If we learned anything in 2020, it is that change is constant.

We are different now than we were a year ago. We spent more time in our homes this year than we had …maybe ever. We watched shows, read stories, discovered podcasts and had conversations we never envisioned having. The media, YouTube, our friends and families bombarded us with information and images, asking us to believe one thing and not something else.

In the end, we made decisions big and small, from who will lead our nation to what we will order for takeout.

Whether we are better off today than we were a year ago may be debatable.

What is clear is that the ways we consume information and make decisions continue to change. What will this mean for businesses and organizations as they communicate with the public?

Here are our takeaways from 2020. Spoiler Alert: There is light at the end of this 2020 tunnel.

SOCIAL MEDIA: CAN’T LIVE WITH IT. CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT IT. 

Weeks and months inside our homes. Hours upon hours on Zoom. We craved interaction with other humans. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok.

Social media is instrumental in how we share and consume information. The information we see, read and hear helps shape our opinions, what we buy and the topics we talk about.

It kept us connected, especially during the seemingly relentless challenges of 2020. However, we are paying a potentially steep price for this sense of togetherness. When we share online, we give up pieces of ourselves… and our privacy.

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Advertisers and other groups use the information we share to retarget information right back to us.

Scott Galloway, author of Post Corona, says “Facebook possesses the most robust (self-healing, even) customer base in the history of business.” By customers, Galloway doesn’t mean you and me. He is referring to the 8 million advertisers on the platform, Facebook’s paying customers. While some of these are the world’s top brands, they are also a slew of imitators, scammers and misinformation specialists.

In 2021, the fight to protect our privacy and our views will continue. The Federal Trade Commission just launched investigations into how the largest social media platforms collect user information and ultimately share that data. The federal government is pursuing antitrust cases against Facebook and Google.

For companies and organizations, social media remains an important and effective tool. The key to success on these platforms is to be ever vigilant in making sure the message we are sending online is accurate and concise.

DISINFORMATION IS A REAL PROBLEM.

Just this week, news outlets reported that Russian-affiliated operators succeeded in hacking databases at the U.S. Dept. of Commerce and the U.S. Office of Homeland Security.

In a virtual speech at the Public Relations Society of America’s ICON 2020 conference, disinformation expert and author Nina Jankowicz expressed two thoughts. First, disinformation isn’t new. The internet is helping countries, like Russia, perfect it. Second, the public relations field is at the forefront in combatting this “crisis of truth.”

Algorithms on social media and websites track what we watch, read and share. We act and react to what we see, especially when our emotions are involved. Computer codes essentially place specific content in front of us to get that emotional reaction.

According to Jankowicz, when consuming news and information, we need to develop “cognitive muscles and emotional skepticism” so that we can “withstand the onslaught of content that is designed to trigger an emotional response.”

Her advice to public relations professionals is to “make every piece of copy you write and every campaign you pitch embody the truth well told.”

Well said.

AN AGENDA FOR CHANGE.

The unrest, collective public frustration and anger from all sides related to social justice and systemic racism we saw this year places greater responsibilities on companies and organizations in the Gulf South to take a stand for change. When we asked the professionals of The Ehrhardt Group about what they’ve learned in 2020, Senior Account Executive Lindsey Saucier pointed to a 2020 prediction during a 2019 webinar which stated, “employers would take center stage in a divided world.” That prediction was right on the money.

The question we asked of companies and organizations in light of protests and outcry is “what is your agenda for change?” Frankly, at The Ehrhardt Group, we are asking the same question of ourselves.

As Post Corona author Galloway put it, “systemic racism is a serious issue, and a 30-second spot during The Masked Singer doesn’t prove you are serious about systemic racism… social media and the ease of access to data on the internet has made it much harder for companies to pretend.”

The public has a higher expectation of companies and their role in making productive change in the communities where they operate. The first step is listening and then acting locally. To ensure their voice is heard, companies and organizations will need to say, “this is what we will do,” then “this is what we are doing,” and then “this is what we have done.” The public will hold us accountable for it.

OPTIMISM IS OUT THERE. 

This summer, I saw a post about 2020 being the beginning of something, more so than the end of something else. Our current challenges will continue into 2021.

However, this year has seen its share of triumph and togetherness, too.

The people of the Gulf South remain more optimistic than the rest of the country. As the pandemic unfolded in March, 60% of citizens in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Florida panhandle said the American Dream was still achievable, 7% higher than the rest of the nation. Two-thirds of us thought that 2020 would still be a better year for us than 2019. By July, that number dropped to 44%, but we continued to be more optimistic about 2020 overall than the rest of the country.

As the professionals of The Ehrhardt Group talked to media throughout the year, one thing was clear: There was a greater interest in putting positive stories on the news. Stories about recovery and resilience. Families visiting their loved ones at nursing facilities. Neighbors and companies standing together in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes. Even socially-distanced lightings of holiday displays.

We want good news. Interesting news. And we still trust our local news, more than any other media outlet.

* * *

As 2020 fades into 2021, more change will come, but we believe the optimism and the resilience of the people of the Gulf South will press on. There are great stories to share.

Our best wishes for a healthy and safe holiday season and Happy New Year.

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