Ships in a Storm: Lessons Learned as PRSA Detroit President

By: Kim Eberhardt

Anyone who held a leadership role in 2020 knows: The feeling of guiding an organization forward was a bit like captaining a ship tossed by wind and waves in a once-in-a-century storm. At times you are at the mercy of the weather—but if you can stay afloat, you can learn a lot about your vessel, your crew, and how to navigate the stormiest of seas.

It was my honor to serve as President of the Detroit chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in one of the most challenging years in the history of the profession. And in a tumultuous and sometimes tragic year, the silver lining for public relations professionals is that we’ve not only stayed afloat but charted an exciting new course.

While PR professionals are still unpacking the learnings of the last 12 months, my time in PRSA leadership has given me a firsthand look of what we’ve already learned—and about what might be on tap in the months ahead.

A Shifting Landscape

An already evolving media landscape has been forever changed. Many newsrooms were already shrinking, and that trend has only accelerated under the operational and logistical pressures of a global pandemic. This has been an economic blow that some outlets, especially local and hyperlocal media, will never recover from. Surviving media organizations have seen reduced scheduling, staffing and budgeting. The opportunity for PR agencies is finding new ways to tell stories for clients.

Another takeaway is that the heightened consumer and media appetite for virtual content is never going to recede. Consumers crave it, and virtual content is virtually all up-side for media organizations. It’s generally cheaper, more flexible, and requires fewer dedicated resources to produce and disseminate. It’s a shift that adds another layer to our roles and responsibilities as PR professionals.

It wasn’t that long ago when we needed to master digital and social media. Now we are learning to be video producers—how to light it, mic it, and make it look good. Telling a story visually as well as narratively is an essential part of the Modern PR Mix.

Value and Vision

There’s no question that PR expertise is worth more today than a year ago. PR and advertising have traditionally been vulnerable in an economic downturn, but if we learned anything over recent months, it’s that PR is an investment worth making. Companies that maintained their PR and communications relationships are more resilient and successful.

The elevated prevalence and clear value of crisis communications certainly plays a role in this value equation. At Identity, we’ve seen firsthand the need to act quickly to help clients navigate two historic crises in 2020—the COVID-19 pandemic and historic civic unrest as conversations about social justice have taken on new urgency.

Knowing how to respond (and how not to respond) isn’t always easy. But in a tense environment, where the social and financial stakes are so high, a single misstep can be costly—and the rewards for thoughtful, meaningful, and impactful responses can be significant. These are challenging and complex conversations, and there is an argument to be made that the long-term impact of those conversations and their consequences could perhaps be more significant than COVID itself.

This past year also reinforced the power of internal communications. With new tensions and potential for disconnection with remote work, professional guidance pays real dividends. How you talk to and treat your employees, and how you communicate and connect with your team, is arguably more important than ever.

Uncharted Territory

As PR pros and communicators, we are trained and conditioned to look ahead and to think about what the next step(s) should be. As much as this environment presents challenges, it also offers opportunities for those who are savvy and flexible enough to seize them—from virtual connections leading to very real relationships, to invaluable knowledge-sharing and learning from peers and fellow professionals, to presenting and polishing new ways to add value for clients during a time when they’ve needed it the most.

It’s also sparked and rewarded creativity. PR professionals have created new programs. New ways of storytelling. New ways of creating experiences that resonate and memories that last.

There’s now a shared knowledge that anything can happen. We need to be ready when it does. As an industry, we must continue to evolve our mindset and upgrade our toolkit to be prepared for whatever comes next.

A Bright Future for PRSA Detroit

My time as PRSA-Detroit President was a genuine privilege. It’s an organization founded on networking, knowledge-sharing, and continuing education—all of which have been more critical to our collective success now than at any other time in recent memory.

My conversations and collaborations with PRSA members and fellow professionals have been both illuminating and inspiring. The insights we’ve shared and the creativity we’ve cultivated has been a light in a dark time, and I am a better person and professional today because of it.

I’m truly excited to see what now-President Sharon Tatom Garcia, Director of Communications at The Salvation Army’s Eastern Michigan Division, will do next. Under her leadership, I’m confident our organization—and this industry—will continue to not just survive but thrive.

Regardless of the waves and weather to come, we are sailing somewhere new and exciting together.