2021 Trends for Communicators to Watch

January 2021
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As we start the new year, many of us hope to move on from 2020 as quickly as possible. Last year will be hard to beat in terms of pain, suffering and divisive politics, including the coronavirus pandemic, the death of George Floyd, the subsequent protests for racial equity and the turbulent presidential election. 

To prepare for the year ahead, communicators can explore a range of possible and probable futures, from worst-case to extremely positive. We’ll likely end up somewhere in-between. Here are some trends for PR pros to consider: 

Vaccine acceptance

By late December, the FDA had authorized two COVID-19 vaccines in the United States, with the first shots going to front-line health care workers and people in long-term care facilities. Vaccinating the world against COVID-19 will be one of the greatest public health initiatives of our time.

A Gallup Poll from Dec. 8 shows that 63 percent of Americans say they’re willing to be vaccinated, a slight improvement from an earlier survey. Convincing more people won’t be easy, and delays in vaccinations may prolong the pandemic. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post on Nov. 23: “75 percent of Americans need to be vaccinated for America to return to normal.” 

Action step: Communicators can work with leadership and HR to help encourage employees to receive COVID-19 vaccines. 

A return to the office

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers who have been working from home during the pandemic would like to continue to do so, a Gallup Poll found in September. Breaking the 9–5 office paradigm will be difficult for business leaders. But for many workers, a new, hybrid paradigm is already here, allowing them to work remotely or from an office when necessary. 

Action step: If your organization strongly believes that all of its workers should be in the office, consider communications to re-sell employees on the benefits of working face-to-face in a central location. Of course, returning to work safely will also require workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, so those communications should be complementary. 

Hungry Americans

By the end of 2020, more than 50 million Americans could experience “food insecurity,” meaning they will be hungry and won’t know where their next meal will come from, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization. More than half of those hungry households are white. As National Geographic reports, the number of people likely to experience food insecurity represents a 50 percent increase over 2019, as shutdowns in response to the pandemic have left more Americans one paycheck or one medical bill away from hunger.

Action step: Consider mobilizing your organization’s employees to make donations to local food banks and to schools that offer food programs for kids.

Mental health issues

According to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, the combination of COVID-19, the resulting hit to the economy, racial unrest and the presidential election has caused high stress levels for Americans. In the months and years ahead, “This compounding stress will have serious health and social consequences if we don’t act now to reduce it,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., the APA’s chief executive officer.

Action step: Internal communicators can work with company leaders to craft messages that empathize with employees who are feeling stress, and promote HR services to help employees reduce their stress.

Fewer journalists

For many PR professionals, media relations is still the core of our business. But there are fewer reporters and editors to pitch. More than 11,000 journalists lost their jobs in 2020, adding to a long-term trend, Axios reports. According to the Poynter Institute, 1,800 newspapers have ceased publishing since 2004, reducing local news opportunities for your clients and organizations. 

Action step: Communicators, working with marketing, HR and other departments, should continue investing in owned media channels such as websites, social media, podcasts and email newsletters that communicate directly to customers and other stakeholders. At the same time, communicators also need to keep building their networks of influencers, which will likely include former journalists who are creating their own media entities, such as a Substack newsletter.

Gender and racial equality

According to McKinsey & Company’s “Women in the Workplace 2020” report, before 2020 women and men had consistently left their companies at comparable rates. But because of the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce, in part to care for children who are home because of school closures and “remote learning.” If those women leave the workforce, companies will have far fewer women in leadership roles. According to McKinsey, Black women, Latinas and Asian women are also more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Action step: Corporate communicators have an opportunity to lead for gender equity and against racism in the workplace. Work with other department heads to conduct audits of how well the organization meets the needs of women and employees of color.

New shopping realities

Even before COVID-19, shopping was changing dramatically, as more consumers made purchases online or in big-box stores. When the pandemic hit and persisted, those dynamics accelerated. A number of iconic brands (J.C. Penney, Brooks Brothers, Chuck E. Cheese, Pier 1) that were already fighting the likes of Amazon, Walmart, Target and Costco, declared bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, new shopping experiences are emerging. Consumers are having meals delivered, subscribing to apps that help them live healthier lifestyles, and even having cars delivered to their homes for test drives. The future will involve more online shopping, more outside pickup, more takeout and more local deliveries as consumers find that these services free up their time.

Action step: Communicators can work closely with marketing and sales to explore new ways of delivering products and services directly to customers’ doors.

In our digital disinformation age, trust has never been more in danger. PR pros must work to build trust by helping organizational leaders communicate their visions of preferred futures as they wrestle with present-day challenges. 

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