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2021 Trends Report: Corporate communications

Even the most visionary organizations could not have planned for the disruption we experienced in 2020. The pandemic forced companies to reshape the way they communicate with their employees, their clients and other stakeholders. It accelerated changes that would normally have taken years to implement. It forced businesses to deal with completely unforeseen crises and tested their resilience. Not to mention the social movements that added a layer of volatility to the climate. 2021 will be an opportunity for businesses to consolidate these changes, and to make sure they learn lessons from the challenges brought by the pandemic by reevaluating and rethinking their values, their objectives and their operations.

Here are the trends that our corporate and crisis communications experts see for 2021:

Scrutinized social engagement

After the Idle no more and Black Lives Matter movements and the growing awareness on mental health issues, organizations’ responses to major social issues are more decisive than ever. Employees, customers and stakeholders’ expectations are growing, and organizations are called upon to express their opinions on sometimes sensitive or controversial issues. Beyond bold statements, organizations are expected to demonstrate consistency between the values they advertise and their actions, both internal and external. On these matters, efforts are rarely recognized, but condemnations are irrevocable.

The level of commitment and authenticity displayed by leaders will be key in how organizations will adjust to this shift and deal with the challenges ahead.

Leslie Molko, chief of staff and director, Corporate Communications – NATIONAL Montreal

The importance of “employee experience”

The sanitary crisis pushed several companies to rethink their business model. While work from home is now part of the daily routine for many of them, others are making titanic efforts to attract employees. The odds are that “employee experience” will be increasingly valued in 2021. In a context of labour shortage, constant change and looming economic crisis, any good manager will have to consider employees as real customers, by offering them a work “experience”.

Employees are a company’s greatest asset—adopting the “employee experience” perspective allows employers to grasp the real issues behind attracting, retaining and engaging employees and, consequently, to implement effective strategies. The “employee shift” has begun!

Hugo Morissette, CRHA, director and leader, Analysis and Public Affairs – NATIONAL Montreal

Retooling for the new realities of the workplace

In 2020 organizations grappled with the most significant shifts in the workplace we have experienced in our entire lifetime. Remote working, shifts in mandates, added responsibilities and new processes became the constant for most organizations. Next year will bring even more changes as they look to balance operational efficiency, employee expectations for flexibility, and reskilling to meet demands of how we work.

In a recent Gartner report, 68% of HR professionals said they are focused on reskilling, upskilling and building new competencies for their organization. Senior leaders and managers will also need to be set up with effective change management skills and coaching to help identify not only the new skills required but how to map against existing skills on teams, while creating the flexibility and opportunities employees will look for in the coming years.

Kathryn Tector, senior vice-president and chief client officer – NATIONAL Atlantic

The lasting impacts of rapid digital transformation

Before the pandemic, any CEO or CTO would have stressed the importance of incorporating new technologies and processes to improve products, productivity, or even better society. However, this digital transformation was happening at a steady pace, without a sense of urgency.

Once the pandemic hit, it became critical for industries to act fast and to adapt to the new reality to remain profitable, productive and safe. According to an October 2020 McKinsey Global survey of executives, responses to COVID-19 have accelerated the adoption of digital technology by several years, with likely permanent impacts. More companies are taking risks, experimenting and seizing the opportunity to try something new. But what are the long-term effects of this rapid digital transformation? What new technological advancements will break through? How will the workforce change? What vulnerabilities will be exposed by innovating at such a fast pace? And finally, what industries will lag? These will be important questions to monitor in 2021.

Megan Shay, vice-president and practice lead, Technology – NATIONAL Toronto

Learning crisis planning lessons from 2020

With Canadians living in a constant state of public health crisis since March, we’ve witnessed the importance of communications during such difficult times, as government and health officials have been working tirelessly to convey guidelines and information about the pandemic to the public.

2020 has highlighted the key principles that enable successful communications in a crisis: accuracy, accountability and speed. The backbone of these fundamentals is preparation, and this will be more important than ever in 2021 as we continue to navigate uncharted waters. Organizations must ensure that, when a crisis hits, teams know their roles and responsibilities. If there’s one lesson to learn from 2020, it’s that establishing and maintaining a crisis plan is essential to avoid losing precious time at the outset, and enables your organization to quickly collect the information it needs to disseminate to stakeholders. Successful, accurate, early communication in a crisis has never been more important to establish credibility, build trust, and protect reputations.

Matt MacInnis, vice-president – NATIONAL Vancouver

The explosive impacts of growing polarization

Traditionally, organizations prepared for crises that could be caused by their decisions, their products or their actions. But times are changing. Today, something as simple as an untimely statement from an employee on a not-so-private platform, a client complaint or a demonstration from a militant group can ignite social media, cause panic among staff and even make its way into the agenda of journalists and politicians—before you even had your first cup of coffee.

The political and social polarization that culminated around the U.S. presidential election affects Canada, accentuating the intensity and unpredictability of crisis risks. Having a robust technological offering is crucial to monitor discussions and coordinate a timely response in the event of a crisis. But the most important qualities required to face such situations are, above all, human: calm, judgment, the capacity to make decisions and act decisively in some cases, and in others, the wisdom of holding off despite the pressure.

Leslie Molko, chief of staff and director, Corporate Communications – NATIONAL Montreal

Growing cyber security threats

Even before COVID-19 and the move to remote working, cyber security threats were growing in scale and complexity, and this trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Companies are increasingly vulnerable to the proliferation of ransomware, spear phishing, and deep fakes.

According to a survey of Canadian security professionals by VMware, 99% of respondents said the volume of cyber attacks had increased, and 86% said the attacks had become more sophisticated. Layer on increased exposure with dispersed workforces and greater regulatory scrutiny from the likes of Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIROC) that requires public companies to report cyber attacks within three days of an incident, and companies are under immense pressure to get a handle on threats in real time. The damage to a company’s reputation and business cannot be understated. According to a KPMG poll, 84% of respondents would consider taking their business elsewhere if a company failed to keep their data safe. Communications play a critical role in the development, testing, and implementation of crisis management plans.

Karen White, vice-president, Crisis and Issues Management – NATIONAL Atlantic

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