Most of us would like to forget 2020. Phrases from dystopian society science fiction movies suddenly became part of our new vernacular—global pandemic, lock down, travel restrictions, social distancing, quarantine, record-breaking unemployment and, not to be forgotten, toilet paper shortages.

Before March 2020 most of us never could have envisioned what would come in the months ahead.

Companies who provided services—including travel, hospitality, restaurants, home repair, fitness or beauty industries—suddenly saw their worlds turned upside down. Their long-trusted business models had to evolve, in some cases nearly overnight, in order for them to survive. Many who had never conceived of a remote workforce or utilizing digital solutions had to embrace change and find innovative ways to continue to provide their services.

New challenges emerged for individuals too. Parents fortunate enough to not be affected by record-breaking layoffs and furloughs now frequently stayed home to work. They took on new roles and became teaching assistants to their children, who were suddenly thrust into remote learning to keep them safe.

Social events, concerts, sports and even happy hours came to an abrupt halt. Even seemingly sacred life events—weddings, funerals, births and graduations—suddenly looked very different.

While we dealt with the physical, psychological and economic hardships imposed by a global pandemic, we also faced great social unrest and political divide as a nation. Misinformation seemed to be everywhere, and trust forgotten.

But, during these difficult times, some weathered the storm and emerged stronger. As news and guidelines changed daily, and sometimes by the hour, strong communications became the key to success. Companies and individuals who thrived followed basic tenets of public relations—be transparent, demonstrate caring and communicate what you know when you know it.

Within large companies, public information officers became essential workers. Many smaller companies without internal public relations resources turned to trusted agency partners for help. Either way public relations leaders helped organizations navigate the troubled waters of 2020—monitoring consumer reviews and social media feedback, keeping in front of sensitive issues, coaching executives on media responses and developing strategic communications plans. Strategic PR leaders counseled their employers and clients to look at the big picture. They advised business decisions that may have been difficult in the short term but would be best for employees and their organizations, helping boost employee engagement, productivity and brand reputation in the long-term.

As the pandemic progressed and the only constant was change, PR professionals served a critical function. They ensured their organization’s most valuable asset—its employees—had the latest information to stay safe.

Quickly communicating changes to safety guidelines and other important updates with all stakeholders was a necessity. This was especially true in fields like health care and education, where changes seemed nearly endless. To achieve their communications goals, effective PR practitioners used traditional tools of the trade—social media updates, web alerts, newsletters, memos and news releases—and adopted new tactics like virtual town hall meetings, video updates and Zoom meetings to ensure safety.

Success stories came from those who demonstrated compassion for their employees and communities while continuing to focus on the customer experience. Home improvement retailers Lowe’s and Home Depot were ahead of the curve when they adopted masking and social distancing for their employees and quickly transitioned to offer new services like curbside pick-up to keep their customers safe and business booming. Their early adoption of omnichannel marketing allowed a more seamless shopping-from-home experience for their customers.

Many companies were able to control their own stories and gained positive media coverage by sharing their new work-from-home policies, assistance efforts for workers impacted by COVID-19 or company community service initiatives—whether helping at food banks or contributing to a fundraiser for essential workers. This proactive public relations approach helped build good will for their organizations in their respective communities.  

No matter the industry, companies who demonstrated caring for their employees and quickly adopted CDC best practices for safety—including social distancing, masking and working remotely—received praise and gratitude from their workers, reaffirming the trend that consumers today value socially responsible companies and will show loyalty to brands they trust.

On the flip side, companies who pushed on with business as usual frequently took hits to their reputations. Packing plants and nursing homes who were late to adopt safety precautions for their staff members received negative coverage as COVID-19 outbreaks swept through their workforces, leading to widespread illness, absenteeism and deaths—causing irreparable harm to workers, their families and company image.  

Other companies received public rebuke for business decisions that negatively affected employees. Billionaire CEO Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic came under fire after asking staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave due to flight cancellations and falling demand due to the COVID-19 crisis. This action led to significant public backlash and #boycottvirgin quickly became a trending topic.

Despite the many challenges of 2020, we all learned some lessons and positives emerged. While quarantining and maintaining safe social distance, we gained time with family members, found a renewed appreciation of nature, adopted more pets, invested more in our homes, improved our awareness of social and racial inequity, innovated to stay relevant and learned not to take any aspect of life for granted. Public relations practitioners also gained some job security as their many contributions became more visible during this sustained crisis.

Despite its many challenges, 2020 cemented the importance of public relations – an essential resource for building trust, elevating brands and helping businesses gain coveted consumer loyalty.