COM professors Arunima Krishna and Raymond L. Kotcher.

Q&A with COM’s Arunima Krishna and Ray Kotcher

By Burt Glass

One public relations professional, responding last year to an industry survey conducted by COM researchers, memorably referred to top managers as “dinosaurs in the boardroom” whose organizations needed to be more agile in a quickly changing environment.

That need for agility has only grown more urgent in the year since, according to this year’s Bellwether Survey, just published by PRWeek and conducted by COM professors Raymond L. Kotcher, Arunima Krishna and Donald K. Wright.

Responses were collected from more than 2000 public relations professionals between March 25 and May 9 — a time when the impact of COVID-19 pandemic was quickly growing but before the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the protests that followed.

COMtalk spoke with Krishna and Kotcher about this year’s survey and what it means for the public relations industry.

COMtalk: What was the most significant finding of this year’s Bellwether Survey?

Krishna: Agility was noted by several participants as being key for the PR industry in the coming decade. As noted by one respondent, “Agility will win. Companies have to get better at quickly assimilating info and pivoting to deal.” Another participant stated that PR pros “have to be flexible and agile to meet the new demands of the customers during the evolving technical changes.”

Highly agile companies were found to have much higher scores on different organizational outcomes such as the importance of purpose, employee empowerment, progress on building a diverse workforce, than low-agility organizations.

We have known for a while that agility is important, and so we expected highly agile cultures to have better outcomes. But what was surprising was just how much higher agile organizations scored on key outcomes.

People were responding to your survey during the early weeks of the pandemic. Which audiences were top of mind for them as they managed communications for their companies and clients?

Krishna: Employees were overwhelmingly reported to be the most important stakeholders to communicate with during the pandemic, with 66% of the participants ranking them No. 1.

Kotcher: Companies have to start on the inside, and figure out how to work outward. The second audience was the customer and companies had to figure out how to keep them engaged.

Employees and internal audiences had already been growing in importance. All good communication needs to reflect the realities of the organization. Good organizations focus on internal behavior, cultural work, and how communication can play a role. That strategic imperative was growing rapidly anyway but today it’s job one.

To move through a disruptive moment or become a disruptor, employees need to be there first.

Has the pandemic changed perceptions about the role of public relations among top management and boards?

Kotcher: Without a doubt. Communications, then and now, is being put to the test. But the pandemic pulled the Band-Aid off every organization and it changed everything. Communications is more central and more valued than ever before.

Today it needs to be almost instantaneous, and when you talk to people at the top of the comms function, they say that agility is key.

It’s all about time now. In the past you had much more of it. It’s imperative, perhaps more than ever before, to be authentic, compassionate and to behave ethically. But things now have to be rapid and in short form.

This pandemic moment caused disruption on a massive scale. Organizations had to respond quickly. At that moment, employees couldn’t work in the regular way so companies had to shift really, really fast. Every institution had to figure it out and dial it up.

It’s not down on any map, as Melville said, but true places never are.

The survey was completed just before the killing of George Floyd, but does the survey shed any light on the current sense of unrest in the country?

Kotcher: Think about the television commercials you see now and how they’ve changed, and how much of it is about social purpose and what the company is contributing back to society. And a lot of it is about local communities and small businesses.

Change was accelerated, it is real, and it’s permanent. Communicators are having to adapt quickly.

What should a public relations student take away from this study?

Krishna: A public relations student can use this study to learn about the current state of the field, and the importance of being agile and flexible in their own work, which is something we try to inculcate in the classroom.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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