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:
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?
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.
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!
Most of us who frequent social media platforms will have probably given in to the recommendations of an influencer in one way or another. Whether it be an Amazon gadget or a new trending celeb recipe, influencers have the power to impact decisions of consumers across all age groups.
Over the years, influencer marketing has been on the rise. In 2021, 44% of B2C brands in Europe said they planned to increase their influencer marketing budget. What was a $1.7 billion industry, in 2016 has since grown to become worth $16 billion in 2022, with expectations for it to grow to $21 billion this year. But with all the emphasis put on these influencers to build a brand’s reputation, what are the implications if this falls apart? The new ‘de-influencer’ trend might be the first sign of cracks in the influencer world.
So far, the de-influencing hashtag has garnered 180 million TikTok views since the trend began in January this year. De-influencing is when content creators uncover the truth about products consumers have been pushed to purchase, all in a bid to address overconsumption.
Like consumers, businesses face difficulties in the current economic climate. Layoffs have continued to dominate the headlines, putting the decisions of business leaders centre stage – they’re not only being judged by their employees but the general public too. In a similar vein, the de-influencer movement gives consumers the ‘right information’ they need to make better decisions with their money. Society craves authenticity, and with ‘cancel culture’ still present, no brand or business is safe from judgment. The jury is fierce and they take no prisoners. Now more than ever, shaping reputation is crucial.
This isn’t the first sign of consumers becoming savvier to how and where they should be spending their money. During the last decade we saw a huge rise in the importance of a business having the right ESG credentials, driven not only by government regulation but also investor and stakeholder demand. However, ESG’s critics believe that companies are using the loosely defined term to “greenwash,” or make unrealistic or misleading claims, especially about their environmental credentials.
As B2B marketing strategies look to use business influencers on TikTok to complement product content on LinkedIn, they must ensure they know exactly who their audiences are and more importantly use the right influencers. After all, partnering with the wrong influencer can dramatically affect a brand’s credibility and ruin its reputation.
Whilst the de-influencer movement isn’t completely exempt from its own criticism of its authenticity, it’s brought up some really important conversations. It’s provided us with the space we need to stop and think about our decisions more closely, focusing on becoming better humans overall. As consumers, investors and end users are all focused on making the right decisions – whether it’s buying a dress from an environmentally charged retailer or investing in the most ethical AI driven product – businesses should focus on creating clear and concise messaging and communicating through the most effective means possible.
Zooming out of the detail of these trends to looking at a company’s reputation as a whole, it’s important for leaders in comms to build meaningful relationships based on trust. This trust influences more than just purchasing, permeating all aspects of the company. There’s nowhere for organisations to hide, and any step of the way there’s judgement, so shaping a reputation in this new era, is about gaining trust through a comms strategy that puts transparency and authenticity at the forefront.
What do a maple syrup company, world-renowned author JK Rowling, and Ellen DeGeneres all have in common? They have all been cancelled and are still reeling from the effects. Cancel culture, which can be defined as the blacklisting and ostracisation of a company, celebrity, or public figure, is one of the biggest issues facing PR today. Companies have fought tirelessly to grow their reputations, and now thanks to cancel culture, there is even more need to build a robust reputation.
Increasingly, we are seeing examples of when a strong reputation with loyal customers (or fanbases) make brands somewhat ‘cancel-proof’. In fact, time and time again, organisations that were once trending on Twitter for their often controversial ‘cancellation’, have risen from the ashes due to their leaders’ strong and resilient reputation.
Crisis management has always been a significant part of public relations, but no one could have predicted the scale and reach that cancel culture might have. So, should communications professionals be scared of the looming threat of cancel culture? Or could a strong reputation mean a resilience can be built against these mass boycotts?
Great reputations and charismatic leaders
Despite the power of ‘cancellation’, reputation has been the saving grace of some companies and public figures, who may have otherwise succumbed to the snubbing. A notable example of this is YouTube titan Jeffree Star, who owns makeup company Jeffree Star Cosmetics. Despite exhibiting behaviour that could risk cancellation, Star and his cosmetics empire have remained resilient to this threat, due to his strong online presence and reputation, as well as his loyal and established fanbase.
In the tech world, one may draw parallels with Elon Musk. Musk’s ability to survive controversy after controversy has been attributed to the fact that he is a charismatic leader, although that’s not to say there hasn’t been some reputational damage to Tesla because of Musk’s behaviour.
Damage that cancellation can do
The reputational damage that cancel culture can do is not to be understated. A certain beverage company will remember 2017 as the year they lost a predicted $5 million dollars in the aftermath of cancel culture. When Pepsi hired the world’s highest paid supermodel Kendall Jenner to star in their protest
As much as some companies may hope and pray, cancel culture is not going anywhere. The rise of social media’s influence on society (71% of Tik Tok users believe it’s where the biggest trends start) means that brand need to learn to adapt and survive against cancel culture, and the addition of a charismatic leader is a major component to reputational resilience. The decisions that a company makes when it concerns a company’s reputation must be thoroughly thought through. Ultimately, it is not cancel culture itself that organisations (with or without a face) should fear, but the status of your reputation and whether it can make your company resilient.
Over the years I’ve had the privilege of engaging with a number of major tech bosses to get their views on reputation, but one insight that came through strongly in my conversations was that “when it comes to reputation, a fish rots from the head.”
Leaders are expected to serve the multiple stakeholders of employees, customers, partners, the community and the environment as well as the traditional model of shareholders. But managing a company or brand’s reputation is rarely simple. There are nuances and differences in attitudes, even within the technology sector.
Trust as a currency
The primary currency of great leadership has always been trust. Gaining a reputation for absolute integrity and adherence to the highest standards of trust and privacy are critical. It’s safe to say then that trust is intrinsically tied to reputation. This trust influences more than just purchasing, permeating all aspects of the company almost as if it were a chemical element created by the synergy of the leadership team and the employees themselves.
A gold-standard reputation can delight staff, build shareholder confidence, attract top talent, and establish solid customer relationships from the get-go. Employees love coming to work and competitors mimic and envy your success.
What’s your flavour?
For the most part high-quality organisations believe in reputation, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also about understanding the ‘flavour’ of your reputation, which ties into your commercial strategy. You can be the best, the cheapest or the fastest, but not all three. For example, some companies are built around being the fastest, and therefore need to build a supply chain to accommodate that. This may mean driving staff in a way that would incentivise speed over quality.
The commercial strategy of an organisation dictates its reputation, and it’s important that people know what they’re getting in for, or you risk building mental tension and stress. If a company strategy serves up a strong hoppy IPA when staff are expecting a light fizzy lager, then problems can arise.
Reputation: The CEO’s Burden or Their Greatest Ally?
Although reputation might often seem like a matter of seeking out problems, it’s not all doom and gloom. Doing good and being a responsible leader is important, but so is having fun. Having a tough project is acceptable but if you can have fun with your team and come away smiling, then your reputation as an employer will be greatly enhanced. And if these seem like broad-ranging issues, then that’s not an accident – as any established CEO will know, the remit of a leader, whether in a small early-stage startup, or a large international firm, will include a huge portfolio of operational, commercial, personnel and other stakeholder issues. Whilst some of it might seem negative in nature, leadership is not only one of the most varied and nuanced roles, but also one of the most rewarding. Steering an entire company through the bad times and the good, leaders are at the very helm of company reputation itself, and if that’s not a satisfying experience, we don’t know what is!
The last couple of years have brought what has felt like near non-stop economic turbulence. Brexit, Covid-19, the outbreak of war in Ukraine and now the spiralling cost of living and energy prices have all created shockwaves to global economies. At a time where the pinch is being felt by businesses and consumers alike, communications – both internal and external – must be approached delicately.
Communicating how a product or service can genuinely help customers during this period – whether it’s through cutting back IT costs, speeding up internal processes, reskilling talent quickly, and so on – is important, yes. But it is also important to recognise that this may not be the time to apply huge amounts of pressure to existing and prospective customers. Consumers and businesses alike are being cautious with their spending. There are nerves, fear even, about what’s to come. An aggressive sales and communication strategy might seem the way to go, but it’s certainly not the most empathetic.
At times like this, the art of communication becomes more nuanced than ever. It’s vital to show your customers that you see them, that you understand the challenges they’re facing as well as their fears and reservations. It’s important you don’t adopt a blanket approach but instead understand how the economic downturn might be affecting each of your key target industries differently, and what the different needs are. Businesses can show this understanding and expertise through website content like blogs and whitepapers, email marketing, and social media that adds value – sharing relevant insights and advice. Thought leadership pieces from a company’s experts and executives is another great way of communicating value and advice. A renewed focus on customer advocacy could also earn you more loyalty as it allows existing or potential customers to see the value of your product or service through the eyes and experiences of others.
Of course, communicating with customers or external stakeholders is only one side of the coin. Internal communications during an economic downturn are also crucial. Staff must be made to feel safe and valued in their roles. And, if redundancies do need to happen, your internal communication plan needs to ensure that transparency, empathy and consistency are incorporated. The manner in which layoffs are carried out can truly make or break a company’s reputation, as demonstrated by SnapChat’s CEO saying layoffs were a way to weed out the company’s ‘haters’.
Having communications partners by your side to share their expertise and help guide you and your business through these coming months – or even years – is hugely valuable. Brands and reputations don’t stop in an economic downturn. In fact, these are the very moments in time when they are moulded.
The world has changed quite a bit recently and, arguably, this difference is most prominent in the working world. Although the amount of people working from home had been rising steadily for some time, homeworking has more than doubled over the past two years compared to pre-pandemic levels. 42% of UK workers now work a mixture of at home and in the office. Clearly, this meteoric shift in such a short space of time has profound implications for working life in general, but especially for the way that organisations communicate.
Maintaining robust internal communications
Internal communication has always been vital to the overall strategy of any firm. Multi-year Gallup research found that employee disengagement costs the UK economy £52-£70 billion per year. In this new working world of ours, with the significant shift towards remote/flexible working, serious questions have arisen as to how to communicate effectively within your team, in multiple locations, via the myriad technological platforms we now have at our disposal.
Critical to this venture is being aware of what personalities you have within your organisation, and subsequently knowing the most effective way to keep them happy, informed and engaged. With people being in the office a lot less, knowing and understanding your colleagues has become a much more complicated task. Video conferencing technology is an incredible tool and without it the last couple of years would have been very rocky indeed, but it can also be stunted. As we lack reading non-verbal cues and body language as well as simply not being around people for extended periods of time, it can be difficult to get a true impression of who someone is. This is particularly challenging for new members of staff who may have joined during periods of lockdown, in many cases not meeting their colleagues in-person for months.
There are many ways we can learn a bit more about each other. The Myers-Briggs® Type Indicator is a great tool to be able to gain this perspective and give valuable insight into the types of people that are working in your team and what makes them tick. It’s like your star sign with a bit of science behind it. There are 16 personalities, split between introvert and extrovert, each with different traits. It is not to say that these are by any means locked in, but more an indicator of the way someone is likely to react to a given circumstance.
Its questions give indications as to whether you sense or use intuition to gather information; whether you make decisions more by feeling or thinking; and whether you judge or perceive the outside world. All of these traits, none of them necessarily good or bad, have an enormous impact on how you communicate and how you like to be communicated with. The awareness that knowing the makeup of your staff gives you when devising internal communication strategies is critical. It allows you to choose the best channels and tone of voice depending on your audience. It can also point out those members of the team that may benefit from a slightly tweaked strategy or a particular focus in order to fully engage them.
Not only will you learn about your team, but very likely you will learn something about yourself. The introspection that comes from your result and the nuances in your personality that are revealed will allow you to tweak and improve your own communication style when dealing with other team members or managers.
It can also be a great team bonding exercise as shouts of, ‘that is scarily accurate’ bound around the room. When my wife saw my results, the cry of ‘that’s what I’ve been saying!’ was deafening.
Being in the office 9 to 5 streamlined communications. People had no choice but to be involved in conversation, managers had many different face-to-face tools to keep everybody on the same page, and the informal chats at the coffee machine or on lunch breaks allowed strong emotional bonds to be formed. Now that we are often miles apart in our own little worlds, more effort must be made to understand each other and stay connected. Only with this can we maintain robust and meaningful communications that contribute to our organisations’ success.
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?
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.
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!
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 past few weeks must have been pretty stormy in the KPMG comms team. KPMG’s ex-chairman, Bill Michael, recently came under fire for making controversial remarks about his employees “playing the victim card” and “moaning” about their circumstances during the lockdown. The comms team reacted fast and the organisation was quick to make changes – and communicate them well! However, it’s unfortunate that most of the damage took place in a matter of days as Michael’s story trial was analysed and scrutinised by the media in no time at all. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done with repairing KPMG’s damaged reputation and the comms teams are more than likely sorting it as we speak, but what would you do if this happened to your organisation?
Of course, this question may feel like nothing more than hypothetical but getting stuck in these kinds of dilemmas isn’t as far away as you may want to believe. It could be something as simple as a video leaking of your CEO or Senior Director saying something in private that goes against the company vision or values. It could be a spokesperson retweeting something without fully understanding the implications. Or even just someone forgetting to change from their social media account to their personal account and tweeting something inappropriate from the company feed. It may seem unlikely, but these things have happened countless times before. Cast your mind back to 2017 when Uber’s founder Travis Kalanic’s argument with a driver was leaked – it cost him his job and a hit to his reputation. We’ve explored this further in our Reputation Shapers guide that you can access here.
There is no doubt that an over-exuberant or insensitive leader somewhere will make mistakes again, and there is so much being written right now about leading with empathy. But, how can you prevent this from happening in the first place and protect your organisation if the heavens open and you find yourself in the middle of a communications storm? Here are three tips to help with weathering the storm:
Take time to train
Just because someone is a good speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to speak to the world. It is so important that senior teams are trained and fully briefed before stepping into the media limelight. And it’s not just about knowing how to speak well with the media, it’s about knowing how to stay on message and communicate appropriately. Similarly, it’s important to know what kind of person they are. Are they likely to lose their temper? Are they stubborn? If so, these things could become an issue and understanding what they may need and supporting them is equally as important.
Remember, it’s not just the media we have to be prepared for. The drama with KPMG stemmed from an internal discussion at a town hall, Uber’s issues arose from a leaked conversation with an employee and countless figureheads have been cancelled on social media for speaking out of turn. Just like the timeless saying goes: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Staying calm in a crisis
Being in a crisis, regardless of the situation, is a stressful ordeal for anyone to face but being prepared for it makes the experience a bit more palatable. With any media-related plans that have even the slightest possibility of turning sour, your comms teams must be prepared for a crisis situation.
If you aren’t prepared and something has come up to bite you, much like the KPMG comms team must have felt recently, the first step is to pause and understand just how damaging this is. Knowing what you are working with will help to rationalise the next steps and understand how much help and support you may need. This can also help to understand how rapid your response should be. Jumping on the issue too soon could make it seem insincere but leaving it too late leaves time for speculation to occur.
Secondly, what is the best way to communicate your response? Is it sending a press release, or holding a press conference? Or even just focusing on one interview to clear the person’s name? Whatever is the best practice for the situation, stick with that and follow it through until the end. Depending on the scenario, actions may be your next step. When looking at KPMG, the cultural lack of awareness might not end with the removal of the chairman but it’s a start – this needs to be followed up with proactive action from the company to get their reputation back on track to prove to their people, clients and the outside world that they are doing things to actively improve these situations.
Finally, ensure you are monitoring the situation and staying on your toes. Just because the news cycle is over, doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you!
Crystal clear communications
The vocabulary we use to communicate is just as important as the way we communicate. An easy way to ensure the right language is used is by accurately preparing for communications – this can be through detailed briefing documents with sections that focus on topics and phrases to actively avoid, or in-person training sessions. Granted, pressure or nerves may get in the way, and that cannot be helped, but giving support and practising should help to avoid potential mishaps.
The only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is saying nothing at all. When faced with a difficult question, it may feel safer to say “no comment” or divert from the question itself but this can be just as damaging. Recently, Matt Hancock came under fire from Piers Morgan on This Morning following the free school meals scandal. Instead of answering the question, Hancock merely recited the “safe” phrases and unsurprisingly, the interview spread like wildfire. Should his comms team have been prepared for this question? Absolutely! But communications can be unpredictable and with the power of social media, one foot in the wrong direction can become a crisis in a matter of minutes.
Getting it right with communications is tough – the world is unpredictable and what grabs people’s attention is changing every day. As comms professionals, we must ensure that we are prepared for all outcomes, good and bad. These tips will help you to prepare your teams and leaders for communications gone bad but sometimes it helps to get an outsider to help. We run workshops and personal coaching programmes that can help with these issues and prevent them before they arise – you can read more about our services and offerings here.
The news this month that Jeff Bezos is stepping down as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Amazon has shocked many. After leading the company for more than a quarter of a century, he will now vacate the role and become Executive Chair.
His replacement? The somewhat unknown Andy Jassy. Well, I say unknown – to anyone who follows Amazon Web Services (AWS), he is anything but. Jassy is credited with building AWS to become the cloud juggernaut it is today.
Jassy is incredibly astute, strategic, and effective. With 24 years’ experience at Amazon, he also knows and aligns with Bezos’ vision. Perhaps more importantly, he also offers a clean slate for Amazon’s communications team.
Bezos has been a love-hate figure for the last decade. To some, he’s the definition of success. To others, he represents everything wrong with capitalism and the growing wealth divide. Over the past few years especially, his quest for growth has faced increasing criticism. His reputation has been especially damaged by claims of wealth hoarding. This is at a time when Amazon warehouse staff are allegedly working in very poor conditions.
Jassy, on the other hand, is not burdened by these issues. The average person doesn’t know who he is, let alone have a perception of him. With effective executive communications, Jassy really can be the figure that Bezos never was. Amazon’s comms team is probably relishing shaping Jassy’s reputation. I would be.
I’m interested in seeing how visible Jassy will be. His time leading AWS has been more behind the scenes, but that may not be possible as CEO. As the head of Amazon, he’ll be under the same media scrutiny as the other big tech giant CEOs, such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Tim Cook at Apple.
Often, it was Bezos’ vast wealth that was used as a weapon to demonise him and Amazon. That’s a very unique situation though; Bezos’ wealth was due to him being the biggest shareholder in Amazon. Jassy will have shares, but not on the same scale as his predecessor. And while he’s already worth an estimated $440m, he’ll be the least wealthiest of any tech giant CEO when he takes up the role. You’d think for this reason then that much of the negativity towards Bezos won’t transfer to Jassy.
While Jassy aligns with Bezos on many matters, he’ll know Amazon isn’t perfect. He is his own man and, like every successful CEO, he will run the company how he thinks best. His challenge is to balance growth with tackling the many criticisms Amazon faces. In addition to the warehouse issues, this includes allegations around its environmental record, antitrust, and competition. These topics are increasingly in the media, so will pose a challenge to Jassy’s reputation as the company’s leader.
Given that Amazon continues to grow year-on-year, it would be reasonable to think his reputation as a businessperson is safe in the short-term. And how much of a long-term is there with Jassy at the helm? The average lifespan of a CEO is five years. If Jassy were to double that, he’d be 63 by the time he steps down. The average age when CEOs step down is 62 years old.
The most important factor in the reputation that Jassy develops, then, is around those troublesome factors mentioned above. Working conditions and the environment are the two most significant, in my opinion at least. We will certainly have our eyes on Jassy, assessing how he addresses these challenges and the repercussions on his reputation as CEO. Our recommendation would be to start with his employees, spending time getting the communication right there, and bringing them on-board with his vision for the company. This will then create the right platform to build confidence with investors and customers.
Amazon has taken a more proactive stance on climate change recently. It created a $2bn climate innovation fund last year, for starters. It’s expected to be running on 100% renewable energy by 2025. It’s also making its delivery fleet electric. This green trend will likely continue at Amazon; it doesn’t really have a choice though, considering how consumers are increasingly demanding companies improve their environmental credentials. If this trend does continue, it’s an easy win for Jassy to earn plaudits. The comms team can associate progress on the matter with his leadership, regardless of his level of involvement.
The topic of working conditions, on the other hand, looks like it will continue being a problem. The latest on this is that warehouses are attempting to unionise. Poor public handling of this in coming years could be a banana skin for Jassy. It’s unlikely we’ll see him come in and vow to revolutionise working conditions though. That would be great for his executive communications strategy, but it would add legitimacy to allegations that Amazon currently rejects. It would also create new costs and liabilities for the company if they changed their operations, which would affect the bottom line. I suspect he’ll be distanced from this topic in public, even if he’s involved behind the scenes.
It’s important to remember that Jassy is joining Amazon off the back of its best ever year. He isn’t taking on the role as fire fighter or saviour. His brief will be “onwards and upwards”. For this reason, it would be surprising if we saw major changes at Amazon.
It will continue as the behemoth it is now, with a safe and ever-growing market share. But I really do think Amazon has an opportunity to position Jassy as a CEO who moves the company forward reputationally. Good executive communications will be critical to achieving that. I’m excited to see how it all plays out.
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