves as lip-service.
9. Covid-19: What It Means For Corporate Reputation ($)
The coronavirus pandemic reminded us of the critical importance of authentic, honest communication, helping to explain why corporate affairs become fashionable again after being somewhat relegated to the margins in recent years. This article delved into how Covid-19 will reshape corporate reputation, part of a series that examined the pandemic's impact on every aspect of PR practice, including employee engagement, consumer marketing and more.
10. 'We Are All Virtual Now': Is Remote Working The Future For Agencies?
Of course, one of the areas most ripe for Covid-inspired disruption proved to be the workplace, as corporates and agencies rapidly embraced remote working models. The rise of virtual agencies has been a popular trend in recent years, underpinning this analysis of our hybrid future, and what that might look like in the post-Covid environment.
11. What Does 'Best Agency to Work For' Mean In The Covid-19 Era?
On the same theme, the Covid-19 crisis perhaps offered a shot at redemption for agencies concerned about under-pressure workplace models. We talked to CEOs of many of the agencies on this year’s North American Best Agencies to Work For list — and a few from years past — about the way they are managing this crisis and whether it’s making them rethink the traditional workplace.
12. How To Find Creative Inspiration In A Pandemic
Yet one more Covid-inspired analysis took a rather more personal tack, asking PR agency creatives how they are finding inspiration despite the challenges of lockdown life. The results were surprisingly positive, frequently delightful and always engrossing — testimony to the industry's capacity for reinvention in the most difficult of circumstances. .
13. The Age Of Corporate Virtue-Signaling Is Over ($)
Companies were quick to issue statements supporting the Black Lives Matter protests. And activists were just as quick to let them know that empty words are not enough. In something of a companion piece to (4), Paul Holmes explained why, if companies wanted to be seen as genuine allies in the movement for civil rights and social justice, they would have to go beyond bland statements of support and performative promotional activities. And that would require them to take courageous, concrete steps to address the underlying problems.
14. Analysis: 'Global Tech Cold War' Forces Communications Rethink
Amid Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, it should not be forgotten that geopolitical tensions only accelerated this year, carrying significant PR implications not only for Chinese brands such as TikTok and Huawei, but for the corporate and agency world in general. This feature drew on more than a decade of covering China Inc's PR issues to examine how politics is playing an increasing role in brand positioning, bringing real consequences for PR firms and their ability to provide counsel.
15. Analysis: The Electrification Of Employee Engagement ($)
If nothing else, 2020 was the year that capped off the revival of internal communications, once seen as the graveyard of comms careers. Spurred on by the challenges of change management and Covid-19, David Blecken explored whether employee engagement really has emerged from the crypt, and whether the newfound interest will endure — in an analysis that was supported by new research from Nanyang Technological University.