Done. Ready to move on. But not so quickly.
From the COVID pandemic and resulting economic shock waves to social upheaval prompted by George Floyd’s brutal killing to a divisive election that took weeks to resolve, we are ready to put 2020 behind us. But with the pandemic not yet under control and significant political and social uncertainty remaining, one can only tiptoe into 2021 waiting for the next vase to shatter.
The standard PR playbook has changed for good and communicators must now master a whole new obstacle course. The year 2020 taught us a few lessons and reinforced some important best practices that we can take with us into 2021 and beyond.
1. Be ready to abandon your plan
As the pandemic descended and the markets convulsed, the best laid plans became quickly outdated. What we knew as fact one day quickly became outdated. We had to reassess, be nimble, respond quickly to new information and change course as needed. News releases and outreach plans were put on ice as conditions changed. Releasing routine award news seems out of step as people struggle with the pandemic and market volatility.
2. Be thoughtful, not tone deaf
A divided world with significant social and political division required leading companies and individuals to step up to do better and consider wider perspectives. Many publicly owned up to the challenges our country faces about race and about their own lack of progress. On the flip side, tone–deaf comments caused some companies to face significant pushback. In a widely divided world, thoughtful companies avoided language that could trigger reactions across the political spectrum.
This year also proved that hardship was not evenly distributed. Many lost their jobs or had their fates disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn while others were able to safely shelter at home and stockpile cash or paydown debt.
Celebrating successes at a time when so many were out of work was a nonstarter. Instead, those lucky enough to prosper during a pandemic were smart to focus on helping healthcare workers or struggling small businesses.
3. Manage expectations
The Stockdale Paradox is as true as ever. In his experience, prisoner–of-war James Stockdale found the most optimistic POWs to be the ones who did the worst in captivity. Those expecting the worst to be over are sadly disappointed when an important milestone comes and goes, and conditions remain unchanged. “It will all be over by summer.” And then it wasn’t. Avoid overly optimistic projections and instead focus on realistic plans of what you can accomplish in an unpredictable environment.
4. Be prepared for surprises
The one thing everyone learned in 2020 is that it could indeed get worse. When planning your 2021 communications strategy, consider multiple strategies and potential outcomes, and be prepared for the unexpected. Even if you have invested significant time in developing plan A, you may be required to choose plan B or even plan C in the wake of new information. Every plan should spell out contingencies.
5. Assess and reassess
It pays to take time to evaluate what is working and what isn’t. Celebrate the things you did right and learn from the decisions that fell flat. Then set a course for 2021 based on real information. Create shorter plans that build on what you know today and adjust them as needed as more information becomes available.
As much as we may want the world to return to what worked in the past, there is no turning back some of the changes wrought by 2020. Successful communicators need to embrace these lessons and move on.