Every year at the post-Christmas point where I open the fridge door and wonder why the hell we bought so much cheese, something comes over me.

Fuelled by Shropshire Blue I set myself the challenge of writing predictions. I look back too at what predictions I got right.

After 2020, there’s a temptation to throw everything up in the air and take-up knitting.

But what the heck.

Predictions I got right for 2020

Well, I did say that ‘if the last 12-months have been turbulent the next year will be more so.’ To be honest, I was thinking more political Brexit-shaped turbulence rather than pandemic. Such simpler times.

Prompted by the pace of change in the landscape, I also said that teams that make a root-and-branch review every 12-months will prosper. COVID-19 has made things change faster. It has bulldozed IT departments, flattened chief executives and exposed the tardy. I stand by this.

Local newspapers and local radio have become more trusted. This happened. Traditional news brands was where 70 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds got their pandemic information. That rose to 94 per cent for over 65s. We trust traditional brands. We just don’t fancy paying for them.

Nationalism has grown. Britain, the country where I grew up has been changed by Westminster’s tack to what would have been called the extreme right when I was a kid. Three hundred years of peace on the island has put down firm roots which are being pulled apart. English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish nationalism have all risen.

Mental health washing has been endemic. We’ve all seen it. The email once a year that reminds you to take regular breaks cynically sent with one eye on an industrial tribunal. Utterly undone, of course, by demands of 14-hour days for nine months straight.

TikTok did become more important doubling in size to more than 12-million users. NHS comms was all about crisis comms. Facebook groups did grow with 66 per cent of the platform’s users using them. With groups and closed networks like WhatsApp, the need for pre-buttals is ever more important. Have we woken up to this? We’re starting to. But very, very slowly.

Predictions I got wrong in 2020

The need for more regulation of social media platforms was made clear by the pandemic. I reckoned there wouldn’t be much change. Late in 2020, UK Government gave its belated response to 2019’s Online Harms whitepaper. Change is likely to come. But lets see.

Brexit cast a long shadow. Kent became a lorry park. But overshadowed by the public health emergency it wasn’t as marked as I’d have thought. In the South East, late 2019 was pretty grim. But the last minute deal averted the disaster of no deal on the country.

Ethics were challenged less than I predicted. Britain has long had an independent civil service and a politically restricted group of local government communicators. As Brexit has been less of an issue than the pandemic, there has been less pressure.

Fire comms was less about crisis comms than I thought. Cracking voice search was a luxury of an issue to worry about and 5G’s roll out has been slower than expected.

No, I didn’t predict Black Lives Matter as an issue or the pandemic.

Predictions for 2021

In past years, the predictions were of channels changing and evolving.

That’s true of 2021.

But the real predictions here are about policy, politics and the pandemic.

It’s going to be a tough year.

There you go, there’s some low hanging fruit for you.

Here’s how…

For all the gloom I’m setting out, one shining positive is that they will play such an important role in settling the pandemic and bringing the UK back towards some kind of normality.

An avalanche of mental health problems

There is only so many unappreciated 14-hour days with the looming threat of redundancy a person can cheerfully take. That point has been reached for some and will be for more.

Managers, please manage.

Sorry to start the year on a downer.

Content creation: Disinformation and misinformation

Once upon a time, a snappy poster had the ability to change the country. In 2021, the ability to create sharable content that challenges dis and misinformation is the difference between success and failure.

WhatsApp: Disinformation and misinformation

Creating sharable content to challenge is one thing getting that in front of people is another. Getting people signed-up to your WhatsApp for Business and asking them to distribute on WhatsApp will be one key.

Facebook: Disinformation and misinformation

Knowing your Facebook group admin and creating an army of supporters to share and challenge content is vital.

Return to the office pushback

In 2020, we learned how to work from home overnight as our offices closed overnight. Don’t think that this is irreversible. Bean-counting chief executives and managers who think WFH is a duvet day haven’t gone away.

Locally made content with a local voice

Data suggested that the single national sharable message has an increasingly short shelf life. But the locally made message with a human voice and a local accent cuts through massively.

This will continue in 2021.

Deepfakes

Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message with a deep fake version of the Queen delivering the message pushed the issue overground. In 2021, they will become more common.

Being able to spot and call out deep fakes will be an important skill.

Artificial Intelligence

The knowledge gap within public sector comms over AI will start to close slowly. Its pace will be slower than is needed as journalism and web platforms will experiment and make the mistakes first.

Equality in PR will get worse and the right people won’t feel worse about it

CIPR data showed that there are fewer working class or ethnic minority people pursing careers in the profession. This will get worse when it should be getting better because we’re pre-occupied with the effects of the pandemic.

Excluded groups will get louder and make comms trickier

The economic headaches that will run through 2021 will see more division but the pandemic and economic impacts will drown them out.

Be brave on this one, people.

Whose fault is it? It’s the social media page admin’s fault

It’s the fault of Westminster, the rich, Bill Gates, the poor, the poor who have children, the South, the English, the Scottish, Yes voters, No voters, the Welsh, the Northern Irish, Cardiff, Stormont, teachers, police, civil servants, judiciary and gritter wagon drivers.

As we struggle to influence the big picture ourselves the smaller picture will be a channel for the public’s anger.

Much of this will end up on the lap of public sector comms people who look after social media.

Look after them more than anybody because they will be the ones who will fall over and get up insisting that they are okay.

Age gaps will continue to grow in public sector comms teams

The lack of younger recruits coming into the profession will continue and will become a bigger issue. How can we communicate with all our profession if our profession is aged 40, white doesn’t use the channels that younger people use?

Media relations continues its revival

As trust in traditional media maintains its trajectory, media relations will maintain its increased importance. The ability to answer a question is hugely important. So is creating content that will fulfill the need of the journalist.

Brexit will be a quiet background noise of disruption

It’s easy to forget that the UK leaving the EU remains a big thing. Why? Because COVID-19 and because a trade agreement has been shaken hands on.

Problem solved? No, problem devolved.

The coming months of 2021 will see disruption as the real impact of Brexit plays out. The 1,200-page document will have hidden benefits and hidden landmines. They will be uneven. Traffic disruption in Kent, fishing issues in Peterhead, automotive prosperity in the West Midlands, border tensions in Larne. Each part of the UK will find its own set of stories. All will be important to them and all will be drowned out by each other.

The impact will be toughest here on local government and local businesses.

Police comms… relax

And keeping the peace for all of this will be the police and its communicators. This will be such a difficult job to get right. Relax, you won’t get it right so do the best you can.

COVID-19 jabs and 85-year-old influencers

Comms for this will be local, local, local. For Halesowen, it needs to be with a Halesowen voice so the people of Halesowen are won over. By all means have those big picture scientists but its Jen’s 85-year-old Nan getting the jab who will convince the town.

Public sector comms will save the day… it needs to capture this

For all the gloom I’m setting out, one shining positive is that they will play such an important role in settling the pandemic and bringing the UK back towards some kind of normality.

It’s so important that comms captures and records its role in making this happen.

And finally…

Yes, it will be difficult.

But if you work in public sector comms you’ve never been more needed and you’ll never be prouder than when you tell your grand children in years to come that you did the best that you could when you had to.

The secret to 2021 is to do the best you can when you can and keep something in the tank for tomorrow. You’ll cover more ground that way.

Good luck!

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2 Comments

  1. As always Dan, sage words and realistic encouragement. Part of me is sad not to be in it, but I hand the baton to someone far more capable and whose time has come. Power to you, and all you have dome and continue to do for those battling the comms struggles.

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