As we build to the PRCA UK National Conference on 24th September, we sat down with Sarah Samee, WPR Vice President and Group Head of External Communications at Lloyd’s Register, preview her appearance on the ‘How PR and Business Shifted in 2020’ Panel.
Has your view changed since pre-covid on the role that PR and communications must play especially as it relates to social, economic and health issues?
In short, no. At its most effective, PR and communications can act as the 'conscience' of an organisation. We highlight where and how organisations can work to improve the lives and experiences of customers, clients and employees while making a positive impact on society. Great PR teams root out amazing stories, support the business to deliver on organisational goals, as well as manage negative issues. For in-house communicators the tightrope we walk between various departments, for example marketing, sales, HR, policy, legal and operational teams mean that we're uniquely placed to influence the direction of policies, campaigns and culture. This vast holistic insight into the business and the exposure it brings often leads us to recognising where organisational vulnerabilities exist and steering teams to identify solutions. Therefore, employees, from C-suite to operational teams frequently look to us for reassurance and to offer remedies or resolutions in times of crisis. However, in many cases it can be too late if we’ve not been involved early enough or we’ve not been listened to in the first place. COVID-19 has seen PRs and Internal Comms teams bearing the brunt in terms of response – furthermore if health, safety, economic, social and environmental responsibility issues have not been weaved ‘authentically’ into organisational strategies, policies, business plans and values – it will have made the job of communicators that much harder.
So, essentially the current pandemic hasn’t changed my view, it’s simply reasserted my belief that to really add value PR and Communications must be seen as a strategic management function with a reporting line into the CEO, whether we have a board position or not. We need to be at the front and centre to be truly effective.
What is the one area that we as an industry are not perhaps giving enough voice to right now as we move forward?
For me, it must be culture. There are a lot of great, practical industry initiatives happening with regards to diversity and inclusion, exploring the full nature of intersectionality, from The Blueprint to the Taylor Bennett Foundation, with many associations and groups committing to various behaviours and action plans. However, there is also a fair amount of ‘lip service’ going on. We know it's going to take some time to change the culture of an industry that we all know is not and has never been representative of the general UK population. From the lack of representation of PRs from Black, Asian and other ethnic backgrounds, to ‘accent’ bias, social class, ageism and sexism, there are many nuanced discriminations burdening the PR industry.
We need to acknowledge where we have failed and make a genuine long-term commitment to creating inclusive cultures and understanding how to facilitate positive action. It won't make any difference if only a handful of PRs show commitment - it's a cultural thing, a culture that we have a responsibility in shaping.
We all have a duty to make it easier for the next generation of PR and Communications professionals to progress, whatever their background. If the industry isn't making a concerted effort to reflect society, in my opinion we're making a rod for our own back as we compete against marketing and advertising for inevitably slimmer budgets and most importantly, we will be missing out on attracting and retaining the best and most brilliant diverse talent. We know diversity is good for business and the bottom line. Social purpose and an understanding of wider social, economic and health issues has never been more important, so let's stop the lip service and use our influence for real positive change.
What is a key trait that PR and communications leaders must demonstrate over the coming months and beyond?
It seems clichéd but resilience and bravery. COVID-19 has tested us in ways we would never have thought possible. As we walk into what is expected to be the worst global recession any of us have seen in our lifetimes, we will have to fight harder for our voices to be heard and our budgets to be retained. As an industry we need to pull together and demonstrate our worth.
Sarah Samee is Vice President of Women in PR and Group Head of External Communications at Lloyd’s Register, a global professional services company specialising in engineering and technology solutions that improve the safety and performance of critical infrastructures for clients in over 75 countries. With almost 20 years’ strategic communications experience, both public and private sector, in-house and consultancy, Sarah's PR career began at Barclays and she has since held senior roles at the Metropolitan Police Service, Home Office and most recently as Head of Communications at Cifas, the UK’s leading fraud prevention service. Throughout her career Sarah has helped organisations build their corporate narrative, identify their true social purpose, deliver impactful campaigns and develop meaningful partnerships with government, private and the public sector.