John Berard
John Berard

There are many hard lessons for the public relations business coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating effects on employment and the economy. But with the death of George Floyd under the boot of a police officer and the public reaction to it, there is even more for us to know.

Each lesson will affect our work and the way it is done, but the most significant lesson is the death of nuance.

People working from home will test the limits of a company’s culture, but there will be fewer people working at all. Their commitment to finding and doing good work will depend on a balanced partnership with companies.

The economy can revive if consumer spending rebounds, but people are saving money at a rate not seen in more than 40 years. Our willingness to re-engage will depend not just on product, but on company behavior.

Trust will remain an essential element of business success, even though Edelman’s Trust Barometer Spring 2020 update puts CEOs at the bottom of pandemic performance. The task will be to give consumers a reason to reassess.

And as people have taken to the streets to demand an end to racial injustice, being out there with them or not is no longer an intellectual choice driven by a list of pros-and-cons, but a requirement for companies. This is what I mean by the end of nuance.

Corporate communications often gets drawn into battles, not of its choosing, but this time is more urgent. It is not enough to balance the need to say something with the danger of diminishing market demand because product value now includes company values.

As the country battles a dug-in virus, a teetering economy and its own historic racial demons, communications professionals should want to actively engage beyond the product specs and performance.

The end of nuance will mean taking a side.

The dark days of union-busting 90 years ago have given us a lyric for the day. They were written in response to the dangers faced by mineworkers in Kentucky, hounded by Sheriff Blair for their efforts to unionize. The title of the song is a question for us now: “Which Side Are You On?” 

Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

“There were no neutrals there,” there can be none here.

For an economy based on consumer spending, individual confidence is essential. Right now, consumers are not confident, and we won’t be for at least for the next two years. The fear of the pandemic, paired with anger over racial injustice, is feeding an uneasy political election season. What follows will be an anxious start of a new (or continuing) Presidential term that will lead to social progress, or not.

We are and will be focused on life, not lifestyle. We won't aspire as much, and instead, seek to regain our footing.  And we won’t see (or be moved) by the many shades of gray that are the nuanced palette of public relations as much as we will demand the clarity of black-and-white.

Trust and purpose won’t disappear from the playing field, but they will be recast as elements or outcomes of business success, not its raw material.

Neither is authenticity going away. What a company is will remain an essential question, but the value of what a company makes, even as the measure of value extends beyond performance of the product to the behavior of the company—toward customers, employees and partners—will become the point of the spear.

What comes next will diminish fad and celebrity. It will put a premium on consistency and kept promises. It will grant market success to companies whose products meet the needs of anxious customers, eager for value now and the values that will drive what comes next.

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John Berard, founder of Credible Context, is a public relations consultant and privacy advocate based in Oregon.