School shootings. Racial inequality. #MeToo. Immigration and trade. There’s no denying it: Societal crises seem to be occurring with greater frequency and—thanks to the 24/7 news cycle and, in the U.S., a bitterly divided country turning to social media to further fan the flames—with greater intensity. Also undeniable? Brands can no longer “sit it out,” as many are finding the fallout from these crises landing right at their doorstep. Just ask any brand that’s been on the wrong end of a tweet from the U.S. president. Or any of the companies who pulled out of the recent “Davos in the Desert” event in Saudi Arabia, in the wake of that country’s apparent role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
It’s not just customers and shareholders who are demanding that their favorite brands speak up. A significant amount of the pressure for companies to engage and respond to emerging societal crises is actually coming from within: According to a 2018 Glassdoor survey, 60 percent of employees expect their company to take a stand on important social and political issues.
Preparation saves the day, and the brand
Whether a company decides to proactively insert itself into a national conversation or simply react when it gets swept up in an emerging crisis, thorough preparation is the key to protecting brand reputation as well as the bottom line in these hyper-partisan, hyper-reactionary times. “CCOs should take full advantage of tools, technologies and frameworks that help them guide their organizations in the 24×7 societal/industry crisis world we live in today,” says Southwest Airlines SVP and CCO Linda Rutherford. However, based on interviews conducted by communication and marketing firm Peppercomm (where one of us works) with more than 50 C-suite executives, an astonishing two-thirds admitted their company was not prepared should it find itself ensnared in a societal crisis.
With that sobering statistic in mind, we offer the following five steps to help business communicators prepare their brand and its leadership to respond effectively to societal crises:
1. Know your purpose
When preparing to respond to a societal crisis, your brand’s purpose should be the first and foremost navigational consideration. Beyond making a profit, what are your company’s steering values? Beyond a paycheck, why do your employees show up for work each day? Your brand purpose is your North Star. Think: “FedEx = Dependability.” A clearly articulated purpose—one that’s authentic and well understood by both employees and customers/prospects—is the key. Even stakeholders who don’t agree with your stand (or even your decision to take a stand), cannot fault you for staying true to your purpose.
2. Know your audience
How well do you know your stakeholders? How is each likely to react? It’s critical to know what you may be dealing with in terms of both potential fallout and reward when deciding whether to take a stand on an issue. Fortunately for most of the large brands, this type of in-depth research already exists and can be leveraged in advance to avoid stepping on a potential landmine. Of course, this requires close coordination among CCOs and their marketing and HR colleagues.
3. Monitor topics of importance
Brands of all sizes should create an inventory of the topics that are important to their customers, employees, shareholders and operations. Be as thorough as possible. You’ll likely find that your brand is impacted—either directly or tangentially—by issues you hadn’t previously deemed “important.” Then, invest in real-time monitoring tools to help track those topics so you’ll see which are gaining momentum and may demand action. Smart analysis of data in advance enables smart decision-making.
4. Perform an audit
A vital step in preparing to take a stand involves conducting an internal audit of your brand’s vulnerabilities, including messages and materials, social channels, partnerships and sponsorships. What happens, for example, if you take a stand on an issue and a key co-branding partner has a well-known opposing stand? Will you risk being seen as “insincere” by employees, customers and the general public even if they by and large agree with your position? Understanding your vulnerabilities and dependencies is the key to creating messaging and response plans that cover the widest range of potential issues while still staying on brand (see steps 1 and 2 above).
5. Run a stress test
Once your executive leadership team is confident about taking a stand on a particular societal issue or crisis, conduct an internal simulation. Depending on the issue, it may make sense to expand the test beyond the C-suite by including employee resource groups, plant-level workers, customers, distributors, lobbyists, communications and advertising agencies. What you learn will help you craft and fine-tune your approach now and into the future.
The best-loved, most-successful brands got to be the best-loved, most-successful brands because they understand the value of extensive, data-driven preparation in keeping them ahead of their competitors in the ’round-the-clock race for the hearts, minds and wallets of their audiences. CCOs and other top business communicators are wise to adopt a similar approach to stay ahead of what seems like a ’round-the-clock explosion of hot-button issues.
Following the preparation framework laid out in the five steps above can help any brand determine if, when and how to engage or respond when societal crises occur. Because as we’re seeing on an increasingly frequent basis, it’s a “when,” not an “if.”