Dr. Ricardo Valencia is currently a public relations professor teaching at California State University, Fullerton. Dr. Valencia has years of experience with global communications, from being a reporter covering international politics and global media outlets, to being the head of communications at the Embassy of El Salvador to the U.S. Dr. Valencia received his doctorate in Media Studies from the University of Oregon. Dr. Valencia has a plethora of information about global public relations, and was able to share this knowledge and more with us during our extensive interview with him. Our interview covered the topic of how the world of public relations and communications will look after Covid-19 is over; however, we delved even deeper and looked into the way in which the global pandemic and rising political movements have shaped companies’ views of the value of public relations.
We first spoke about the way in which the pandemic has affected PR practitioners ability to communicate globally. Dr. Valencia discussed the value of face-to-face interaction and how we have had to deal with a virtual transition for so long now that it’s become normalized. Face to face interaction is important for humans across the globe, and communications is an industry that is built on face to face interaction. This being said, social media and technology continue to rise in prevalence, changing the way we look at communication as a whole. Dr. Valencia shared that while we cannot change the importance of face-to-face contact, people now know how relevant social media is in being able to connect with people from across the globe. With a click of a button we can meet ‘screen-to-screen’ with a professional from the other side of the country, which in it’s own way, is a positive that came out of our worldwide transition to a virtual format.
A relevant survey in regards to our discussion was conducted by PR Week, which covered how the public relations industry will look in a ‘post-pandemic future’. Nearly 64% of clients world wide chose to reduce their budgets for public relations during the ongoing pandemic. In regards to agencies, “77% of clients reduced retainers, 90% postponed campaigns, [and] 83% canceled activations…” (Steve Barrett, 2020).
We transitioned into a conversation about the common communications fatality that is how many companies and clients have the perception that their public relations team is expendable. Dr. Valencia recounted that while many corporations may look at PR as ‘expendable’, it’s times like the ones we’re currently living through that prove how critically important it is to have a public relations team. With both the onset of Covid-19 as well as the rising Black Lives Matter movement and political climate, we have seen a lot of companies perform ‘reactive’ activism, and messaging; however, this does not always turn out well if the audience feels that the company is being ingenuine about a serious matter. Putting out quick, surface-level responses to a very sensitive subject, results in the opposite of a connection with your audience, it turns them off from your brand or company. “…A lot of companies don’t understand, that [public relations goes] beyond just looking good, everyone thinks they can… [do public relations, and then a] crisis… happens and they don’t know what to do” (Valencia, 2020). I think the perception of public relations as something that is ‘common knowledge’ comes from a lack of awareness about the history and benefits of public relations. The stigma surrounding marketing and PR still makes an impact in society today, that public relations practitioners are ‘spin doctors’, who fabricate lies to essentially ‘save face’. The reality of it is however, that public relations is truly about highlighting the good in a company or client, but ultimately speaking only the truth. Regardless of the true value of public relations for corporations, the stereotype plagues the industry to this day, and can be seen in the startling statistics presented by PR Week’s study.
Across the board at both agencies and in-house/client work, layoffs and budget cuts have spread like wildfire across the communications industry, and businesses in general. According to PR Week, 28.5% of agencies surveyed had to reduce their salaries, and 14.9% of in-house/client teams surveyed had to furlough some of their employees. The rising number of layoffs and budget cuts have raised the question for those of us who will be graduating soon, how do we set ourselves apart as PR professionals? Dr. Valencia addressed this concern with the argument that setting yourself up for success starts with learning how to learn. Going into an entry-level position, your employer expects you to know the entry-level skills that everyone else does, but if you can prove that you take criticism well and are fast-learning, that is what will set you apart. “Employers want to see you be self-sufficient” (Valencia, 2020).
So the question is, what will the communications industry look like after Covid-19 has passed? We all know it will look different, but in what way? Dr. Valencia discussed that it will be, “More social media orientated, it will be a necessity to connect with people personally.” I think we have to acknowledge the trauma that we’ve experienced as a society due to Covid-19, people will have an initial fear to go back out because of how long we’ve spent communicating through a screen. “We are traumatized, it’s become different for so long. [Our] concept of space… ten people on an elevator, how many classes we have in [each] building… people will need more space” (Valencia, 2020).
People will need more space, and I think we’re all willing to give that to one another. In the end, we’re all human and face-to-face communication is what we’re built on. Despite our common fear-of-the-unknown in regards to everything ahead, we have the world at our fingertips, compacted into a tiny screen, and it’s a world that’s ready to be explored. We’re ready to connect globally, while working digitally.