Humankind is in the throes of a pandemic that has changed the world as we know it – forever. Few diseases have impacted lives and livelihood in the way COVID-19 has.
I am a firm believer in what Andy Grove said: ‘Only the paranoid survive.’
However, I am here today to share with you that I have been impacted as well by what I believe is in fact: the Virus of Hope.
My name is Nitin Mantri, and I am the President of the International Communications Consultancy Organization (ICCO) and also Group CEO AvianWE. And I believe that the COVID-19 situation is as much a story of hope, resilience, and optimism as it has given us the opportunity to radically rethink our future – how we live, how we work, and how we treat others.
A few months ago, my elderly aunt and uncle, living alone, tested positive for COVID-19. Lockdown restrictions prevented the rest of the family from visiting them. Everyone was concerned about how they would get by in isolation. How would they get their daily needs?
I called them to try and figure out how to help. I was both surprised and relieved to learn that that my aunt and uncle had been on a long video call with their neighbors. Apparently, nearly everyone in their housing society had been checking in on them every single day over video calls – to find out how they were doing, if they needed any medicines and even dropping off groceries outside their door whenever needed. I am sure you have heard many similar stores or been part of them your self.
I am a COVID-19 survivor too. I tested positive for COVID-19 a couple of months ago.
And I’ll be honest – I was worried. Actually… even scared. The discomfort and weakness that racked my body for nearly a month were unlike anything I had experienced before.
But…there was something else that I had never experienced. Never before had I felt such an outpouring of empathy and support from friends, family and colleagues.
And I am sure many of you would have had similar experiences during this pandemic, when you have marveled at the kindness of, not just your near and dear ones, but even rank strangers.
Yes, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives, our minds and bodies. The economic impact has cut deeper than any recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But also consider this: when was the last time you saw the world unite to fight an unfamiliar, unfathomable threat like the Coronavirus? ‘It takes a village…’ right? And sure enough – leaders, health experts, policy makers, civil societies, across the world, have joined forces to push back against this crisis. This global solidarity has got us leaning into hope.
Even though the fight is far from over, as the global case load reaches 65 million, let us also not forget that there have been nearly 45 million recoveries so far. And let us not forget the thread of humanity that has tied us closer to take on this challenge as a unified community of warriors.
Look at how shared knowledge is helping the development of vaccines and medicines. Look at the millions of common people coming forward to support existing health infrastructure. Recently, when the UK government launched an appeal for 250,000 people to help its National Health Service cope with the Coronavirus outbreak, over 750,000 people signed up.
And then there are heart-warming stories, every day, of crowds cheering for health workers, strangers pooling in resources to tide over the lockdown, stray animals being taken care of, food being provided for the needy and I can go on…
At a More Personal Level
The lockdown has also changed the dynamics of inter-personal relationships. Spending more time indoors has brought families closer and strengthened bonds. And in some cases – even forged new ones. You may have read about the modern-day ‘Romeo and Juliet story’ that played out recently in Verona, in Italy. Two neighbors, who are now engaged to be married, fell in love during the lockdown after meeting each other from their respective balconies.
On a big-picture scale, the COVID-19 outbreak has forced a rethink, and holds out the promise of improvements, on a number of issues.
For one, the spotlight has been turned squarely on the need to take the threat to environmental well-being more seriously. This pandemic has highlighted the relation between nature and human society. This is proof that biodiversity loss poses a real threat to human health by increasing the incidence of infectious, zoonotic diseases.
The need for bigger health budgets, with a focus on better public health systems, is also being acknowledged as is the need to invest in local industries and businesses for self-sufficiency.
So let’s talk about the Opportunities for the communications industry
Business and industry have, undeniably, been hit hard by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. But the road to recovery is clearing out, slowly. And as the dust settles, the communications industry is emerging stronger than ever.
Yes. There is no two ways about it – this is OUR time.
The communications sector has always been agile and hyper-responsive. And given the current situation, we have been on the ball in reinventing ourselves, with digital acceleration serving as a key instrument of adaptability.
Thus enabled, it is for us now to keep pace with this crisis, guide our clients and build trust. This is our time to shine; to fulfil our purpose as communicators. And its’s not just me feeling hopeful about this new emerging world. It is upto us to use the power of communications to move people to positive action,
Some facts from the ICCO WORLD PR REPORT
Despite the pandemic-triggered disruption in economy, the recently published ICCO World PR report saw industry leaders feeling hopeful about both growth and profitability of public relations in 2021.
On a 10-point scale, overall optimism about the growth of the PR market touched 6.4 among surveyed PR leaders, going up as high as 7.5 in the Asia Pacific region.
Expectations for greater profit scored close to 5 across all regions surveyed, with positivity particularly high in North America and Eastern Europe.
In fact, the PR industry has had a very good year with positive momentum across markets. Our work for clients was strong and impactful, and we should all be incredibly proud of the results we have achieved together.
Among services, the industry is expecting strategic consulting to take the lead this year, followed by corporate reputation and social media & community management. And consultancy heads are predicting the most growth in technology, healthcare and financial & professional services sectors this year.
As a matter of fact, technology was among the most buoyant industry sectors even during the pandemic in terms of communications spend. This does not come as a surprise.
Now let’s discuss opportunities that Global Trends will throw up: Digital Transformation
Amidst the devastation, uncertainties and chaos, technology has been the only winner that is helping us function in this new world. And these technologies will become even more integral to our lives.
With social distancing norms in place for a foreseeable future, brands will have to aim at establishing a connection with their audience through different digital platforms. But communicating virtually is new territory for all and requires new approaches.
A new game plan is required and therein lies new opportunities for us.
As communications partners to brands, we will have to raise our tech game and find innovative ways to help our clients find the intersection points between their stories and what the world needs.
Being a tech optimist, I am excited about these opportunities to tell our clients’ stories in new places, in new ways, using new tactics, but at the same time, we must remember that technology can be complex and under incredible scrutiny. It must be ethically and responsibly designed and protected — and we have to choose which works best for our clients without sacrificing data privacy.
Another positive outcome of digital acceleration has been remote work. Some of our best work has come during this lockdown.
Given how volatile and fast evolving the situation is, it would be presumptuous to say that the pandemic has permanently upended the office. I foresee us embracing a ‘more hybrid work structure”, but the silver lining for our industry has been the expansion of our talent pool. As a matter of fact, I am hopeful that work from home will boost gender equality at the workplace and allow women who dropped out of the workforce due to family commitments to restart their careers.
PR’s creative high point
So, with technology determining how we live, work and communicate, will creativity take a backseat – that’s a question I have been asked several times in the recent months?
Not at all! Creativity … is more important than ever.
This is our industry’s inflection point – where divergent thinking and creative reshaping of PR strategies will become the hallmark of communications. Clients will need enterprising ideas to define relevance for their brands, products and services and we must go beyond conventional paths, use big data to listen and apply and deliver our clients’ unique narratives and help them to have thoughtful, authentic conversations with their customers.
What about the media? Who will Stand by the truth?
This renewed emphasis on authenticity makes me hope that from the abyss of the pandemic will rise a languishing, objective media, which has been losing its significance in recent years because of misinformation.
A free press is critical to building an ecosystem of reliable and transparent information, especially now when we are fighting an infodemic of misinformation. If the credibility of the media diminishes, how will we narrate our brand stories and expect the public ‘s trust?
The PR community can play a crucial role here by getting the right message to the right people at the right time. We must keep defending the truth and the people who tell it.
Now to something that has been spoken about a lot: Purpose/Brands that care
Corporate Purpose, goes without saying, will be the key contributor to the criticality of PR interventions from now on. According to PR firms surveyed for the World PR Report, the global score for companies prioritising Corporate Purpose is 6.3 on a scale of 1 to 10, with North America and UK scoring it even higher – 7.1 and 6.9 respectively.
WE’s Brands in Motion global study has shown that 83% of respondents believe that brands can provide stability during climates of uncertainty. The expectation from brands to lead with purpose has never been stronger.
The impact of the pandemic on the social psyche has made it essential for brands to impress upon their customers that they care for more than just selling their products; they care about issues close to their customers’ hearts. Citing facts again from WE’s Brands in Motion study, 53% of respondents want brands to address environmental problems in both local communities and globally, and 74% expect brands to take a stand on issues that matter to them.
Brands that want to survive and thrive will therefore need to nail that tightrope walk between financial sustainability and a compassionate people-first approach. And brand communicators can help them to find their purpose, stay true to their purpose and more importantly, lead with it.
Fortunately, there are quite a few brands who are doing this already – not just for customers but also for their own workforce.
Allow me to highlight some of them that really moved me.
Avon Products, along with Avon Foundation for Women, released USD $1Million in new grants to 50 frontline services and charity organizations. The emergency grant programme was launched in tandem with AVON’s #IsolatedNotAlone campaign, responding to the surge in domestic violence cases in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown.
The initiative is aimed at providing crucial support for over 250,000 at-risk women and children who are affected by rapidly rising domestic abuse rates. The grants will be shared across 37 countries, including Brazil, Mexico, India, Philippines, Germany and the UK.
Meanwhile, RB Dettol doubled down on its purpose to pursue a cleaner and healthier world. In India, it launched #HandWashCorona, a public health initiative in partnership with Bikers of Good, to distribute Dettol soaps to the underprivileged. RB distributed 10 million bars of soap through various campaigns in India.
Brands like PepsiCo prioritised their associates and employees by focusing on monetary and mental well-being. PepsiCo India rolled out healthcare initiatives for its staff, including a 24/7 medical helpline, increased medical insurance for employees working on ground and free counselling sessions to safeguard mental health.
How can we support the larger community? And supplement Govt Efforts
And it’s not just businesses, strategic communications can also help governments and policy makers with empathetic and creative branding of public health campaigns to encourage behaviour change.
Collaborating with communication professionals to design and deliver powerful, persuasive messaging can be a game-changer for government efforts toward disease prevention and risk management.
Thoughtfully branded COVID-19 campaigns can go beyond raising awareness and help people internalise safe long-term choices for good health. Leveraging communications expertise can help develop innovative strategies to amplify the still existing threat.
In fact, it is well-documented that vulnerable populations are more receptive to messages that are culturally and socially aligned to their realities. This is especially relevant in peri-urban and rural areas in India, where local channels of communication, such as vernacular newspapers, posters, and village meetings, work as effective vehicles of health information. Creating local role models of community leaders, artists, teachers, mothers can also ensure last mile connectivity to promote better health-seeking behaviour.
This is definitely a forward-thinking time where we can create whatever our imagination can dream up.
In fact, there is no end to opportunities for PR and communications specialists during this remarkable time when positivity remains undefeated against all odds
The nature of our work equips us with the right mix of societal understanding and creativity that can infuse positivity into any situation. And positivity is a key weapon in this people vs pandemic war.
I recently read about a TV appearance by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, where she addressed children across the country. She reassured the kids that Santa Claus will not face COVID-19 restrictions on Christmas Eve because he is a key Essential Services worker!
We should be like children: undaunted when we fall, unafraid of uncertainty and thankful for every little smiley on our report card.
So, fortified by our masks, sanitizers, and optimism, let us continue to fight the good fight. Let us keep celebrating our little victories. As Nelson Mandela said: ‘May your choices reflect your hope and not your fears’
Stay positive and Let us spread the virus of hope.
The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.