There was a time when it looked like virtual reality (VR) would never be able to shake its clunky image. From the release of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy in 1994 to Google’s low-price headset, Google Cardboard, it was hard to hear about a new iteration of VR without the additional point of ‘unfulfilled expectations’. Despite numerous rollouts from various tech giants promising that the next release would ‘finally’ nail VR, the technology continued to be viewed as not much more than a gimmicky gaming accessory. However, perhaps we had the wrong idea about VR all along. Instead of thinking about VR headsets as personal accessories, maybe it’s time we start looking at them as a key workplace tool?

VR’s turning point

A major catalyst for this change stems from Apple’s long-awaited entry into the VR market in 2024 with the release of the Apple Vision Pro. By prioritising user experience and allowing adjustable immersion levels, Apple addressed long-standing critiques around comfort and whether VR had any practical business use. This ability to tailor the virtual experience is a key reason for VR’s increasing use in businesses.

Transforming industries

In healthcare, VR can be used to simulate high-stakes scenarios, risk-free – allowing practitioners to build vital skills through realistic, repetitive training without jeopardising patient safety. At Great Ormond Street Hospital, the technology is being used to help train surgeons by allowing them to interact with 3D anatomical models of body parts. This is allowing surgeons to map out procedures in advance, and even direct surgeries that are taking place in different parts of the world altogether.

As digital meetings are now commonplace, many companies are looking to VR to create digital workspaces that foster an office environment for widely dispersed workers. Our client Cornerstone recently hosted a meeting in the Metaverse, enabling colleagues worldwide to meet, chat and visit their expo hall – and had a few fun extras with a dance club and spa retreat!

Immersive VR is also transforming teacher training by providing innovative tools to enhance curriculum delivery. At universities like Sunderland, education programmes are equipping trainee teachers with headsets that simulate realistic classroom environments. This allows student teachers to practise managing a virtual class and experiment with multisensory teaching methods before ever stepping foot in a real classroom.

VR finds its place in the world of work

While there are still barriers to widespread adoption – such as price and comfort – it’s clear VR has found a place in the world of work. Perhaps it’s time to reframe our expectations to stop thinking about VR as a gimmicky personal accessory, but rather as a pragmatic workplace tool. Just as with any new technology, the real breakthrough usually happens when the hype subsides, and pragmatic use cases emerge. It took a while for VR to ‘grow up’, but it finally feels like we’ve stopped imagining it as a futuristic novelty and instead embracing it as a tool for the present.

Everyone wants to be involved in exciting and relevant conversations. Think back a time to when you’ve been with a group of friends, and they’re excitedly discussing a TV show you haven’t seen. You likely felt excluded, perhaps even compelled to watch the show just to take part in the conversation. As those in PR know well, companies are no different. Everyone wants their company to be in the limelight, so naturally, they gravitate towards getting involved with newsworthy topics of the moment.

While it can be tempting to throw your company’s name in the hat in the hope of getting the right attention and visibility, it’s important to remember that there is a danger in being involved in conversations you really shouldn’t be. While in the short-term, gaining mainstream news coverage or likes and shares on social is exciting, it’s important to consider the long-term reputational risks of straying too far from your company’s original messaging.

The allure of the headlines

Over the past year, the predominant talking point for tech companies and beyond has undoubtedly been AI. As a topic, AI is broadly covered in the news, from specific stories about regional regulations to wider discussions surrounding the technology’s ethics. While your company will likely have something to say about AI, it’s less likely that every AI story is relevant for you.

For instance, a learning and development company utilising AI in their software may be able to comment on the technology’s impact on workforce productivity but will likely want to avoid the topic of AI job displacement. It’s vital to consider the wider story implications – and how a company would be perceived in the broader context, and not just from their own perspective.

While ‘AI Washing’ specifically concerns misrepresenting a company’s use of AI technology, it also serves as an important reminder of the dangers of positioning a company as something they’re not. The same holds true from a PR perspective – the further you stray from your company’s services to focus on the latest trends, the more likely you’ll be misrepresented. Here are some questions you should ask yourself when deciding if that conversation is right for you:

  • Do we already have a perspective? – While new talking points will always crop up, if a story is relevant to you, there will likely be pre-existing content that informs your perspective. If you have to start from scratch to form a POV, it’s more likely that this is outside your company’s remit.
  • Is this a negative story? – There is a time and place for controversy, and it should probably be avoided when the story has high a degree of sensitivity. Even if a spokesperson believes they could share a POV, remember that the company as a whole will be represented – and impacted by the attention. Negative stories are unavoidable, but they should be managed with care.
  • Is this something we’re going to continue discussing? –  Establishing a company’s expertise and profile takes substantial time and in a constant state of change. Not every comment or thought leadership content is successfully picked up, but they all contribute to positioning your company as an important voice in your particular space. However, if you begin venturing into every topic that arises, you’re likely to nullify your efforts to establish your company as a thought leader. By directing efforts to topics your company will continuously refer to, you have a better chance of establishing yourself as a reliable voice.

Every company has a perspective and expertise to share, but it’s vital they are directed into the right areas. A valued PR partner can help your company discern when – and if – they should be part of a conversation. Rather than chasing ’what’s hot right now’, time would be better spent establishing a well-defined perspective and understanding where your company can offer valued insights to the press. With a clearer understanding of what your company can’t discuss, you can be more effective in the conversations you do belong in.

In a time when brands are facing reputational challenges over greenwashing accusations, Patagonia has remained authentic to its environmental responsibilities through a simple, but definitive statement – that it is not a sustainable brand.

Last year, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard announced the radical move to give the company away to a trust, with all future profits going towards climate crisis initiatives. While consumers are rightfully sceptical when it comes to trusting brands’ environmental claims, Patagonia demonstrates how brands can be active participants in the battle against climate change.

Sustainability from the start

Sustainability has been at the forefront of Patagonia since the beginning. Even when the company only existed as an equipment catalogue, it encouraged customers to ditch its pitons, after noticing rock-faces were being damaged with its use. Since 1985, it has been donating 1% of its annual sales to fight climate change and went one step further by establishing ‘1% for the Planet’, encouraging other companies to adopt similar policies. 

For Patagonia, it’s been essential that its messaging strategy should not just promote the brand’s products, but also actively encourage environmentally positive actions. This philosophy is evident across campaigns such as ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’. However, there is a contradictory nature in wanting to be sustainable, but also having revenue growth as a business imperative. Authenticity is felt when a brand, like Patagonia, tells its customers that its product shouldn’t come at the expense of the environment. It communicates a message that the company is willing to sacrifice profits for a greater purpose, and reassures its consumers that product is built with quality in mind.

In March, Patagonia launched a campaign establishing the principal messaging defining its future aims with “What’s next?”. Companies that rest on their laurels, despite how successful they have been previously, eventually face backlash for lack of action. Effectively communicating that the business has clear future environmental plans assures consumers that your company is in it for the long haul.

The Patagonia paradox

“Never being done” is the ethos that guides Patagonia. It’s the idea that to truly have a positive effect, you not only need to continuously invest resources, but need to reflect on your company’s negative impact on the planet. [SJ1] No business-for-profit is perfectly sustainable, but Patagonia understands that this does not negate the fact that the private-sector can have a positive environmental impact. 

This all starts with an open and transparent communication strategy. Patagonia understands that accountability is the first step in winning consumer trust. After revealing that 95% of its carbon emissions come from its supply chain, it’s looking for ways to offset this by increasing second-hand materials and restricting product-line output.

Patagonia also set-up a “joint funding mechanism” where smaller brands can partner up. Notably, the company states it only has an inclination this will work, with no guarantee of results. In a time when many marketers are concerned with projects being accused of ‘greenwashing’, Patagonia presents an alternative through transparent communication. 

Purpose-driven practices 

Patagonia’s driving narrative resonates with so many because it remains ethically consistent, and this can be felt across every aspect of the business. If a brand truly wants to be sustainable, it will need to integrate planet-first policies widely into every part of its organisation. This includes being transparent about sustainability issues. Reputational risk that comes with hiding environmental issues far outweighs the backlash of being transparent with where improvements are needed.

Being perfectly sustainable is impossible, but communicating where the company plans to improve and invest, shows your organisation is serious about tackling climate challenges.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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