What is missing in the latest McKinsey Report on COVID-19?

How can AI will help your company to engage staff and clients?

McKinsey & Company just issued a new report entitled ‘The COVID-19 recovery will be digital: A plan for the first 90 days.’

In the report the authors say ‘recent data show that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around 8 weeks.’ What has happened though isn’t just the warp speed adoption of new technologies to bridge distances, it is a fundamental shift in working practices and attitudes. US consumers are accelerating adoption of digital channels for a growing number of services, and in China COVID has engraved the hallmark of mobile commerce onto the tombstones of bricks & mortar retailers.

How will this impact PR?


Firstly, do entrepreneurs need to run their business differently, secondly how will they communicate these changes not only to customers but to staff and non-permanent team members who are now dispersed in home offices.

Speaking with a publisher this week holed up in Sydney, he shared that he is considering if he should follow other companies in moving his titles completely online, closing physical offices in Manilla, Hong Kong and Singapore, and having all workers become remote and quite possibly freelance to reduce overheads. “No one is visiting airline lounges, hotels, or offices – magazines which lived on proximity to crowds are dead,” he said. 

A conversation with a PR agency owner in London illustrated how the fortunes of all are not the same. His mid size well established Agency has won new business from companies which are growing out of the crisis, but his staff are all now working from home. The owner is seeing new revenue and happy clients but enjoys life without the commute, and so he’s wondering if he should keep an office or save the 25% of his cost base by going virtual.

The smart people at McKinsey are saying that the first 90 days post Covid includes 4 efforts: refocus on digital efforts toward changing customer expectations, use data and AI to improve business operations, selectively modernise technology capabilities, and increase the organizational drumbeat. What’s missing in my view is the specific articulation that organizations will need to address their communications strategies. 

Organizations are changing but McKinsey’s could have included the point that ‘changing customer expectations’ will be impacted by the employee expectations and motivation, and these in turn are impacted by how distance plays a role in communication as described by Professor Thomas J. Allen in the late 1970s. In Allen’s 1977 book, Managing the Flow of Technology⁠1, Professor Allen documents ‘The Allen Curve’ which ‘displays an exponential drop in frequency of communication between people as the distance between them grows.’  In his 2006 book⁠2 discussing the impact of technology they found ‘a decay in the use of all communication media with distance.’

The point is that the presence of technology itself doesn’t automatically lead to an increase in communication.  McKinsey Sprints don’t articulate putting in place communication strategies which will need to increase the ‘organisational drumbeat.’ They have focused on the process but not the content which is what one may expect from management consultants. In our view organizations will have to not only change their process but their orientation and messaging to be related to the higher purpose of the company; the “Why” as Simon Sinek has so well articulated. The tune played out in these ‘drumbeats’  will have to be amplified by technology because of the increased separation and fragmentation of teams and customers. In our terminology, the ‘Active Communications Index’ will need to be higher than ever before.

So automation is going to become key, and ironically as the organizational demand for communication increases we are going to be turning to AI to facilitate this. It’s already the case that sites like content samurai , render maker, and Lumen5 etc will auto generate videos from key words, and now there are sites which will automate the distribution to channels like YouTube. We just started to use Zoho social – and within that automation platform we can schedule posts ourselves, or let the software determine at which times to publish based on best performance across Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.

It’s getting to the stage where companies can generate and distribute messaging autonomously with a minimum of actual human work.

ZOHO Dashboard
ZOHO Dashboard

The danger then is that as companies seek to overcome the negative consequences of the Allen Curve, ie. loss of communication due to distance, they turn to AI and process believing this is a frequency and volume issue when it is not. The challenge not included in the McKinsey report is that of engagement and motivation of people to bind them to the purpose of the organization; and this will require personalities and authentic content. As we are working remotely we will have little chance to recalibrate what is real and unreal, to discuss with others what is trending, to be energised by those around us. Anyone who is homeschooling now will know the impact of peers on how kids get work done. As publishers, like Haymarket and my friend in Sydney, start to pull their print publications and trade shows don’t take place, the authority platforms and conversation nexus of conferences will be replaced by social media and webinars but these won’t overcome the Allen curve of detachment due to distance.

For the entrepreneurial and people focused company this creates an opportunity though to create compelling COVID sensitive PR. We define this as Compassionate, Optimistic, Values Based, Informative and Digital. The next step is to follow the advice of the 5 authors of the McKinsey report to use data to make better decisions; which we will need to do because we won’t be seeing those customers face to face. In ZOHO for example I can see which posts got the greatest engagement, and using the Sales IQ module I can see the path vistors to my website took to get to me; I can’t watch them come to the office, check out their suit and use traditional skills to evaluate them. So even as a small virtual team, we use the tools which are augmented by AI to be more agile and customer focused.

Automation in PR is available to all companies regardless of size, and the deployment of AI assisted content generation will allow content to be available at a rate to match the possibilities of the automation tools. In the McKinsey first sprint they say that CEO’s must ‘align the organization to new digital priorities.’ In communications what we see from the Allen Curve is that the availability of digital technology does not guarantee communication which will make this alignment harder. So for all the merits of digital technology, the first 90 days must include the articulation of that vision by spokespeople who are authentic, compassionate and present.  If the Allen Curve holds true, then one of the big impacts of COVID will be on the challenge for companies to talk with their people as if they were together in the same place; they may just be using AI to do that.

If we can help you and your company, then just contact me on jim@eastwestpr.com

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Read the full McKinsey report here 

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/managing-flow-technology. 1977 and 1984


The Organization and Architecture of Innovation: Managing the Flow of Technology. Page 58

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