ICCO Global Summit: Learnings and future action

The ICCO Global Summit – which brings together the brightest minds in the industry to discuss and advance new ideas and catalyse innovation through dialogue and collaboration– returned as a hybrid event this year. Over two days, we listened and learned from PR and communications experts and futurists from over 30 different countries.

How did it go? From the reactions pouring in from PR leaders across the world, I would say the Summit went incredibly well. We came away with new approaches and gameplans that will help us navigate our everchanging world, prioritise our employees and local community members, engage in deeper and more courageous conversations and engineer an enduring legacy for our industry and our world.

We had some great content with talent, integrated communications, purpose, ESG, and transparency coming out as key themes. My takeaways from the Summit which should be acted upon right now:

Invest in your people’s well-being – nothing is more important

We all are aware that the Covid-19 aftermath put greater emphasis than ever on the well-being of workforces. Mental health has emerged as one of the key subjects in discussions around employee welfare. And really, we’d be foolhardy to ignore this much-needed conversation. Look at what’s happening to those who have done that. They are bearing the brunt of the Great Resignation. In all the discussions on talent at the Summit, the top reasons cited for people leaving included excessive workload, toxic culture, lack of recognition, inequitable work-life balance, and unfair treatment. Which means, workforces today will no longer lay low and tolerate sub-par working conditions.

If we want to retain talent and expect them to be sincere and committed, we must prioritise creating work environments that make them feel seen, heard, and recognised. According to The Bravery Mandate, WE’s 2021 Brands in Motion Reports, respondents have rated employee wellbeing and personal needs (physical, mental, and financial) as the most important issue. And employees have been rated as the group leaders need to communicate with the most (over customers, shareholders, and the media).

Flexibility is the key in this new era

In 2022 and beyond, we must make it our purpose to rebuild a company culture that has employee engagement, growth, and welfare at its core. To do that we must move with the times and find a middle ground, starting with embracing the hybrid work model with new openness. Surveys have shown that many employees would like to continue remote work, while some want to return to work in an office. Flexibility is the key here.

Important data for your consideration:

  • Surveys have shown that flexible and remote working is more important than financial benefit for employees.
  • Flexible working has gone up by 91% this year (for men and women) in PR.
  • Remote working has gone up by 20% in one year.

The hybrid model will differ from office to office. Regardless of how it is executed, organisations must exercise empathy and listen to employees’ feedback and then incorporate them in their decision-making. Forcing employees to come to work full time is clearly not favoured.

Help employees cope with mental health issues

The pandemic has exacerbated people’s mental health problems, and it is our responsibility to equip our employees with tools and resources to protect their mental well-being. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Conduct regular employer surveys to detect and understand mental health problems in the organisation. During the pandemic, we had conducted several surveys, which had specific questions on mental health, and that helped us gauge the problems faced by our people.
  • Drive awareness and action on mental health by encouraging people to openly talk about mental health and back up that talk with action. For example, my firm launched a #WECare initiative, a couple of years back, to improve people’s mental and physical health. As part of this programme, we host webinars with mental health experts and encourage our people to discuss their problems.
  • Make mental health services more accessible to employees. Here again, I will give another example from my firm. We launched an ‘Employee Assistance Program’ to provide counselling services to employees. The initiative includes a mental well-being support helpline and free access to resources such as open webinars, reading material, to name a few.
  • Strive for work-life balance. I know that sounds impossible in the PR industry, but push back on unrealistic demands and deadlines whenever possible.

Bottomline: To make the industry more attractive to young talent, we must continue to champion our people: ensure that they feel good about the company they work for, their contributions, and the company’s larger purpose—and that they tell their friends about it. Annabel Dunstan’s, Founder and CEO, Question and Retail, four-point plan for people retention hit the right chord with me: Listen Better, React Better, Feedback Better and Engage Better.

Break down the silos – integration is the way forward

Agility is key in 2022 and beyond. We cannot deliver on client expectations and manage them if we don’t creatively collaborate and integrate our services. The World PR Report has shown that the industry continues to have the best of both worlds – old school skills are still heavily in demand, but digital competence, insight, corporate reputation management and strategic counsel continue to power ahead.

We already own digital and continue to provide non-PR services such as marketing and advertising, and this dynamic merger is paying dividends, as was pointed out by Francis Ingham. But we must challenge ourselves to incorporate more integrated capabilities into our campaigns. For this, we need to build a team of people from diverse professional backgrounds. PR jobs have already evolved over the past decade, and we are seeing new roles such as insights and analytics experts, data specialists, social media managers, brand journalists, to name a few. As the economy and job markets evolve, new roles will emerge.

According to a report released by The World Economic Forum, 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between human, machines, and algorithms over the next five years. We must be ready to bring together different species of PR specialists to continue to demonstrate our value. I know hiring from outside the industry is a pain point, but if we can demonstrate our value, show that the possibilities are limitless when you work in PR, and focus on the wellbeing of our people, we will attract diverse talent.

Bottomline: Integrated communications is a tremendous asset that will help our clients achieve an even greater level of brand and product success, through strong integrated storytelling across the entire media ecosystem. We just have to be passionate about helping clients solve challenges and create approaches that incorporate the right blend of capabilities.

Purpose means bold and brave action

Only brands that have the courage to take bold and long-term action on deep and complex issues will flourish in 2022 and beyond. The days of armchair activism are over. A decade ago, consumers would believe whatever a brand said if it was said with confidence and aplomb. But today, where information access is at our fingertips, consumers will look for evidence. Sustainability pledges that won’t come due for decades to come aren’t good enough. The people in your community need to see the impact of your actions with their own eyes.

During most of the discussions at the Summit, the call for businesses to increase their environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) performance was stronger than ever. More and more consumers are expecting socially responsible and sustainable practices across industries and business sectors. Investors and policymakers too are seeking out and supporting businesses that prioritise ESG. Even consumers and B2B decision-makers surveyed for the latest WE Brands in Motion report, rated environmental sustainability and income equality among the top issues brands must address.

Bottomline: As their strategic partners, it will be a key communications priority to help brands create an authentic purpose legacy by building on their core promise and making deep and sustained investments in the issues their stakeholders care about most.

The power of integrity and transparency can’t be overlooked

The profound upheavals of the past 18 months have made the clamour for authenticity a business imperative. As the Executive Director for Communications, UK Government, Alex Aiken, said, “Truth and openness are more important than ever in modern communications.” A few recommendations on how we can go about it:

  • Always defend the truth: The erosion of trust in the media and the proliferation of social channels and online sources of news have resulted in a misinformation surge. As communicators, we must be scrupulous about the facts of any story we promote and hold both clients and journalists accountable. It is our moral responsibility to work with only recognised experts to bring fact-based, unbiased information to our clients and their stakeholders. Everything published must be attributed to a credible source. For this, we must consider investing in fact-
    checking tools.
  • Fight for a free press: Communicators should do their part in restoring faith in free media and free speech – both essential to an effective PR business. The need of the hour: a concerted effort by all stakeholders – communications firms, news organisations, brands, technology providers and users – to sustain a vibrant, authentic media.
  • Use technology responsibly: Technology will continue to present golden opportunities to innovate and advance. But we must strike a balance between innovation and ethics and choose what works best for our clients without sacrificing consumer privacy.
  • Amplify communications efforts by government agencies: In any public health crisis, a government often faces challenges in conveying messages to the public and in the absence of information, people fall prey to misinformation. PR professionals should consider how they can use their gift of communications to support government efforts by creating and delivering powerful, persuasive messaging. For, example, to counter anti vaccination campaigns, a game-changing collaboration of vaccine stakeholders, supported by communication strategists, is the need of the hour.
  • Stick to your values: We are cognisant of the fact that for PR agencies, our clients are our customers. And, just like their customers, clients today are more inclined towards working with agencies that put purpose over profits – agencies that really care about their people, community, and the environment they operate in. And that is what our employees – arguably our most important stakeholders – expect of us too. Employees want to work with organisations that they can be proud of. Surveys have shown that Millennials and Gen Z will be only willing to work if their values are aligned with a company. So, while we counsel our clients on purpose, we also need to put our money where our mouth is. If we think a brand’s actions are against our values, we must choose ethics over commerce and have the courage and conviction to push back.

Bottomline: The responsibility to maintain ethical standards extends to every single member of the PR fraternity. Till the time we walk the talk, we will not find a cure to the industry’s ethical dilemma.

In conclusion, I hope communications continues to be a catalyst of change. The pandemic has shone a light on the vital importance of communications and PR. But we cannot be complacent. We need to keep communicating from a place of purpose, clarity and empathy and show people a new way forward – a way that illuminates our shared humanity.

Nitin Mantri
President, ICCO
Group CEO, AvianWE