James Wright, Global CEO Red Havas & Global Chairman, Havas PR Global Collective
When my agency released our annual Red Sky Predictions report at the end of February, I couldn’t know how prescient two of the 2020 predictions would be. We forecast not only that brands would be anchoring themselves in purpose like never before but also that they would be increasingly put in the uncomfortable position of having to articulate their political and social values to their customers.
A few weeks later, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. Around the world, brands were forced to show what they were made of. At their core, what mattered most—profit or people? Even if a brand made no public statement about the coronavirus, its character was judged by how it managed everything from layoffs to store and office closures to what it placed on its social media channels. (We put out a report about that, too, highlighting the best practices of business leaders who are deftly leading their companies through this crisis.)
Of course, the pandemic dust had yet to settle (and continues to hang like a mushroom cloud over the U.S.) and brands were still wrestling with getting their response to it right, when George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was murdered on May 25. Global outrage soon followed over Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer. Consumers once more looked to brands of all stripes to take a stance on racial injustice. And further, what were those brands going to do about it?
As they say, it’s never too late to do the right thing. Here’s what I think smart brands should be saying and doing now:
COMMUNICATE CLEARLY AND CONSISTENTLY TO BUILD TRUST
There’s an old saying that a lie travels around the globe while the truth is still putting on its shoes. Since both misinformation and disinformation have become political weapons during this health crisis, and at a time when the public has countless ways to receive and engage with content and communication, it’s difficult to know whom to trust.
In the frequent absence of consistent and appropriate messaging from political leaders, it has been corporations that have stepped up to provide the public with clear guidelines and information about their health risks during the pandemic. Many also stood up and provided actionable ways for people to effect change after George Floyd’s death.
When taking this route, brands should stick to the facts: What is it that their specific consumers need to know and understand? Communicate these things clearly and regularly to earn their trust. With talk of reopening on the lips of so many around the world, it is important that consumers trust that companies will keep their health, and their human rights, foremost in mind. And that they are committed to it long-term.
INNOVATE OR MODIFY WHERE YOU CAN TO HELP WHERE YOU CAN
I believe history will be quite damning toward brands and organizations who had a role to play and didn’t. Beyond talking the walk, when it comes to walking the walk, we’ve seen great examples from brands and sports organizations that have taken an active role to demonstrate their alliance with the Black Lives Matter movement. And we’ve witnessed numerous companies using their capacity and talent to pivot operations to make hand sanitizer and masks to do their bit during the pandemic. It’s been inspirational to see the many examples where corporate citizenship in its purest form has come to the fore.
Social distancing is driving some especially intriguing, if imperfect, solutions. (I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no perfect solutions right now.) I read recently, for example, about universities building circus-tent-like outdoor classrooms so they can bring kids back to college. Similarly, when our employees in New York return to work on Madison Avenue, we’re looking at ways to utilize our rooftop for meetings. There’s a big need for brands to embrace that type of thinking right now, to stay flexible and useful and open to change. The key is that they share their good ideas with others so we can continue to learn from each another.
PRIORITIZE CRISIS COMMS AND MEDIA RELATIONS
With consumer activism, stakeholder activism and shareholder activism having a direct bearing on share prices, crisis comms skills have become essential for all communicators. Brands need our help understanding where their risks are: Is that risk because of COVID’s impact on the economy? Or is the risk because of their position, or lack thereof, on racial injustice?
Media relations skills have also reinstated themselves at the heart of our work in the communications industry, as people migrate back to watching TV news programming, listening to the radio and reading newspapers (online, where they need not be thumbed through in this touchless society) to follow the latest happenings. Not least of all because we are all at home presently with the TV on in the background.
Because all great media pitches start with a great story, it’s a good time for brands to understand their own story, how best to tell it and where they can tell it. Beyond that, brands should consider ways they can become activists. That, ultimately, is where I think PR is heading, as brand activism becomes more and more of an imperative.
Now, I have a proposition for you: Rather than talking further about what the “new normal” will look like for a second longer, let’s go out and create the best possible version of it, together. Movement and society. Brand and consumer. Agency and client.