As we look ahead to 2021, I think we are all ready to put the past year behind us. Of course, the past year was unprecedented in many ways, however, when you look closely, the issues and trends that dominated our days were not new. We moved online in droves, we fought for equality and we expected more from the brands and companies we support. This past year elevated—and quickly evolved—several trends that we have been talking about for years.
- Ever since 2016 we’ve been talking about the echo chambers that people create for themselves online and how those environments can become a breeding ground for misinformation. As everything shifted online in 2020, we saw a heightened level of misinformation around some of the biggest issues and events of the year. Don Schaefer, Associate Director in our Raleigh office shared, “In 2021, brands will need to walk a fine line between responding to misinformation and controversy and letting a micro-news bubble burst on its own. Unfortunately, we live in a time where people are coming to their conclusions first and then piecing together information that confirms that worldview which makes this line even more difficult to tread. When launching new campaigns, keeping on top of trending conversations with these more vocal groups and looking at the way your message is presented through more polarized lenses will be key to ensuring your client or company doesn’t become the target of online ire.”
- Brands have been expected more and more to take a stand on the issues that matter to them, their employees and their customers. In 2020, it became about how and when, not if, brands would take action around the most pressing issues of the day. Dominique Scott, senior consultant in New York, shared, “This year made so many issue areas table stakes for brands when it came to communication efforts—employee health and safety, racial equity, diversity and inclusion, economic recovery, climate action—brands had to speak to these themes or be left behind or, even worse, be ‘cancelled.’ I think we’ll see the same themes come through in 2021—hopefully with a bit more conviction and specificity and a greater focus on outcome metrics. However, because these themes will carry over, it will be increasingly hard for brands to break through the noise and differentiate themselves. As a result, we should prepare for less common tactics and for more strategic, out of the box ideas. Perhaps it will be an overcorrection or perhaps 2020 cut the red tape for what’s possible—either way we should plan to see brands go even bolder than before.”
- As online and digital channels became an essential element of our professional and personal lives this year, it fueled the focus on controlling and regulating social platforms. We saw companies and brands put pressure on social platforms to do more to control misinformation and hate speech, a trend we will likely see continue next year as tech companies and governments focus on data, privacy and content moderation. Martin Signoux, APCO alumnus, explained that in 2021 we will also see governments across the globe ramping up to fill the regulatory gaps in the tech industry that became too big to ignore this year. “First, they will crack down on Big Tech either through new regulations imposing specific requirements to the largest platforms (think about the upcoming European Digital Markets Act), new regulatory agencies (the UK is about to create its Digital Markets Unit) or antitrust enforcement (building on the recent lawsuits such as the DOJ against Google). While these developments won’t overhaul the tech landscape within the year, they could level the playing field and foster competition. As size matters in this case, a pending question is which criteria will be picked up to define a tech company as Big.”
Things have changed faster than we ever thought possible this year, but we also learned that through it all the core principles of knowing your audience, listening, having a clear message, building trust with your audiences in credible ways, and being authentic and transparent still matter.