Three Lessons of 2020 That Help You Prepare PR Programs in 2021 and Beyond

January 5 2021

For most business leaders, 2020 almost certainly will be viewed similarly to sports accomplishments that include asterisks to denote records set under questionable circumstances.

Yet, many of us as senior communications advisers are wired for this time in history. While we admittedly prefer to function through carefully planned and crafted strategies and tactics, most of the clients we serve also count on us to thoughtfully counsel and guide them through times of trouble. 

The global pandemic we have been experiencing as members of the Public Relations Global Network has called our communications leadership into play numerous times. Though often with a goal of mitigating the many negatives of the year, some have been opportunities to help deliver good news to an otherwise challenged world.

While we just now are approaching recovery from 2020, after-action assessment of Covid-19 and the overall “year that was” offer three lessons learned that will contribute to taking us through the challenges and opportunities of 2021 and beyond.

Preparation for the unknown is difficult, but we must

Forward-thinking organizations and the people who counsel them on strategic communications can point to numerous successes in the past year. However, broader statistics on organizational preparation for the unknown typically don’t portray a strong story. With the pandemic as a backdrop, it may be denial of the true potential of adverse impact of an event on their enterprise, rejection of the actual damage that COVID has had or a combination of both.

With more than one hundred years since the last pandemic occurred in the U.S., lack of internal or external preparation for a true global health crisis is understandable. Yet, an old maxim among experienced crisis communicators is that the crises for which you prepare rarely are the ones that materialize.

Recommended Actions:  1.) Inventory the impacts COVID has had on your organization, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders, 2.) assess communication actions taken and those untaken now believed to have been important and 3.) create a framework action plan from these learnings for addressing major incidents in the future.

Values as a North Star

Race car drivers and public safety personnel talk about how intentional hand placement at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions on the steering wheel is critical to avoiding disaster in an emergency. The balance created by this positioning helps the driver more rapidly regain control regardless of how or where their vehicle is struck. 

For those responsible for delivering or communicating organizational safety and well-being, core values are that steady, predictable steering wheel position in our world. 

Recommended Actions:  1.) Identify or recap the essential beliefs of your organization, 2.) share, discuss and assess alignment of these values and likely actions and perceptions they drive with key stakeholders and 3.) adjust organizational behaviors to align with these revalidated/updated values.

Preserve the Pivot of the Pandemic

Three Box Strategic Communications leaders met Thursday afternoon, March 12, 2020, to review information available about the pandemic. A decision was made to move the entire team into virtual mode, effective the next morning. A call announcing this decision was held with all colleagues, questions were answered to the best of our ability and next steps defined.

While this decision was made easier by a recently updated business continuity plan and a robust technology platform facilitating off-site work, there were decisions to make and unanticipated problems to solve. In retrospect, the team probably contributed to “pivot” becoming one of the seemingly most overused words of 2020. Yet, this approach enabled rapid receipt, processing and action on new information critical to sustaining the organization and its future.

Recommended Actions:  1.) Assess your business information collection and assessment process, 2.) determine changes in these approaches to speed time-to-decision without impacting quality of the decision and 3.) deploy the updated process to the those involved to ensure benefits of the retooled process are realized.

In redefining the notion of business difficulties, the past 10 months have helped many of us better frame planning and response to multiple and significant challenges. Our charge, now, is to use these experiences to become stronger and better. 

Blake Lewis III
Founder and Principal, Three Box Strategic Communications
Blake Lewis, APR, Fellow PRSA. Blake Lewis founded Lewis Public Relations, Three Box’s predecessor firm, in 2000. As Principal and a strategic communications expert, he provides senior communications counsel to clients and manages general business operations. Blake has a bachelor of science in telecommunicative arts from Iowa State University. He’s a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), earned the Accredited in Public Relations (APR) credential in 1985 and was inducted into the Society’s College of Fellows in 2005.

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