Countless people have said it, but this year really was anything but predictable. Despite the sudden change, the year wasn’t all doom and gloom. Mental health was discussed more, social justice movements really accelerated, carbon emissions dropped at the height of lockdown, Animal Crossing had its time in the limelight, and most of us learnt how to make bread and other baked goods.

With 2020 almost behind us, we’ve been having some great discussions here at Firefly about what we think the year ahead holds, so here are six of the main trends we’ve come up with that we think will have a huge impact on the world of comms in 2021.

Stronger communication of social and political movements 

This year, we have seen social justice efforts dialled up drastically. Hugely important topics such as climate change, animal rights, and wellbeing were brought to the awareness of the masses more so than ever before this year. However, the most powerful of which was undoubtedly the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, where many stood in solidarity to fight against racial oppression and reflected on the prejudices within their own societies. The impactful global movement not only brought these issues to the front of everyone’s minds, but it also prompted action from a number of organisations and effective communication became key.

As we approach 2021, it is likely that topics much like these will continue to surface, causing a shift in both corporate and consumer behaviour. Responding in the wrong way, or not responding at all, can have a negative knock-on effect on the reputation of individuals and/or companies, so being prepared for communicating on issues will be a key consideration as we enter the new year. 

Move over media relations

In the coming year, the face of PR will change, even more so than it has already. Companies, and particularly in-house PR teams, are focusing less and less on traditional media coverage. Of course, the media remains an important audience to communicate to, but comms specialists must start to look at the reputation all around them, not just in the media. Finding the right means of communication will become crucial to helping build or improve the reputation of organisations or individuals. With tactics such as SEO, employer branding, and other reputation-building tactics becoming more and more impactful, it’s clear that media relations alone simply won’t cut it anymore. As an industry, we must start to adapt, develop, and innovate in 2021, pushing communication to its full potential.

Tim believes that “The best campaigns nowadays hit different audiences, in different ways, and at different times, and the truth is that media relations on its own doesn’t usually deliver that as effectively as a wider comms campaign.”

Cancel culture continues on

Prior to this year, we knew cancel culture was a thing, but with the power of social media and the increase of social justice movements, both the extent and frequency has increased a fair bit. Most infamously this year was the fall of the once beloved writer, J.K. Rowling who voiced opinions that many deemed as anti-transgender. Despite numerous attempts to repair her reputation by demonstrating support and clarification on her opinions, J.K.’s cancel saga continues.

So far, the comms industry has had some trouble with understanding and getting to grips with cancel culture. And this is only expected to get harder in the coming year. Our words, especially on social media, can make a huge impact. Now that those involved in cancel culture know that it works, it’s likely that this will only increase just how much they partake in the public shaming of brands. Going forward, we must start to take cancel culture seriously.

For anyone who’s still new to cancel culture or wants to learn a bit more, we wrote a blog about it recently. You can read it here.

The battle against misinformation continues 

We wrote a blog last year about deepfakes being a big threat to the media, and the efforts of those involved in spreading misinformation have really ramped up since. The pandemic has caused a huge amount of misinformation to be spread as many questioned the virus, the causes and eventually the vaccine. In retaliation, the World Health Organisation coined the phrase “infodemic” to explain this plethora of information and its rapid spread. Social media giants even began to crack down on misinformation by flagging posts that may have inaccuracies or be deceptive – hopefully, this will be just the start of the likes of Facebook and Twitter preventing the spread of fake news.

In the next year, it’s likely we will begin to see some real innovation in this area and a shift in behaviour, but it won’t be easy. Comms will have a tricky year ahead trying to deliver accurate, reliable, and credible information, and if the culture of misinformation continues to grow and become more mainstream, this will cause even more challenges!

Empathy, care, and continued commitment

After being subject to nationwide and local lockdowns, where many of us were unable to see our closest friends and families, we all needed a little boost. Everyone has already begun to pay close attention to their own mental wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around them. Even the government has begun to comment on this too. With so much focus on this, it is almost definitely something that will impact the year ahead. For comms professionals, communicating with care is key and care should be top of the agenda for leaders too.

Christian thinks that “The Covid-19 vaccine will take a long time to change the world stage, so people will be working remotely for some time yet. This means that leaders must continue being inspiring, motivating their staff, and making difficult decisions for some time yet. It’s time to dig deep and communicate clearly, powerfully and responsibly.”

Planning for uncertain times

As we know, this year hasn’t been predictable at all, and actually, it’s uncertain just how much we can know about the next year. Despite the uncertainty, we can plan for the year ahead by ensuring there is fluidity interwoven into our plans. Pre-Covid, it was easy enough for us to plan around big events, or key moments in the calendar for the following year. Due to the vaccine being distributed, we can almost start planning in this way again, but we must ensure we have a back-up plan if these milestone moments in the year are postponed or cancelled.

According to Charlotte, “A full, detailed yearly plan has not been ‘a thing’ for a while, things change far too fast to look that far ahead. There is still uncertainty around the corner, so comms planning must be fluid and we must give ourselves room to flex, to either face new challenges or take advantage of new opportunities.”

There are, of course, countless other trends that are likely to make an impact in the year ahead, but these are the six we really think you, as a comms professional, would benefit from keeping a close eye on. This year has been an interesting one to say the least, but we’ve all learnt a lot, and despite the uncertainty, some great things have happened. From us at Firefly, we hope you have a wonderful festive break, enjoy time with loved ones, and recharge those batteries for a brilliant new year ahead. And of course, hopefully the newfound baking skills many of us picked up in lockdown can come in handy for whipping up some festive treats while playing Michael Bublé on repeat!

There was a time when fake news only affected politics and candidates in elections. But a recent trend has seen fake news begin to target brands.

The fact-checking website Snopes is full of fake news being busted, including a claim that Snapchat’s image feature filter “lenses” is covertly collecting a database of faces to share with law enforcement agencies. Another story about Starbucks offering free Frappuccinos to undocumented US migrants also circulated, though seemed to be politically motivated and started by a 4Chan user.

For PR professionals, this trend is of concern. Fake news has already caused havoc in the political sphere and causes reputational damage. Lies tend to travel much faster than the truth, and fake news is designed to travel quickly through the internet, meaning brands need to be switched onto the threat these lies present to the business.

To combat this, PR professionals must think about how to use listening tools and utilise community management to combat any fake news that does arise about their brand.

The role of community management and social listening

Whilst community management may suggest a single location, your community is built up of multiple locations throughout the internet: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google+, Reddit, forums and comment sections on your blog or earned coverage.

Community management is very separate from social media marketing – it’s all about what happens beyond your social media publishing and positive engagement. It is dominated by listening to the internet and reacting when appropriate.

This act of social listening helps brands to monitor social media and other channels for mentions of the brand, competitors and products. This insight can be used to engage customers and monitor sentiment for your brand. It’s important to stress that social listening shouldn’t just be limited to Facebook and Twitter, and by casting a wider net you’ll get better insights from different platforms. The conversations on LinkedIn, for example, will be very different to those on Reddit.

There are many tools that help with social listening, however Hootsuite is a Firefly favourite and one we use for our own Twitter account, and to monitor the client’s Twitter accounts that we manage. There is a free version which is suitable for SMBs to use, but paid for options for larger companies that may have multiple feeds and accounts to manage. It can monitor your Twitter feeds, as well as Facebook and LinkedIn. Tools like TrackReddit are also good for tracking conversations about your brands in forums.

In the context of fake news, social listening tools like Hootsuite and TrackReddit can help brands to spot problems relatively quickly. With feeds to monitor your mentions and branded search terms, it’s easy to see how a brand can pick up on fake news and act swiftly to quell the story.

Squashing fake news

Squashing fake news is much like reacting to a crisis for your brand. You must react quickly, confidently and tackle the issue at hand, before it begins to cause long term problems. There are three things you need to know to tackle it effectively: what to look for, who to go to and how to react.

  1. What to look for: Being part of the communications and marketing team, you’re typically the best person to know whether a story about your brand is correct or not. Something about an article or a social media post will just inherently feel off to you. Most fake news websites will be sparse on details about themselves. If you have access to a media database like Gorkana, you can use that to check the legitimacy of a publication. Some fake news websites will even say they’re a fake news publication in the privacy and T&Cs section.
  2. Who to go to: Internally, it’s best to have a list of names you can go to in the event of verifying information, so you don’t delay on finding out who to go to for a specific issue. For example, if a fake offer is circulating about your brand then you need to know who in the marketing team is best placed to answer questions about promotions.
  3. How to react: Sometimes you may need to gather extra information from social media. The Starbucks team was able to quickly react to the fake news circulating about the brand on social media because it was able to dig out further information about the vouchers offering free drinks.

The speed of your reaction is one of the most important to squashing false claims made about a brand. The Starbucks team took a sensible approach – calling it out pretty much straight away – which any brand should follow in the situation. It’s difficult to take something down from the internet once it’s up, so once you’re confident, take a stance early on to call it out “this is false”, rather than trying to have articles taken down.

Brands and politicians are still waiting on Facebook and Google to properly counteract fake news with fact-checking services and verified publisher logos for news services. Fake news is not a problem that will go away overnight and with the rise of stories now targeting brands, it’s clear that community management and social listening has a huge part to play in reputation management.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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