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New trends to watch in 2021 for PR professionals

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Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga

AS we entered 2021, it became apparent that the new normal that we predicted was here to stay, is very much part of life now.

The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has affirmed this and the resultant flurry of lockdowns across the globe.

This also means the importance of communications will continue to hold sway over executives as they plan business strategy.

These means that communicators, public relations (PR) professionals, have to continue to step up and offer critical counsel to the “ruling coalition” in organisations.

At the beginning of every year, experts identify trends that PR professionals have to watch in order to align their strategies.

Olga Fleming & Courtney Walker of Goodfuse PR examine several important developments that we should note as we plan for the New Year.

The emotional impact of the pandemic has been phenomenal. With so many out of work and many more unable to work, brands need to understand who they are communicating with on a human-to-human level.

In such a crisis, Olga Fleming & Courtney Walker of Goodfuse PR say that brand and communications leaders should ask themselves first: How is their brand relating to people’s actual psyches, emotions, and complexities?

And second, are they missing the mark by leaning into their virtual and artificial personas, roles or abstract profiles?

“Many brands have taken a more focused, consumer-centric approach, but talking the talk isn’t enough. Look under the hood and rework your entire internal and external communications strategy to focus on the individuals you’re trying to reach,” they say.

Whether it be customers or employees, it might surprise you to find that your messages are not deeply engaging for your audience. Being in-message during a crisis can win trust and realism to one’s campaigns.

There is nothing more off-putting for target audiences than approaches that lack emotional intelligence.

The other key development involves the growth of video as a tool to connect with colleagues and loved ones.

This has grown significantly as the pandemic hit home, with the rise of tools such as Zoom, Blue Jeans, Skype, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom.

“These tools are fuelling our ability to conduct business as usual, connect with family and friends and have created a new acceptable casual aesthetic that has permeated digital and traditional media alike,” Fleming and Walker observe.

This, they say, is the beginning of the age when content became “real” to reflect the fragility of humanity and our ability to adjust while remaining sensitive to the emotional impact of our actions.

“For example, corporate executives have changed their profile pictures from wearing suits in an office to wearing polos in their home with their kids in the background to showcase the realities of life during the pandemic,” they say.

Television ads are being “produced” to look as if created in real-time, while others are using raw footage to share a similar sentiment. The year 2021 will be that of “real” content featuring “real” people living “real” lives.

Even online meetings have become more human. Video conferencing is a step backwards from the much-preferred in-person, face-to-face meetings. The technology lacks sophistication which perhaps augmented and virtual reality may help solve.

In 2021, Fleming and Walker say, brands and companies will embrace technologies that humanise meetings to help organisers “read the room.”

These humanised interactions need to better mimic the human dynamics of real-world meetings — including voice, gesture, and social and hierarchical dynamics.

“Technology companies that quickly upgrade their video conferencing platforms to incorporate the dynamics of conversation will find broad adoption by organisations hungry to humanise video interactions and fight ‘Zoom fatigue’,” they predict.

To enrich communication tools, video screens augmented by smart overlays will allow participants to better monitor the human dynamics of meetings and facilitate more meaningful participation.

Another development that became apparent last year and is likely to pick up in 2021 is the change in content consumption habits.

With many people around the globe at home, people are consuming more content, but differently.

“People aren’t commuting to and from the office. Downtime at your desk doesn’t exist when you have children doing remote learning with you at the kitchen table. Brands need to serve up content and reach audiences differently,” the two say.

We have already seen how short-form story telling (60 seconds max) has become the only way to capture an audience’s attention.

This is ready-made content on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter and Tik Tok. Any longer and an impatient audience will skip it.

The growth of online stores had already made some headway by the time Covid-19 struck.

The pandemic sped that up with social media becoming the new department store. Retailers that have never used e-commerce need to pivot to where their audiences spend the most time: Instagram, for example, with its 121 million monthly users.

We have seen Facebook and Instagram ramping up their in-app purchasing and “because they know you better than you know you, the right stuff will always pop up in your feed”.

Fleming and Walker predict that in 2021, users will flock to digital retail establishments more than ever to research and purchase products and services.

This will elevate the role of re-targeted social ads, as audiences visit owned channels to research and learn, and social media will provide re-targeted ads to those users to push them further into the funnel.

Another opportunity that PR professionals will have to exploit is that of promoting their executives and senior leaders by giving them a renewed voice and purpose.

The pandemic has had people more socially aware than ever before. Consumers are looking at the companies they do business with to see what their stance is on issues, thus catapulting business leaders into the limelight.

“In 2021, executive thought leadership campaigns and content will be invaluable as consumers seek to do business with and align themselves with organisations that share similar values and beliefs as they do,” Fleming and Walker advise.

Proactively use social media to give your leaders a platform and a voice to make a real difference in people’s lives.

About the writer: Mhlanga is managing consultant at Sunshine Corporate Communications, a boutique consultancy that specialises in reputation and image management. He can be contacted on mobile: +263 772 400 656 or email: [email protected]

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