What a long and strange journey 2020 has been.
The plans and strategies that communicators began the year with back in January seem like a distant memory. Looking ahead to 2021, many strategists are planning on a model with quarterly updates and benchmarks, jettisoning annual plans and inflexible tactics.
Perhaps this is a moment for communicators to take stock, here before the holiday season begins in earnest and the mad dash to the end of 2020 consumes one and all. What have we been through? What have we meant to each other?
That’s one of the reflections from Tadd Schwartz, president of Schwartz Media Strategies, when we caught up with him before the Thanksgiving holidays for our “Day in the Life” series. Here’s what he had to say about navigating COVID-19, the future of communications and more:
1. How much coffee do you drink during a day?
Schwartz: My mother is Cuban and our firm is based in the heart of Miami, so Cuban coffee is the fuel that keeps my engine running. Before the pandemic, my routine included a café con leche in the morning and a shot of Cuban espresso in the afternoon, often during a meeting with clients or our team members.
Since we’ve pivoted to working remotely, I’ve been left to my own devices. I’m sticking with traditional American coffee at home and I drink about two cups before lunchtime.
My mornings are busy. I wake up about 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., address any urgent client matters, and then take a walk with our dog, a golden retriever named Callie. Next, I go for a run and then send my daughter and son off to school. I run five or six days each week, for about an hour each day.
Coffee is a staple of my routine, but it’s the running that helps me get in the right frame of mind before I start my day. After I work up a sweat and feel accomplished, then I have my morning coffee and I’m ready to attack the rest of the day.
2. Who are the most important people you talk to every day?
Schwartz: My wife and kids, without a doubt. My wife is always supportive of me and the business and has been through the best and worst times with me. I feel comfortable speaking with her about any issue that arises throughout my day.
Talking to my two kids is also refreshing and rewarding. They keep me grounded because they see the world in a different way and help me focus on what’s important. My kids have also taught me the importance of being present. I always have work on my mind, but the best part of my day is when I’m able to focus on my family.
3. How much of your day is spent on Zoom calls?
Schwartz: During the early days of the pandemic, I spent about 60% of my time in virtual meetings. Now, that number is closer to 30-40%. Long-term, I feel that Zoom will replace some meetings that can happen virtually, but it won’t take the place of getting together with people in-person, whether it’s taking a client to lunch or sitting around the conference room table brainstorming with our team.
Our firm has been cautious throughout the pandemic, making it clear to our employees that they can continue to work remotely until they feel safe returning to the physical workplace. Zoom has made it possible to stay connected with our clients, which span a range of industries—from tourism, to residential and commercial real estate, law and professional services, banking and finance—but it’s no substitute for in-person interaction.
4. What’s a tool you couldn’t live without right now?
Schwartz: My running shoes. I can live without my iPhone, although it would be a challenge, but I need my running shoes to keep moving and stay focused. I’ve been running marathons throughout my life, and I was hoping to run the New York Marathon this year. With that race being cancelled due to the pandemic, I’ve made it a priority to maintain my running routine at home.
Thankfully, living in Miami means I can run year-round. When I’m not running, I love spending time outdoors—going to the beach, getting out on the water with friends, or going to the park with my family.
As public relations professionals, our job entails being on-call and staying connected 24/7. You must learn to manage that pressure if you’re going to stay balanced, and running is my outlet.
5. What’s been the biggest change you’ve faced since the pandemic started?
Schwartz: As a strategic communications firm, we pride ourselves on creating integrated campaigns that are methodical and forward-looking. That means always anticipating future opportunities and risks on behalf of our clients. The most significant shift we’ve confronted this year has been adjusting to the reality that the pandemic has thrust every client into crisis mode.
Crises come in many different forms, some of which can be predicted. In any given year, we counsel clients through hurricanes, litigation, financial challenges, and sensitive personnel matters—but no business was prepared for a global pandemic headed into 2020.
The past eight months have been full of unknowns, both in terms of the health situation and the economic picture. Clients have been uncertain about what and how to communicate, so it’s been our job to balance the need for strengthening and protecting their brands with the importance of being sensitive to the hardships many people are facing. Our role as counselors has been an around-the-clock exercise, and I think the pandemic has unlocked new ways for our team to show value to clients.
6. Are you still working from home? If so, what’s been your favorite part of WFH?
Schwartz: I’m working remotely, but I go into the office a few times a week to keep things organized and for a change of scenery. Working from home has given me time to think creatively about our client work and our firm’s future, and I’ve been more productive now that I don’t spend so much time commuting and driving to meetings every day, but I still miss the in-person interaction with our team members and clients. I feel we are better at what we do when we’re in the office working together.
7. What’s your No.1 message to clients, co-workers or employees for the rest of 2020?
Schwartz: The pandemic has been a daunting challenge for many companies, but you must keep your foot on the gas when it comes to communicating. It can be tempting to take a “pause” or be unsure about what you should or shouldn’t say, but if your communications strategy is thoughtful and authentic, then now is a great time to create meaningful connections with your audiences.
My message to our colleagues is straightforward: First, take the time to keep you families safe and healthy. That’s key to staying productive and mentally fit. While the rest of the year may not be easy, we are entering 2021 with a positive outlook on our business and our community.
In March, everything seemed impossible. It was as if we were facing a 50-foot wall with a rope trying to figure out how to scale it. Look how far we have come. We’ve taken on new clients, added team members, and our business is stable headed into the new year.
8. What makes you hopeful about the future of PR? Any big predictions for 2021?
Schwartz: Public relations is many things: it’s media relations, crisis management, branding, social media and digital marketing and public affairs. The pandemic has reinforced the role of PR as a critical resource within the C-suite, right alongside legal counsel, outside accountants and technology firms.
I believe companies and executives will look back at 2020 and realize that their communications partners were instrumental in guiding them through one of the most challenging years imaginable, and my hope is that the relationship between PR practitioners and executives will become even stronger.