I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to these Outlook articles for the better part of a decade now, and I’ve always found it a fun, if somewhat innocuous exercise. A chance to opine on the impact of great societal advancements on our profession. “How will flying cars re-shape networking?” “Will brain microchips replace news releases?” You get the idea. Benign stuff.
This year … well, this year feels different. A little more meaningful.
We need things to change in 2021. They must. And they will. We don’t know precisely when or how, but they will. With any luck, my 2022 Outlook article will be back to the banalities.
Until then, we’ve got our work cut out for us in 2021. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we greet these next strange, uncertain, unpredictable dozen months.
Rebuild Diminishing Bonds
We’ve all – in one way or another – felt the mental health effects of COVID-19. In some of us, it takes the form of depression, in others exhaustion. For many of us, it takes the form of detachment and isolation; this, too, is true in our relationships with the organizations and brands in our lives. From them, we are increasingly disengaged. To sum it up in one word, our relationships with many organizations in our lives has become “transactional.”
Pretend you lead marketing for a powerhouse private school. In most years, your relationship with your audiences – your students, faculty, alumni, prospects – are mission-centric, tinged with heart and emotion, and a shared bond. Schools are fueled by these long-lasting and deeply held connections. This year, though, our clients in the private-school world are echoing a common refrain: Everyone’s talking about money. “Will I get a refund for remote work?” “Will I get a discount because you took PPP money?” “How much will next year’s tuition cost?” “You (the School) provide a service and I (the family) pay the fees.” In the uncertainty and mania of this year, many of the pleasantries of our personal relationships have taken a back seat. It’s now become a transaction.
It’s not difficult to imagine how this transactional dynamic plays out in every industry and every key-audience relationship – from retail brands, to B-to-B, to everything in between. And recovering from this mindset shift – rebuilding the meaningful bonds between our companies/clients and our/their key audiences, will be a laboring process. But it’s one that should be done purposefully. Set rebuilding these bonds as a measurable goal. And focus on infusing mission into everything you communicate.
Continue Transformative Conversations
2020 was a transformational year in more ways than one. Yes, we reckoned with the impact of the global pandemic, but, on top of that, we experienced a national reckoning on the topics of social justice and institutional racism. In the backdrop of the pandemic, so many of these vitally important discussions took place in low-touch formats: via Zoom, perhaps, or via online petitions and the responses they solicit.
But social justice is a topic best explored in the most effective interpersonal ways.
As we return to a higher-touch, more deeply interpersonal method of gathering — in other words, as we begin to walk the same bits of carpet once again — we owe it to each other to reignite these conversations. The organizations that will make the most meaningful progress are those that initiate the conversation, rather than be forced into it. This, too, should be deliberate and purposeful.
Use Patience and Perspective
We’re all eager to get back to some sense of normalcy, and we will. But every indication is that some of us will arrive there a bit faster than others, with variations in vaccine distribution, unpredictable access to testing, fluid local restrictions and much more. Those organizations and individuals too quick to celebrate a return to normalcy risk alienating those still rebuilding and recovering, and tone-deafness is a powerful reputational risk for organizations of any kind.
Continue to keep the most affected of your audiences chief among your strategy, and avoid victory laps.
There’ll be time for that in 2022.
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