The Covid-19 outbreak has ushered in a “VUCA” world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - that continues to change at an unprecedented pace. Many business leaders are struggling to adjust to this “new normal.” Success in today’s world is about more than just managing this uncertainty, it is about embracing and implementing change.
Businesses also need to ensure that they get the right message across to their customers and business partners amid the current uncertainty, and communicate clearly with their employees.
Hong Kong’s seasoned public relations (PR) professionals have much to offer that can help businesses of all sizes meet this challenge head-on and find new ways to thrive.
The ‘new normal’
Reliance on social media and online media
The pandemic has led many of us to turn to a digital lifestyle in which we rely more on social media and online media. According to a report published by We Are Social in July, more than 50% of people on the planet now use social media – such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – for information and news. Information circulating on those platforms can go viral in seconds at any time, around the clock.
For example, in response to the acute local shortage of face masks earlier this year, a Hong Kong business posted on social media about its search for face mask manufacturers. The post quickly amassed strong public support for the company
Misinformation and fake news abound
Journalists today often turn to online platforms and chatter to hunt for news. However, anyone with a smart phone can now be a news creator, and social media owners are unable to thoroughly moderate and fact-check their content. Disinformation and even fake news are bound to spread.
The panic stockpiling of toilet paper in connection to Covid-19 is a good example of this online disinformation, both in Hong Kong and around the world.
Greater awareness of social inequalities
Covid-19 has highlighted social inequalities. Some of the most vulnerable socioeconomic groups feel they aren’t getting what they need to survive this crisis.
For instance, people living in cramped sub-divided units in Hong Kong may find it difficult to maintain good social distancing and hygiene, and they are less likely to have access to internet or quality computers for online lessons. And low-income black people in the United States with poorer access to healthcare are suffering from a higher mortality rate.
Breaking or building trust
Disinformation and fake news during the Covid-19 outbreak have led to a growing public distrust of institutions and even governments. Many people look to brands, businesses and the government to speak the truth and adhere to their core values. They also expect organizations to be transparent and accountable to their stakeholders.
“Covid-19 is a ‘moment of truth’ for many organizations,” explained Clara Shek, Managing Director of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and a PRPA advisor. “Battling the virus is not about commercial advantage or profit, it is about doing the right thing for society and showing a company’s true values and citizenship.”
The life-threatening pandemic has generated not only greater concerns for public health, but also an increased preference for solutions that have a human element. Covid-19 has changed the way marketers approach consumers, and has led to calls for more mindfulness, empathy and sensitivity to what we are going through together as a community.
Fashion labels and groups such as LVMH and Moncler have not only donated money but also adapted their fashion production lines to produce anti-pandemic products such as face masks. Some of them have also announced their support for current social issues like the Black Lives Matter campaign.
“Corporates need long-term strategies in CSR,” said Richard Tsang, Chairman of Strategic Public Relations Group Ltd and a PRPA advisor. “With masks becoming more available and affordable, what should corporates do to help the underprivileged? Corporates also need to be consistent in their actions, you can’t on one hand give away masks and on the other lay off staff.”
Changes in the workplace
In the wake of an economic slump triggered by Covid-19, many businesses are facing downsizing, staff displacement and changes in their business operations and business models. In addition, hybrid working – namely a mix of remote working and working from the office – is gaining traction, as the ongoing pandemic continues to shape the way we work. All these changes in the workplace demand greater staff engagement.
PR strategies for businesses
To navigate today’s VUCA world, PR professionals, both in-house and agency, can play a crucial role in helping businesses embrace the challenges brought by Covid-19.
A seasoned PR professional can identify and closely monitor potential issues from different sources, such as by analysing traditional and social media coverage, as well as conducting social listening.
Considering the viral impact of social media, PR professionals are skilled in social listening and understand how to take proactive actions to manage issues whenever needed.
PR professionals are adept at understanding internal and external sentiments, and are able to provide situational analysis including community pulse and strategic planning to prevent issues from blowing up into crises.
For instance, Kwan Chuk-fai, Director of Corporate Communications & Investor Relations at Hang Lung Properties Ltd and a PRPA advisor, praised the prompt action taken by noodle chain Jointedheart to stop the false accusations circulating online using posts on the group’s Facebook together with supporting screen caps.
Remaining sensitive to issues will be vital in the post-pandemic era of social divides and degraded trust. PR professionals can offer counselling to management on communication strategies, including how, what and when to communicate.
An example in this regard is the online rumours about the HKSAR Government’s free mask provision – including speculation about the transparency of the product’s sourcing and efficacy. Proper and early disclosure of the details could have avoided this situation.
Brand and corporate reputation building
In the wake of the pandemic, the general public and individual consumers are looking for companies and brands with social values they can relate to. While incorporating human elements, it’s important that social values now go beyond the traditional CSR mission of helping the underprivileged. Consumers now expect socially substantial campaigns such as female empowerment.
As brand guardians and behavioural scientists, PR professionals are able to offer insights and forward-looking positioning, assisting corporates to build and transform their brand reputations in a way that creates a reservoir of support and trust among their stakeholders.
Tsang added: “Many corporates need to change both their business models and brand image post-Covid-19 (and even during Covid-19). PR professionals can successfully guide corporates through these necessary transformations.”
Covid-19 has changed our workplaces and highlighted the pressing need for employee engagement with the support of PR. Remote working requires greater efforts to stimulate cooperation between colleagues and monitor togetherness. Corporates should support their employees as they adjust to new working conditions, recognizing that all workers have endured a stressful time in recent months.
Drawing on his extensive experience in handling staff issues, Kwan from Hang Lung Properties said: “Caring about staff and boosting morale in adversity are crucial, especially at a time when health and safety are at risk. Precautionary health measures/materials, working arrangements, counselling, etc., are all imperative. Internal communication is also vital in a crisis, and management must be seen to ‘walk the talk’.”
He cited the example of whether an organization should apply for the Government’s Employment Support Scheme. If they don’t apply, it might lead to speculation that the organization is contemplating layoffs. This is just one example of how internal communication is a complex and demanding skill that must also align with an organization’s external messages.
Another critical aspect is that PR professionals must be empowered with the full trust of senior management in order to effectively contribute to the organization’s success.
Hong Kong Public Relations Professionals Association (PRPA) is the longest established organization for PR practitioners in Hong Kong. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, PRPA has launched a new Pledge for Public Relations Professionalism, creating a new benchmark for industry practitioners’ professionalism and commitment to excellence. HKGCC is a supporting organization of the PR Pledge.