Ted Birkhahn, Co-founder & President at Hot Paper Lantern
Featured Contributor

In talking with senior communications leaders this year, I consistently heard that this year’s profound challenges represented an incredible opportunity for us to demonstrate the weight of our expertise in helping brands and business leaders navigate uncharted territories. 

But beyond solidifying our essential role in reputation management, 2020 also uncovered the pitfalls that happen when external forces drastically shift the landscape. This year also showed the need for communications leaders to enhance digital communications and experiences to maximize their ability to reach and influence key stakeholders.

Earning the vaunted seat at the table

Some expressed that the events of 2020 elevated the role of communications among the C-suite and board level like never before. With a deep understanding of the needs and perceptions of key audiences, many found themselves in the position of moving the company from saying the right things to doing the right things. The old adage that actions speak louder than words has never been truer than it is today. 

While a number of communications leaders have been preaching this for years, many C-suite leaders have been reluctant in the past to heed the advice. This is where the risk comes in: you only get one crack at the bat to prove your worth, especially if your organization didn’t see communications in this light previously. In our unforgiving world, many I’ve spoken to said that if they didn’t make the right choices or didn’t step up, they would be doing a huge disservice not just to their careers, but to the profession as a whole. 

Enhancing Reputation Management

This year also underscored the opportunities, as well as risks and pitfalls, to build reputation more effectively through integrated approaches that rely heavily – if not entirely – on robust digital channels and experiences. As a result, many organizations were forced to accelerate initiatives that prioritize the advancement of their efforts to engage and influence audiences through digital and virtual means. 

What’s more, many are recognizing that marketing and communications teams should no longer be segregated within their organizations and they are actively working to break down those silos. In doing so, they are increasingly going to market by audience and gaining a deeper understanding of the needs, perceptions and fears that drive the decisions and behaviors of these groups. 

There is also growing recognition of the role that audience experience plays in strategic communications. Regardless of how creative or compelling a brand’s message is, if it is delivered via an inferior platform or experience, it’s likely to fail. If 2020 has taught us anything, the medium in which we tell our stories is as important as the message. 

Leaning into vulnerability

I’ve also heard from communicators who have spent their careers trying to protect leaders from vulnerable situations. Now, they find themselves preparing leaders to lean into uncomfortable conversations with employees and other audiences about contentious issues, such as racism, economic hardships and health fears. To lead in 2020 and beyond, leaders must embrace vulnerability in order to build meaningful and lasting rapport with the audiences they covet. We have to look at all audiences with empathy and understanding for their unique perceptions and perspectives.

The issues we faced and how they influenced our world, our jobs and the decisions we made are likely to intensify in 2021. I hope that we will continue to embrace these challenges and further demonstrate how critical we are to the success of our organizations.