In compiling this annual list 12 months ago, I remarked that 2020 was no normal year. If that is the case, then what do we make of 2021? The Covid-19 pandemic continued to dramatically reshape how we live, work and communicate, inexorably elevating the emotional toll against a backdrop of heightened geopolitical tension and a long-overdue reckoning with the dangers of polarisation. 

Luckily, positives persisted, not least in a public relations industry that defied the odds to survive and thrive amid unique challenges. Unsurprisingly, our most popular longreads reflect this picture in full, forming a crucial element in our 2021 Review.   

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, all of which combine to form an invaluable microcosm of the issues that dominated public relations thinking in 2021, for better or for worse:

1. Ogilvy PR CEO Julianna Richter: Back To The Future
Other formats may have become more fashionable, but the appeal of an in-depth interview endures, particularly when the subject is tasked with reinventing one of the industry's most storied brands. In her first major interview since taking charge, Julianna Richter provided a compelling breakdown of her ambitious goals for Ogilvy PR, which include tripling in size, reclaiming the 'Ogilvy PR' brand and driving improved global cohesion. In doing so, Richter addressed the major concerns about Ogilvy's accelerated pace of change, providing a useful reminder of why difficult questions are best embraced, rather than avoided. 

2. Neurodiversity In PR: From Kryptonite To Superpower
Diversity and inclusion issues are finally being taken seriously in the PR industry, but this masterclass in human interest journalism from Maja Pawinska Sims reminded us of how much work remains to be done. Specifically, while much of the focus has understandably been on racial, gender and socio-economic balance, a major facet of the diversity equation is being ignored. After this feature, though, it seems unlikely that the industry will continue to overlook how to make itself more inclusive of people who are neurodiverse, particularly as business wakes up to the potential of alternative thinking styles.

3. PR Industry Rises To Covid-Era Creative Challenge
After a four-year hiatus, our Creativity in PR study returned to reveal exactly how the PR sector is rising to the unique creative challenges of the Covid-19 era. And it reflected the opportunity that many in the industry have grasped. 69% of respondents, for example, reported that creativity is a higher priority for agencies since the Covid era began, while 92% of agencies say that client expectations of creativity have risen since the onset of the pandemic. "After 14 months of misery, that is surely something to look forward to," said Now Go Create founder and report co-author Claire Bridges.

4. Talent Crunch Poses New Challenges For PR Industry Recovery
Talent has always posed a complex challenge for the public relations industry, and that was only accelerated by the pandemic as people questioned the role that work plays in their lives. In particular, this feature laid bare the mental health cost of the pandemic, underpinning the challenging conditions that agencies and in-house departments face when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff. "What is it worth?" asked Madhavi Tumkur — a question that the PR industry must have a good answer for if it hopes to fulfil its aspirations. 

5. CEOs At Cannes Condensed: PR Industry Must 'Wake Up' To Opportunity On Offer
It may have been our first hybrid event, but the discussion itself was a time-honoured one that has seen PRovoke Media convene the industry's leading agency CEOs for the past decade. And while much has changed — underlined by the industry's elevated value amid dramatic social instability — much remains the same, not least when it comes to the awards element of the Cannes experience for PR firms. All of which added up to a degree of tension that was adeptly harnessed by Paul Holmes as he moderated a panel featuring leaders of Weber Shandwick, Ketchum, Edelman, MSL, WE, Clarity and Hotwire.

6. One Year Later: What The PR Industry Has Done To Dismantle Systemic Racism
When it comes to making the PR industry more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive, talk is cheap. Much of our 2020 Review highlighted the various commitments that PR agencies made to change, in the wake of George Floyd's murder and the dramatic ascent of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Sure enough, Diana Marszalek returned a year later to take stock of the progress that has been made, in line with PRovoke Media's calls for accountability.

7. "Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable": Why Brands Can't Have It All
The pandemic has spurred some excellent research from the PR industry, rounded up in another of our 2021 Review instalments, and WE's Brands in Motion study provided further compelling evidence of one of the most important challenges facing CEOs. In an era of increasing polarization, corporates can no longer avoid tackling controversial issues — even if that requires the courage to alienate some of their stakeholders. When it comes to issues management, it seems clear that a one-size-fits-all approach — based on offending as few people as possible — may no longer be fit for purpose.

8. A Year In The Lives Of Our Industry’s Women: Anguish (Part 1)
The pandemic exposed the glaring inequities that make women vulnerable to economic instability and, even for the most privileged, the precarious support network that parents rely on. All of this had serious implications for the PR sector, as this four-part investigation into the lives of our industry's women uncovered. The response — across regions, seniority and race/ethnicity — was overwhelming: raw, heartfelt stories of adversity and inspiration poured in.

9. The P Word — And No, I Don't Bleed Blue
Even as period poverty, cultural stigma, toxic shame and workplace embarrassment remain widely prevalent in societies across the world, communicators can play a vital role in normalising conversations around periods. Indeed, as this feature found, the PR industry should pay close attention to the groundswell of support that women's health issues are receiving, particularly when it comes to helping alleviate the social, and even regulatory, stigma associated with periods.

10. "We Must Hold Ourselves Accountable": PR Industry Responds To Asia-Pacific Pay Gap
For the first time, PRovoke Media used its in-depth Best Agencies to Work For research, which polls more than 5,000 employees across the world, to determine pay equity and leadership gaps in North America, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. The last of those regions spurred this analysis of "entrenched bias", thanks to the finding that four times as many white men and five times as many white women report annual earnings of US$125k+, compared to their non-white peers of the same gender. "The evidence shows what many of us may have suspected," said MSL Asia-Pacific CEO Margaret Key, one of the few Asian women to hold regional leadership of a multinational PR firm. "We tell our clients how to navigate diversity and inclusion in a dynamic, modern world and it is time for our own industry to walk the talk."