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.

“Potato!”

Ah, right, my two-year old wants that mash potato she didn’t finish earlier, I better go get it.

“No, potato”, she says again but pointing at her craft box.

“Oooh, you’re asking for your Play-Doh.”

I wasn’t listening intently enough, and instead heard what I wanted to hear – her wanting more of the wonderful meal I prepared, of course!

Miscommunication and misunderstanding are part and parcel of life. They happen often, and if corrected in good time, no big deal. But what happens when there’s a communication breakdown that is left unaddressed? The relationship breaks down too.

At the end of last year, I read a WSJ article based on a report from McKinsey that revealed nine out of 10 CEOs feel that marketing has a clearly defined role at their companies, yet only 22% of marketing leaders agree. And it’s down from 31% in 2019.

This gap is significant and is likely largely down to assumptions and misaligned expectations. And why the widening of this gap? It’s been a tough economic climate and when there’s pressure, there’s more scope for misunderstanding and miscommunication.

An analysis in the report also found that “C-suite leaders, with scant to no experience in marketing, reach out to the department hoping to find growth drivers in a very mixed economy.” This sentiment is backed by the fact that only 10% of CEOs at Fortune 250 companies have worked in marketing.

The ‘understanding gap’

C-Suite leaders don’t actually need first-hand experience or an in-depth understanding of marketing operations, but the CMO does need to understand exactly what the CEO requires. And then deliver it. This ‘understanding gap’ worsens when expectations are not made clear.

An ‘understanding gap’ can also turn into an ‘appreciation gap’, and this is where frustration festers which doesn’t bode well for anyone, or the wider organisation. If a relationship isn’t based on mutual respect, then it’s not a functional relationship.

Getting on the same page

1. Listening, and I mean really listening

I will never forget delivering training on ‘active listening’ to a team member, who then said, “this is a bit basic”. Yes, it is basic, but active listening is actually harder than you think. You may believe you’re doing it by listening, staying quiet, nodding your head and maybe even repeating back what you heard. But have you done it with self-awareness and empathy, making sure to pick up on other subtle cues to ensure the speaker feels truly listened to?

You can hear, or you can actively listen. I heard potato, I responded. Had I actively listened – listening attentively to my daughter, really looking to understand what she was saying, paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues – maybe I would’ve given her what she was asking for.

Of course, that’s not a high stakes scenario. But when the consequences are major, active listening becomes so incredibly important, not only so a situation is crystal clear in your mind, but also for trust and respect.

2. Clarifying/Replaying

Clarification is part of active listening and is the best way to proactively ensure everyone is on the same page. It’s not just about repeating back a point either, it’s about rephrasing it or re-contextualising it, or even asking further questions around it, to be certain that what’s being said is clear and understood.

And be mindful, the person you’re clarifying with may not be actively listening, so how do you navigate that? You clarify and replay in multiple ways to catch misunderstandings early. For example, in the moment or maybe after the meeting in written form.

3. Atmosphere of collaboration

Good collaboration starts with judgement-free exchanges of ideas and insights. In fast-paced environments, pausing and having moments of reflection can be hard to squeeze in, but they become an important part of staying aligned and fostering strong collaboration.

Defining clear roles and responsibilities enables fast progress in-between these moments of pause, particularly when it comes to streamlining decision-making processes. By leveraging respective areas of expertise, CEOs and CMOs combine their super-powers to drive growth, enhance brand reputation, and capitalise on market opportunities.

Effective communication is not just a matter of exchanging words; it’s about truly understanding and aligning with one another. My “potato” incident illustrates how easily miscommunication can occur even in seemingly simple interactions. However, when miscommunication happens in professional settings, the consequences can be far-reaching, leading to strained relationships and hindered organisational growth.

The worrying widening gap between CEOs’ perception of marketing’s role and marketing leaders’ perspectives highlights the importance of actively working to bridge understanding and appreciation gaps within organisations. The market is still a little volatile and now more than ever we should be investing in relationships which are critical for our organisation’s success.

We’ve reached that time of year where everyone is just about focussed on the new year ahead, already thinking about their New Year’s resolutions in the hope that this is the year they’ll be able to stick to them longer than a few weeks. We hear the phrase, ‘New year, new me’, as we make promises to ourselves that next year we’re going to try and be a better human, one way or another.

In doing so, do we make our resolutions for the new year too ambitious and, sometimes, too strict? We see it as almost a punishment for over-indulging and enjoying the holidays and yet, most of us don’t stick to our resolutions because we’re too hard on ourselves and we can’t make them a habit. We’re in for another turbulent year ahead in an already hectic world and if we set ourselves completely wild new year’s resolutions, we’ll only add to the chaos in our lives.

Instead of conjuring up really out-there resolutions and then feeling struck down, we should be kinder to ourselves and look at improving what we already know and do. With this in mind, here’s a manageable and sticky approach to New Year’s resolutions and a look into what we could be doing more of next year:

More learning

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we learn something new every day. It could be a new piece of technology that we’ve read about in the news, a new way of working that we’ve learnt from a podcast or a new way of thinking we’ve learnt from our friends. The digital resources around us are saturated with new content every day and we need to continue to take advantage of it. As well as continuing to learn new facts, figures and information, we also need to learn more from our mistakes too.

This makes me think about the parallels between Samsung launching its first foldable phone and Greggs launching its first vegan sausage roll a few years back. Samsung, having experienced a string of hardware problems in the past, chose to rush its highly anticipated product to market only to discover that the product was flawed once in the hands of reviewers. Greggs, on the other hand, did well. Whilst it may not have been the first brand to break into the vegan sausage roll market, it executed a campaign that boosted shares by 13%, the best performer on the FTSE 100 at the time.

The difference? Greggs listened and learned from its audience. The spike in veganism and vegan-friendly products over the last couple of years meant that it was the perfect time for Greggs to enter the market. So much so that everyone wanted to taste the new product. That’s where listening and learning can take you.

More reading  

One of the things I admire about Bill Gates that he talks about in his documentary, Inside Bill’s Brain, is his ‘think weeks’. Twice a year, he’ll spend a week locked away in a secret cabin reading papers on all different kinds of topics, expanding his mind and outlook of the world. When I learned about this, I was in complete admiration and jealous! One of the busiest people in the world still finds time for himself and uses it in a productive way. So, for us, there are really no excuses.

Whilst I’m not suggesting that we all run off to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and read all the Jane Austen novels backwards, we should make the time to read something outside of our daily reading routine. Most of us will probably read the latest headlines, social media updates or newsletters, so why not try exploring a new platform? Maybe find a new subreddit or Forbes columnist, even broadening out to the likes of podcasts and audiobooks to find another way to digest information. Reading and digesting information helps us in many ways whether it’s inspiration for a blog, learning something or just keeping up to date with the world. And we should be doing more if it.

More exercise

Walk into a gym in January and no doubt it will be heaving with people trying to shave off the pounds after Christmas. Then, in February, it begins to die down because people have stretched themselves too much. Instead of going in at the deep end when it comes to exercise, try making small changes. Remember, we’re not starting new, we’re trying to improve what we already do. That could mean walking to work rather than taking the tube or taking a regular walk round the office to stretch your legs.

Wellness remains a huge trending topic, and everyone has a desire to be healthier, but that doesn’t mean we have to push ourselves or plan to run a marathon. Small changes and switches to our normal routine is enough to clear our mind and start fresh.

More quiet time

With social media and news outlets churning out content every hour of the day, there’s never a quiet moment in comms. That means as comms professionals, we also have little quiet time. Although it’s in our nature to work in fast-paced environments and keep busy, we also need to make time for more quiet moments to avoid complete exhaustion and burnout. That could mean taking ourselves away from the office for a couple of hours or working from a different environment. A quiet environment where you become lost in your own thoughts is important to let creative thinking flow.

More face-to-face time

I knew a headmaster who called any TV a moron’s lantern, but these days the email has become the modern-day mind pollutant. Every time we come back from a long holiday or break; we dread the first day back where we have to sift through the mountain of emails we’ve received. As well as taking up a lot of our time, emails can also be poor at getting our message fully across because we don’t have any audio or visual cues to justify the tone or style of the communication.

Psychology professor, Albert Mehbrain, says that there are three basic elements in face-to-face communications: words, the tone of voice and body language. And according to his study, words account for only 7% of the messages, meaning tone of voice and body language make up 38% and 55% respectively.

So, to really make our message count and mean something, it’s best to meet face to face or at least have a conversation on the phone. An email will only get us so far in terms of communicating and building a relationship so face-to-face time is valuable.

Staying strong in the New Year

We often associate the New Year with starting afresh and whilst it’s good to be ambitious and motivated to do more good things, we should also maintain and do more of the things we enjoy too.

In that case, maybe we should drink more coffee because sometimes, and for all the right reasons, we need that extra burst of energy!

Or maybe we should commit and focus on just one resolution that will last all year.

Here’s wishing all our clients, employees and colleagues in the comms industry a good reprieve from the year that was and happy planning for the New Year!

How many times have we uttered these words in defeat during the festive season? After hours of trying to decrypt the magic combination of ‘yesses’ and ‘nos’ in a chatbot window while online shopping, desperately trying to reach the inbox of a human employee.

Well, if you believe the AI industry’s announcements, come the new year, that will soon be a struggle of the past.

Yes, chatbots are undergoing a rebrand. No longer are they the cryptic gatekeepers to the human behind the screen; companies are working on making virtual assistants more humanised. Take bank NatWest’s new AI-powered chatbot, ‘Cora’ for example. Human name aside, it has been developed with the goal of being more personable by being able to provide information to the user in a friendly conversational style.

The humanising of chatbots comes at a time when we are living a strange duality of both fearing AI’s scope and embracing it as one of us. At the same time world leaders met at Bletchley Park to discuss next steps around regulation for AI, we were asking Alexa for quick dinner recipes.

And while identified by some as “one of the biggest threats to humanity”, we are calling it the names of our friends and family. This isn’t a new phenomenon. One of the first chatbots was called ELIZA and was developed in 1966. In fact, you can still chat to ‘her’ today. But more confusingly in the past year, celebrities like Kendall Jenner sold their images to Meta to create chatbots who look and speak like them.  

The effectiveness of using a celebrity image in humanising chatbots is questionable. When speaking to Billie (Jenner’s AI counterpart), watchers of The Kardashians are transferring their parasocial relationship they have with Jenner from the show to Billie – adapting quickly to using and trusting the bot.

Further to the way chatbots are looking and speaking to us, we are unconsciously accepting the personalisation of the software. Using language for human actions is increasing anthropomorphism of AI in our everyday conversations. Terms like ‘hallucinating’ – for describing when a chatbot AI programme produces false information – has become Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year, cementing it in the 2023 zeitgeist.

Many of us, especially the older generation, are resistant to the chatbot, preferring to pick up the phone and have a real person handle our queries about returning gifts or logging into our banking apps. But a study at the Technical University of Berlin found that working alongside robots causes us to slack off in the same way we would with human colleagues. Is this a crack in the wall between humans and machines?

Perhaps as 2024 continues, and AI’s rebrand becomes more streamlined, the lines will blur between how we treat other humans and how we speak to chatbots.

Which begs the question – how long will it be before we are asking “Can I just speak to a chatbot, please?”.

There were always parallels that could be drawn between Elon Musk and Tony Stark – a controversial and eccentric billionaire living in a remote part of the world conjuring up futuristic technologies to spread to the masses. However, it seems that Elon Musk has decided to go down the path of the X-Men instead.

With very little prior warning, Twitter announced last weekend that it would be rebranding to ‘X’ with immediate effect. The website changed, a huge ‘X’ was projected on to its HQ in San Francisco and Musk himself released the logo on his own, erm…X feed?

Whatever your feelings as to the madhouse that the company has been since Musk took over, no one can say it has been uneventful. This is just the latest in a string of high-profile and somewhat hard-to-follow announcements in the past year, however this feels much bigger than ones that have preceded it such as the hiring of a new CEO, or charging people for a blue tick.

A rebrand of a company is an enormous undertaking and usually reserved for a very specific reason, often in reaction to something negative that has damaged the company’s reputation, something transformative that has happened such as the launching of a new product or service, or post-acquisition to bring people together. So, what is the thinking behind it, and where will the circus roll on to next?

The marketing point of view

I think it’s fair to say, that Musk and Twitter have not been totally aligned, either before or after his acquisition. Therefore, his desire to rebrand and move away from the old Twitter in many ways is understandable. Couple this with legacy reputational issues that Twitter has faced throughout its history, around content moderation and political bias, and changing the brand to distance himself from that makes sense.

However, when the launch was announced much of the response was scathing including calls of it being ‘marketing suicide’. Twitter’s name and associated brand was recently valued at £4.4bn by Brand Finance last year, so many understandably questioned how smart it was to abandon that overnight, particularly for a company struggling with revenue. Furthermore, changing from an instantly recognisable name and logo that has been ever present in society for the past two decades, to a letter of the alphabet, especially the letter X, has also been met with derision.

Firstly, the letter X could be argued as not having the best connotations. On our phones it signifies deleting things, but also it could remind us of that former girlfriend or boyfriend we would rather forget. On top of this, is the issue of copyright. Many firms have come out saying they already have a claim on the letter, including of all people, Meta, and this could lead to months, or even years, of untold misery for Musk’s lawyers – who, let’s face it, were probably already overworked.

Reason to be Xcited?

But is this missing something? Musk has long spoken of his desire to create an ‘everything app’, and this rebrand opens up the opportunity for the company to go in a totally new direction. These apps bring everything into one place combining communications, banking, retail and more. Much like when Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s name to Meta, this is the biggest signal yet that he sees this as the future.

The everything app concept is not a new one worldwide. WeChat, China’s version of this, boasts one billion monthly users and is absolutely ubiquitous throughout society – even stalls selling fruit and veg in the streets may not accept any other form of payment. It is therefore surprising that it has not caught on yet in the West. If implemented it would completely revolutionise life and the way we communicate, as we know it. As such, for such a groundbreaking and monumental effort, perhaps a rebrand was the only way to go.

Taking back the initiative

Also curious is the timing of the announcement. The reputational rivalry between both Musk and Zuckerberg personally, but also between Twitter and the newly launched Threads as platforms, has been steadily gaining intensity in recent months. Since Threads was launched, many people have started suggesting that Twitter’s days are numbered, and Threads would get the upper hand. However, Threads’ momentum has seemed to tail off a little as sign-up rates dropped. So, with this announcement, at least for the moment, it seems like Musk has wrestled back control of the narrative and taken the edge in the communications battle.

Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. Many things will play a role in the outcome, perhaps even the litigation mentioned previously. However imperative to this effort will be the ability for X to market itself in a positive way, and how Musk will foster both his personal and the company’s overall reputation.

Either way, it won’t be boring. 

We all aspire to be savvy buyers, of anything. However, consider how often you buy something you want, but you don’t really need. Or you find the perfect piece but find an identical item at a lower price somewhere else. Or think about a time where you bought something that is clearly the wrong size and can’t be returned.

We’ve all been there, and buyer’s remorse applies to business procurement decisions too. Business investments may not be coming out of your personal pocket but there is still an expectation to be savvy. As you could be dealing with figures that equate to a purchase of a decent car or property, it’s crucial to get it right, especially in these current economic conditions.

Embarking on a partnership with a PR agency is one of those business purchasing decisions that shouldn’t be taken lightly. But how can you be sure you are choosing, or working with, the right-sized communications and PR agency and getting value out of every dollar, pound, or euro you spend on comms?

There are thousands of excellent communications agencies in Europe, of all shapes and sizes. We all have different expertise, strengths, experience and cultures, however the “client/agency relationship fit” is critical in the smooth running of a communications programme if you wish to yield the most impactful results.

A value buy

When searching for a new PR agency partner, quality and price are often the foremost factors under consideration. On quality, it’s imperative to establish whether the people on your team:

  • Have relevant experience and industry understanding.
  • Have solid and relevant connections.
  • Possess unbridled creativity, precision execution and an eye for detail.
  • And are invested in supporting your business and communications goals.

On price, ask yourself whether the service and results expected from the programme tie back to what is needed for your organisation. Basically, do the numbers add up so the spend yields enough impact to make the difference you need?

Style

While a great cultural fit is harder to determine, as much of this decision is subjective, there are approaches you can take to make it more objective.

If you were interviewing new members for your team, what personal qualities would you look for? Consider applying a similar process when selecting an agency team. Engage with each member of the team to feel the strength of connection at every level. 

Also interrogate the agency’s values – do they match up with your company’s values?

The right size

Looking at how your company is positioned on the PR agency roster is another factor to consider when rightsizing your agency choice.  

Few clients want to be the smallest client or to be seen at the bottom of the pecking order. Most clients like to be the biggest or nearly the biggest client – at the top of the pecking order. And even fewer clients like the agency itself to be larger and with more people than their own organisation. For the most part, organisations like to know they will be considered a valued client by their agency – every one of them wants to be the favourite.

If you’re a medium-sized agile business, you may be better off selecting a small or medium-sized agile agency.

If you are a large global organisation on a global mission, perhaps you need the same large global agency representing you in every market where you operate. Be warned though, a large global network is only as strong as the weakest link, so be sure all links individually demonstrate and deliver strength.

Making the purchasing decision

A fundamental benefit of working with smaller agencies is that they tend to pay more attention to detail and are not only strong on developing strategies but also executing against those strategies and seeing the programme through. They are generally more agile and can offer more personalised and bespoke services or solutions.

Other advantages:

  • They sometimes specialise – for example in technology, consumer brands or healthcare –and therefore bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table
  • They offer competitive pricing and value as they’re not weighed down by huge overheads
  • They are often a team of highly experienced consultants that have branched out from larger agencies and run a tight ship. The senior team is hands on and don’t leave the account in the hands of inexperienced consultants  

So when sizing up your options, don’t rule out a smaller agile agency – they may just be hungrier and the fit you’re looking for!

The current global economic backdrop is not a pretty sight and many businesses have had to make cuts of various kinds. Whether it’s a restructure, layoffs, or re-evaluating big expenditure like office spaces, the pressure following a drop in consumer demand continues to mount.

There are glimmers of light, though. There was surprise growth in the UK economy in November 2022, and France and Germany are currently set to narrowly avoid recession. Plus, we’ve got to remember that we’ve been through the turmoil of COVID-19 – and we made it to the other side.

So, as leaders in PR and marketing, what did we learn then, that’s relevant now?

Showing deep business understanding: If the board is focused on profitability, show you can do more for less by being resourceful and demonstrating how to be more effective. If the board wants growth, show that you’re focused on lead generation, customer engagement etc. Proving that your marketing focus aligns completely to the priorities of the organisation means you’re less likely to have your resources cut.

Create connections: If you’re not already, get out of the marketing bubble and make stronger connections internally. Is there a way you can get closer to finance? And if not finance, the people that influence finance, for example the senior team in sales or other C-level executives. You want others to support your case to retain your budget – you need to make them realise ‘I cannot be successful without marketing’.

Visibility and promotion: A way to get closer to board members or others in leadership is to build their profile externally, showing the value directly. You’re probably already doing this by positioning experts and leadership as the faces of the company, but also look at your board and ask yourself: who could be more visible? Like the above, you’re creating more allies internally. 

Don’t think you can hide: All costs are on the P&L and a discussion about your budget will happen if it hasn’t yet. Be proactive and think of solutions that work for both you and the business. In this current environment, the finance team will currently be focused on cashflow so maybe there are ways to create an impact now and pay later. For example, working with a PR agency, the payment terms can be 30-60 days, meaning results today, payment the following month. Not many organisations have cut their way to survival, rather it’s more about keeping costs down within acceptable limits.

More for less: Ensure you are doing the majority right and fast and don’t let perfection slow you down. Timelines have shrunk meaning the time for change is today, this week –- forget about plans looking eight weeks down the line. And repurpose, repurpose, repurpose. Be as resourceful as you can.

It may feel gloomy right now, but this is the time for marketing, because once we’re on the up, growth will come fast again. Being prepared will mean you can go after every opportunity and look back at this time as just another blip!

As revealed in Netflix’s new documentary‘White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch’today’s company is very different from the brand of the 1990s and early 2000s. For more than a decade, Abercrombie and Fitch have been in the process of rebuilding its reputation; this reveals some interesting lessons that we can take away as PR and comms professionals.

In its heyday, Abercrombie & Fitch (Abercrombie) was worth more than $5 billion and had more than 1000 stores worldwide. During this period, the company was led by Mike Jeffries, who once revealed in that now-famous 2006 interview that the company’s marketing strategy was deliberately exclusionary. He only wanted the ‘attractive’, ‘cool kids’ wearing Abercrombie. If we look a little deeper, we see that this was not merely a surface level PR strategy – you want what you can’t have, right? Instead, racist and exclusionary policies were embedded within the company’s culture. While these policies once appeared to benefit Abercrombie, as attitudes changed, they quickly eroded the company’s reputation, which has had a fundamental impact on the business’s long-term growth.

The question is; what can the demise of Abercrombie teach us about the importance of managing your company’s reputation?

Leadership and reputation

As the company’s figurehead, the CEO will always have a significant impact on the reputation of your company – both positive and negative! The former CEO of Abercrombie, Mike Jeffries, who once led the brand’s revival, would ultimately become its biggest liability. Jeffries was known for his bold ideas and commitment to the brand. However, he was also uncompromising, unorthodox, and did not take criticism well.

While Jeffries has long since left the company, Abercrombie is still working to ameliorate the damage caused by his tenure as CEO. Ultimately, Jeffries should not have been left to manage the company for so long. That being said, the current CEO, Fran Horowitz, has been working hard to ensure that the company is accountable for past mistakes. In a statement to CNN, Horowitz said, “we own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership,” adding that the company is now “a place of belonging”.

While the company has a long way to go, the importance of leadership accountability is evident here. Suppose a business fails to hold its leader accountable or recognise when it is time for leadership change. In that case, long-term damage will be inflicted upon the company’s reputation.

Company values

As times change, often should a company’s values. Failure to make the necessary changes will eventually impact the reputation of any company. When Jeffries began his tenure as CEO, he built the brand upon racist and discriminatory values. These values quickly began to seep into company culture and policies, hiring practices, and even the designs on the clothes.

In 2003, 8 former employees sued Abercrombie for race and sex discrimination. Without admitting any guilt, the company settled and was required to pay $40 million and sign a decree to change its practices and promote diversity.

For a while, the company continued to get away with its discriminatory practices. However, these days consumers value and expect brands to promote diversity and inclusion. Abercrombie failed to move with the times, which meant that as attitudes changed, the brand became toxic, and their failure to own up to past mistakes came back to haunt them. Companies should continually audit their values and policies to ensure that they are promoting diversity and inclusion and that they are not breaking the law, for that matter!

So, what can we learn from this as communications professionals?

The demise of Abercrombie from a multi-billion dollar brand to a disgraced clothing company can teach us a few things about managing your company’s reputation:

  • The CEO embodies a company’s reputation: the CEO of any company embodies its reputation. Organisations should be willing to let go of a CEO if their actions or personal life begin to distract from the mission of the company – failure to do so can cause irreversible damage 
  • Accountability: organisations that hold themselves accountable for past mistakes will be able to distance themselves from previous damage and begin rebuilding their reputation
  • Values: organisations should constantly review their values, culture and policies to ensure that they reflect the mission of the company. Out of date practices should be scrapped and replaced with policies that promote diversity and inclusion. 

Facebook has had its fair share of crises in its relatively short and troubled tenure – the most recent being revelations from whistleblower, Frances Haugen, about the company’s algorithm increasing divisiveness on the platform, as well as insider knowledge about Instagram being harmful to mental health. And yet, at the start of the year, we heard about the company’s rebrand to Meta with a renewed focus away from social media and toward what is known as the metaverse (check out our previous post on the metaverse to find out more).  

While it seems perfectly feasible for Facebook to rebrand – as businesses typically rebrand every seven to 10 years (Firefly included!), Facebook sceptics might think that the ‘Meta’ rebrand is merely an aesthetic exercise in an attempt to cover up a string of wrongdoings. Rebranding to Meta to align with future goals and visions of the metaverse does make sense – a company setting out a new vision, new goals and a rebrand to align to those goals is the natural next move. But in the case of Facebook (and many other rebrands, which I’ll come onto), it can also be a reputation reshaping exercise, which brings me to the question, is a rebrand enough to save a reputation?  

Moving with the times – why companies rebrand     

Facebook isn’t the first, nor will it be the last company to rebrand, especially after a spout of bad publicity. In fact, many brands will do a complete overhaul throughout their time – in a lot of cases, it’s how big brands have kept going for so long. When McDonalds chose to completely revamp its restaurants from the playful, Ronald McDonald kids culture to the more sophisticated, café-like culture of today, it was simultaneously going through a major crisis. The documentary “Super Size Me” exposed various health concerns around McDonalds food, prompting a drop in profits and leaving a bad taste in the mouth (no pun intended) for consumers.  

Elsewhere, the Gillette 2019 advert which announced the brand’s new slogan and made references to #MeToo and toxic masculinity conversations split opinions across the public. Some deemed the change a fresh look from the 30-year old tagline, while others decided to boycott the brand, claiming it as “feminist propaganda” and “emasculating men”. The brand rode the wave, defending the campaign and stuck to its new ways despite the outrage. 

Besides moving with the times, a rebrand might also be spurred on by a new CEO or exec team, there may have been a recent merger or acquisition, or perhaps the company is ready to go global and needs to rebrand to be able to reach that global audience. Whatever reason a company chooses to rebrand, it can reap many reputational rewards, but also faces multiple risks if not done right.  

Don’t just be a pretty face  

Saving a damaged reputation needs to be carefully considered. Simply changing the face of your brand alone won’t cut it, the audience will be able to see straight through the cosmetic changes, so remember to also work on real change inside the company too.   

Here are few pointers to consider if you’re thinking about rebranding and reshaping your reputation: 

  1. Make sure it’s representative of all voices – a rebrand and reshape is a huge project, especially if you’re a large organisation. It’s important that these decisions are made with the representation of all employees in the organisation. Basecamp found this out the hard way when a third of its employees left the company after the CEO told employees in an email to keep ideology out of the workplace and to “focus on the company’s actual business” 
  1. Practice what you preach – it’s all good and well announcing sweeping changes to your company on social media and to the press, but you’ll soon be caught out by your employees if no real change is happening on the inside. If you’re reshaping to promote diversity, does your board reflect a diverse workforce? Are you reshaping to be more environmentally conscious? Outline exactly how you’ll be tackling that, both for employees and everyone else.   
  1. Establish a new messaging framework – setting the tone for your refreshed business is essential, make sure to consider exactly what and how you’ll be talking about your business and how stakeholders can support those messages.  
  1. Momentum is key – After the big splash about the rebrand and reshape, make sure to keep on talking. Keep communicating with the new messaging and stick to your guns – it may take some time getting used to it. 
  1. Prepare for (minor) backlash – rebrands and reshapes are complicated and do carry big risk – even the biggest companies struggle to get it right. Just ensure you’re doing it for the right reasons and anticipate responses or a potential backlash from employees and the public.  

Firefly Communications has appointed Marco Dautel as associate director to strengthen its German agency, based in Munich.

Marco’s area of responsibility will be to enhance strategic client work and to further develop the company’s consulting and service offering, as well as the overall business in Germany. Marco brings 15 years of PR experience to the table, having worked for clients in the technology, mobile, security, consumer electronics and travel industries.

Firefly Group CEO Claire Walker says, “We have a solid client base in Germany and a great team that delivers outstanding results. With Marco onboard, we are further strengthening our proposition. The combination of his and our pan-European experience in the technology and digital services markets will help Firefly Germany grow as it continues to shape the reputations of its existing and future clients.”

Marco joins from German leisure and experience expert, Jochen Schweizer, where he led the public relations efforts of the group and its founder. Before Jochen Schweizer he led the consumer technology teams at Edelman Munich and Bite Communications Germany, where he worked for a wide range of clients such as Microsoft Xbox, HTC, HP, Norton by Symantec and Razer.

 

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Is it time to shape your reputation?

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