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.
We’re not even one full month into 2021 and the world of tech has been as wild and unpredictable as ever. Here’s a round up of highlights from the last few weeks and my thoughts on why they’re important for the future.
The only place to begin must be the fallout from the shocking scenes of the US Congress being stormed by protesters. Following this, Donald Trump was banned from every major social network, from Facebook and Twitter, to Snapchat and YouTube (see The Independent). The Telegraph also reported that Twitter suspended 70,000 accounts linked to the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy. So why does this matter? Because social media giants have for years avoided lawsuits and regulations by claiming to be platforms, not publishers. If they’re now taking responsibility for, and deciding, what is posted on their platform, they become a publisher and the defences and arguments they’ve used to date to avoid the stronger laws that apply to publishers will no longer protect them.
It’s been another roller coaster month for cryptocurrency. Sky News reported that Bitcoin saw 20% wiped off its value (roughly $10,000 per coin at its peak). This promoted additional warnings about cryptocurrency being a bubble and possible further fluctuations for investors in coming months, including from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which said crypto investing is “very high risk” and customers “should be prepared to lose all their money” (see CityAM). If you do have crypto, make sure it’s safe and accessible – don’t be like the programmer that The Guardian revealed had forgotten his password to £175m worth of Bitcoin.
While the jury is still out on crypto, global investors have huge confidence in the London tech scene. CityAM revealed that tech investors poured £7.7bn into the capital during 2020, which accounts for a quarter of Europe’s whole VC investment for the year. The future appears bright for the city, despite the disruption from Covid-19 and Brexit. It’s no surprise then that Deliveroo is looking to float on the London Stock Exchange this year, with a value in excess of £5bn – Sky News has the full story.
Next up, WhatsApp. Where to start? The company announced a compulsory privacy update that caused uproar in the tech world. Users will soon have their data shared from the messaging app to Facebook. Alternative messaging apps, including Telegram and Signal (the latter being used by whistle-blower Edward Snowden), have since seen a surge in downloads. CNBC’s write-up covers the relevant facts.
And finally, the latest gadgets have been revealed at CES 2021. The Independent has done a handy summary of the products we might be able to see in the next year or so. As always, some of them won’t live up to the hype, but it’s fun nonetheless to see what products could be on the horizon.
That’s the main headlines for now – what a start to a new year! We read and curate stories every day at Firefly, so if you’d like these sent to your inbox daily, sign up to Firewire here.
We’re all living restricted lives. Some people have made it harder for themselves with extra self-imposed restrictions like ‘dry’ January or dieting. For all these reasons and more, January is a tough month with cold days and long, dark nights. Thankfully, it’s interspersed with a few sunny spells. There is nothing more uplifting for the soul than being wrapped up warm and enjoying a brisk walk in the winter sunshine and seeing nature at work. In my garden, the first shoots of hope are coming up already in the form of daffodils!
Nature can restore our faith. We know that especially after the earth is scorched, nutrients return, green shoots appear, and nature regenerates. Despite the uncertain times we are in, all will be well, and with a bit of planning, preparation and patience, our future could be blooming wonderful.
My daffodils are one of the first signs of Spring and they have inspired me. What lessons can we learn from nature and how can we translate that to our work challenges?
Whether you’ve got the greenest of fingers or the tiniest window box, I hope this has triggered some thinking and reflection and you have something blooming wonderful to enjoy in May.
With over thirty years of experience here at Firefly, we’ve seen a lot of things come and go and experienced many transformations and makeovers, not only of ourselves, but our whole industry.
While there would normally be a fair bit of breathing space between each new iteration, now, we’re lucky if we get a few weeks. Having recently reflected on how comms professionals and marketers have had to adapt with Just Marketing in May last year, our thoughts are already in need of a serious update.
Normal – but not as we know it
So, what does that mean? More specifically, what does that mean for comms and marketing professionals? And what tools, competencies and mindsets will be needed to successfully navigate it?
To hopefully help answer these questions, here are our insights into the five key elements for a comms and marketing B-R-A-I-N in 2021.
The lines between comms and marketing have been gradually merging but we will now see that line fade out completely.
Despite working at a distance, different departments have been forced to collaborate more and to achieve desired goals, especially in trying times, marketing and comms cannot be working in silos. We need to be thinking about the bigger picture – we’re no longer either comms or marketing professionals, we’re all the moulders and builders of brands and their reputations. There’s a reason we’re now talking about the reputation shaper brain and not the comms or marketing brain.
Those reputations are built on views from others – customers, partners, the media, employees or candidates, stakeholders, even Alexa and Google Nest. As a result, our job roles are even broader than before and cut across all these elements. Not to mention, with changing customer expectations, we’re now needing to interact far more with other disciplines too, such as supply chain teams or R&D. We’ve gone far beyond multi-tasking, we’re multidisciplinary.
In 2020, many marketing and comms budgets were slashed and while the economic outlook for 2021 is brighter, many businesses will most likely still be penny pinching – or at least much more discerning with where they spend their precious pounds. Consequently, comms and marketing professionals may be expected to do the same activities and achieve the same results and outcomes (or even more) with less. 2021 will be the year of the ‘work-around’, finding ways to conduct activities differently ̶ and possibly, more cheaply.
Our industry is known for creativity but now, we need to get creative with our resources. The same avenues and possibilities that were previously a standard go-to may no longer be open to us. For example, take the likes of surveys – whether that be looking at public sentiment, that of customers or employees – these can offer critical insights for the required direction and structure of comms and marketing, even overall business plans. But they can be costly too. So, we need to make the most of what we have to hand: Using social media polls to garner customer feedback and whether you’re using Zoom, Google Meet or Slack to keep up with colleagues, creating internal polls within these platforms is easy.
If you cannot offer monetary prizes for employee polls, how about randomly selecting someone from those taking part to finish early on a Friday or start later on the Monday? It’s free and certainly a good incentive.
The flip side to covering so much ground and different areas of expertise is that more attention needs to be paid to pursuing the right activities, with the right audiences that will generate the intended results. While making really solid plans is still nigh on impossible, outlining clear, concrete goals is key. If these are not defined and agreed, it’s easy to fly off in different directions, overstretching (potentially already strained) teams and ending up far off target.
‘Think before you do’ must be any reputation shaper’s mantra. Hopefully being able to still gain those crucial insights into behaviours, needs and wants, you are armed with the necessary information to target where you can truly offer value – perhaps even identifying the issues people are not even aware of themselves. With circumstances changing at such rapid rates, people don’t only want to work with those who can address their current problems but can predict, and even help avoid, future ones.
These missions and goals also need to be accurately measured. When budgets are tight, not only do we need to prove value to customers and clients but also internally. We need to ask ourselves: Are these metrics a proper reflection of efforts and value and do they work in the current climate? If not, change them.
I:ntimacy and intent
Many of us have got a little up close and personal with colleagues, customers and clients over the past months, with intimate peeks into private and home lives.
While the current situation in the UK is very worrying and there is no indication when lockdown may be lifted, with vaccines now being rolled out, it’s possible that this year, we’ll begin to see a return to the office. It will no longer be Zoom all day, every day (perhaps to the disappointment of Zoom) but a careful balancing act of working with colleagues in-person and remotely. Still, how we interact and communicate with one another has fundamentally changed and even as we enter another new phase of working, that shift will carry over.
This greater sense of intimacy also brings with it a greater sense of responsibility. Having come closer together, there are now more feelings, no matter the industry or sector, of needing to give something back. Reaching out to communities to share positive actions being undertaken will be part and parcel of growing and safeguarding a company’s reputation.
In uncertain times, it’s easy to hold on tight to anything that’s familiar. As we may start to see what seems like a return to ‘how things were’, many may assume and will return to the same activities, the same approaches. Afterall, we know they worked before and more importantly, they feel safe.
With budget restraints and unpredictable changes to contend with, this behaviour is forgivable, but it will not in fact yield the same results as before. Following months of mundanity in lockdown, people want to see something different. Those marketers and comms professionals who are brave enough to still try a wacky campaign (albeit likely on a reduced scale and budget), will be the ones to get cut through and stand out.
As mentioned before, ours is a creative industry, so we need to make sure that we’re still flexing those creative brain muscles.
So, this 2021: Look at the bigger picture, specify, be resourceful and, while it may be scary, be bold!
I write to you today with one thing in mind: setting the record straight on ‘cancel culture’ and establishing why the comms industry must finally get to grips with it.
Now, before we proceed, we must first define ‘cancel culture’. It is the term used to describe the public denouncing of the behaviour or beliefs of a person, group, or business via online platforms and the act of calling for others to acknowledge and engage with them no longer.
This has become common in the world of entertainment. You may remember Taylor Swift famously being cancelled by Kim Kardashian in 2016, for example. The cancel culture phenomenon has since spread to politics and, increasingly, to call out businesses.
It’s important to clarify that I am not seeking to justify or validate cancel culture when used as a weapon towards public figures. Far from it – being the recipient of vitriol wielded by thousands of angry, possibly threatening strangers sounds more comparable with a scene from Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers than it does almost all facets of a modern, sophisticated society.
However, where companies are concerned, does cancel culture serve a purpose? In my view, yes.
This isn’t new – it’s evolution of feedback
The reason my stance differs for companies is because feedback is, and should always be, an important part of business. The way that I see it, if you have a group of people telling you what you’re doing wrong and why they’re not doing business with you, that’s a blessing. Compare it with customers and prospects who walk away silently, and you have no qualitative or quantitative evidence for why sales are down, or revenue isn’t growing as you’d planned for. At least you can make use of the feedback and take action to address the issues you’re being called out for.
It’s easy to dismiss this feedback, though, and you wouldn’t be the only one who does. Some senior comms professionals attribute online cancel culture feedback to bored keyboard warriors. Analyse that theory for a second, however, and it’s irrational. If that were the case, brands may as well dismiss platforms like Glassdoor, where negative feedback is common; but they’re not – instead, many brands are working hard to advance their cultures and improve their values to attract top talent and future-proof their operations.
I appreciate my use of the term ‘keyboard warrior’ was vague there. The reality is that it is a broad term. The use of such a term to describe groups of people who have never met, from different backgrounds and countries, who are of different ages, and who have different beliefs and interests, is absurd and we must stop using it. The only reason we do use it is because it’s easier to quickly lump dissenting voices into one category with a name that has a negative connotation, than it is to deal with the issue they’re complaining about. In the business world, the easy option is rarely the correct one.
Why would I/we be cancelled?
Now that we’ve addressed who the complainants are, let’s assess what the complaints hinge on. Over the past two years, cancel culture in the business world has flared up around several core issues: gender equality, race, workplace culture, climate change, and recent responses to COVID-19, among others. For example, consider this year’s boycott of Facebook by more than 1,000 companies as part of the #StopHateForProfit movement organised by civil rights groups and the global walkout by Google’s employees over allegations of sexual misconduct in 2018. These are social, ethical, and moral matters.
Clearly, the public is demanding more of businesses than in the past. Previously, a business’ purpose was dictated by the value and return they showed shareholders. Today, as highlighted by the Davos Manifesto 2020, a company’s purpose is to “Engage all its stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation… In creating such value, a company serves not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders”. Their responsibility goes beyond shareholders and must satisfy employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, and society at large, to create a purpose-driven kind of capitalism.
Failing to understand and cater to this will be to our detriment as comms professionals and the businesses we represent.
How to get to grips with cancel culture
The test of having acknowledged the threat that cancel culture poses to a business is not just being aware that the threat exists, but in taking action to analyse where the company could be called out and taking steps to mitigate that potential and/or prepare for it occurring. With that in mind, what comms strategy do you have in place for if it happens tomorrow to the company you work with or for? How prepared are you?
The likelihood of this happening to you tomorrow, I appreciate, may appear low. It’s all relative though – I suspect for the 77 years it was operating prior to this year’s race protests, the manufacturer of rice products formerly named Uncle Ben’s thought similarly. The company has since updated its brand to Ben’s Original following criticism over racial stereotyping.
This is one example of many that I could have chosen. The example isn’t the point though – what we as comms professionals must accept is our capability to manage the threat of cancel culture to the businesses we work with and for, our responsibility to encourage and inspire those businesses to evolve so they’re no long worthy of cancel culture attacks, and our duty to satisfy all stakeholders, not just shareholders.
There are a few different factors to consider here, so let’s break them down:
1. “Our capability to manage the threat of cancel culture to the businesses we work with and for”. This refers to our role as the creators and builders of reputations. The potential impact of being called out in cancel culture is a result of more than one issue. And it’s the difference between a group of protesters being angry and boycotting long-term and being disappointed and returning once the issue is fixed.
What’s critical for comms professionals is to cover all bases. We can’t just project our positives – we have to employ effective employee comms, internal comms, media relations, influencer relations, leadership comms, and so on, to ensure every stakeholder holds the companies we work with or for in high regard. That way, if/when the issue flares up, they have credit in the bank with stakeholders and the threat is minimised and lasts for as short a duration as is possible while the issue is addressed.
2. “Our responsibility to encourage and inspire those businesses to evolve so they’re no long worthy of cancel culture attacks”. Managing the threat of cancel culture through communications activities is one thing, but we also have a responsibility to encourage leadership to drive decision making that tackles any issues we foresee as a threat. This means helping to drive real change, not simply release a statement that papers over the cracks once the complaints begin.
3. “Our duty to satisfy all stakeholders, not just shareholders”. This is the outcome of our combined efforts from those first two factors. If we manage the threat of cancel culture and ensure the businesses that we work with take action to ensure they aren’t exposed to it, we can positively engage all stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation.
As all the companies referred to above have found, businesses are under more scrutiny and failing to satisfy all stakeholders has consequences in the cancel culture era. As comms professionals, we all must get to grips with what that means, the risks posed, and the importance of taking action. Otherwise, there is a direct impact on reputations and the bottom line.
On Wednesday 21st October at 4pm BST, Firefly’s Europe experts are hosting a free webinar that will cover everything you need to know about how to ensure success in multi-country PR and comms campaigns.
As a taster, here are a handful of the key challenges that must be considered when running campaigns across Europe. The solutions to these challenges will be covered on the webinar.
It’s understandable if communications professionals that have primarily operated in one country fall into the trap of thinking that the communications landscape operates in a similar way in different countries. Most of the time, that’s not the case. They may be close on a map, but there can be major differences when running campaigns across borders.
This graph shows exactly that. It reveals the variation in media attitudes across a range of different criteria in France, Germany and the UK.
There will be times when a tactic and content can be used with minimal localisation for multiple countries. However, on most occasions this won’t be the case. There are a wide variety of hoops that you may need to jump through to make a plan or content suitable for multiple countries.
The important point to note at this stage is that a strategy/tactic/piece of content can’t simply be duplicated and expected to perform highly in different countries. Accept early on that certain activities will do well in some countries and not perform as highly in others.
Now, as the points above emphasise, taking a one-size-fits-all approach to comms across Europe won’t work. Neither will spreading resources too thinly. Trying to stretch a pre-determined, non-flexible budget to cover as many countries as possible is a common error.
It rarely works out and often leads to starting again 6-18 months down the line. During this time, competitors may have further established themselves.
Fortunately, there are many different financing options that are more sustainable than spreading a budget too thin.
Even if the differences between countries is understood, tactics have been localised, and budget is assigned effectively, there’s still the challenge of getting every country to sing from the same hymn sheet. It can be challenging.
Each country can interpret instructions differently, will have different questions, and will have to adapt to apply instructions/requests to their country. As a result, managing different countries can be time intensive. There’s also the possibility of teams going off in different directions, failing to align on strategy, tactics, and desired outcomes.
So, that’s the taster. A carefully chosen selection of the many common problems you need to know about – or may even have experienced first-hand. To get solutions to the above challenges in Firefly’s full rundown of PR and comms in Europe and how to ensure success in multi-country campaigns, register to attend the webinar on 21st October 2020 for free here: https://fireflycomms.com/en/pr-in-europe-webinar/.
In recent months, there has been an undisputed rise in discussions around corporate purpose. Many organisations are discussing how to be better workplaces, serve their customers more effectively and are carefully examining what they stand for. But there does seem to be a divide between companies that treat this exercise as a re-hashing of the old ‘vision and mission’ straplines and those who are treating it as an opportunity to seriously reconsider what they stand for.
There’s a lot of ambiguity around the topic of purpose. Many firms treat their sustainability initiatives as statements of organisational purpose, which can lead to a very narrow focus. However, some have taken the bold step in defining a purpose that resonates through not just marketing and the C-suite, but through every part of their operations.
I struggled to find many landmark reports on the subject but EY’s Beacon Institute released a report in September 2019, defining purpose as “an aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society.”
The first two sections, in italics and bold, are not too different from a standard company mission, but it’s the last part, in underline, that sets it apart. It’s the intention to make organisations not only offer valuable products and services, but also to serve society in some way. In the words of the Harvard Business Review, to “connect with the heart as well as the head” or Bizfluent, “how you will improve the lives of those you serve”.
Now, we’ve had a number of discussions about whether the benefits do need to be both local and global, because the latter is a big ask! However, there are a number of bigger questions in my view, including how purpose can be balanced with profit, and who should be accountable for company purpose.
According to Gallup, when companies get their purpose right, it can make a difference. When a company’s purpose – and the corresponding behaviour – line up, customers will give the brand 47% ‘share of wallet’ (i.e. their spending on that category) than a non-aligned brand, which only receives 23% of ‘walletshare’. Gallup also cites a few good examples of purpose statements, including this one from Southwest Airlines in the US: “To connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel” – and this has clear implications for the entire brand experience.
Similarly, looking at EY’s research, 42% of ‘purpose laggards’ report flat or declining revenue compared to only 15% of purpose ‘prioritisers’, so the report seems to imply that revenue growth is somehow linked to corporate purpose. I’m extremely hesitant of correlating purpose and performance because I suspect that it’s linked to a third variable. I don’t have any data to back this up, but it’s entirely possible that organisations that have the time and resources to develop their purpose are likely to be larger, leaner and potentially more successful firms.
Furthermore, there’s the problem of definition. Some might argue that SW Airlines’ purpose statement doesn’t provide benefit to global and local society, only global and local travellers – after all, according to Wikipedia, the aviation industry is responsible for 3.5% of all climate change. That said, this reminds me of an episode of the philosophical Netflix comedy The Good Place, where one character works out that most humans are being sent to hell because of ‘unintended consequences’. For example, the apple that we buy in the supermarket on the first day of turning vegan was shipped on a plane, adding to global warming. Its plastic packaging is thrown away and later chokes a dolphin, etc.
It’s important to remember, though, that most initiatives need to start small, then grow. Even Google was a small organisation at one stage, so any change can begin to have a bigger impact further on down the line, and we can begin to tackle those ‘unintended consequences’.
One of the other key challenges with building company purpose is accountability. The natural main stakeholder for company purpose is the CEO. In a traditional, non-purpose-driven organisation, shareholders shout at you if you don’t achieve goals – but who shouts at you if you don’t have a purpose? Potentially no-one.
But there is a longer-term cost to a lack of purpose, or a purpose statement that is poorly executed. Employees will leave. They’ll be less motivated. You’ll lose the halo effect of a good reputation. And when ‘reputational value’ makes up 41% of the value of the FTSE 100, that’s not something to be sniffed at – in fact, it’s just under a trillion pounds.
Furthermore, there’s the absolute cost. That if we don’t want dissatisfied customers – or, considering purpose from a sustainable standpoint – a greater number of hot, wet summers, droughts or to run out of resources, we’re going to have to find this balance a lot, lot more in our lives. But this can be hard.
A contact of mine, a careers coach, used to tell her ‘coachees’ that it was daft to tell people that they could do anything. You can’t, she’d say, become an astronaut. It’s really hard, your country might not even have a space programme, and you might wear glasses (or something).
I’ve got to say I disagree. If you really want to be an astronaut and wear glasses, then start your own spaceship company, or join the Virgin Galactic programme. Admitting defeat is creativity failure. Sometimes creative suggestions might seem crazy, but then it’s important to remember that sometimes crazy can work. For example, no-one thought NASA’s idea of lowering the Curiosity Rover down to Mars using a ‘sky crane’ (essentially a UFO with a winch) would work, but after testing, it became the only viable option – and performed perfectly.
Of course, sometimes the biggest barrier to developing corporate purpose isn’t creativity, it’s the potential for reducing revenue. In the short term, this may well be true, but a good purpose also has the long-term potential to transform a company, motivating employees and maintaining relevance. It’s like any kind of transformation – if companies are smart enough to take their eyes off quarterly targets for a moment, look at the bigger picture and cut the staff some slack, it gives them space to manoeuvre.
Furthermore, in an age when simply running a profitable business is growing ever-harder, finding a purpose may seem like a tough thing to do. But in the absolute long term, it’s the right thing to do if organisations are to retain customers better, create a robust reputation and help to sustain the planet. So perhaps the right question isn’t ‘can profit and purpose co-exist’ but ‘why aren’t they co-existing right now?’
It feels like just yesterday that I was wondering what I would be doing as the clock ticked over into the year 2000. I was on high alert, waiting for Y2K to switch off every electronic machine as the clock struck midnight (of course, we all know it didn’t).
19 years later and here we are preparing for the next milestone year 2020, and we’re in a somewhat similar situation with the uncertainty of Brexit. Before we know it, it will be 2050, Greta Thunberg will be 47 and we might not even be living on this planet anymore.
It’s important to have a vision to aim for. A 3-5-year vision should be within a comfort zone, but we should have a clear view and a structured plan of how to manage the imminent months. There will be few agencies and clients looking as far as 2050, many will be imagining as far ahead as 2025, but most should have 2020 buttoned down with a detailed plan.
As we make progress towards our 2020 plans, it’s important to remember that this time of year is busy for the PR industry. Christmas campaigns are well underway, client events and awards season is in motion, not to mention office parties and networking opportunities with clients and prospects and all in the next 60 days or so before we head off for Christmas.
And then, on top of all that, January is a time of ‘new year, new change’ for many organisations with 2020 initiatives bursting forth, not to mention some clients looking for new agencies so we’re also furiously re-pitching or excitedly pitching to keep or win clients.
How do we cope with all these demands crashing down at the same time? With political tension and upheaval, workloads revving up to breaking point, plus year-end accountability and reviews, and 2020 plans poised and ready to ignite and holiday season is looming.
On behalf of our HR tech client, Cornerstone OnDemand, we surveyed British employees about extra workloads during the holiday season finding that 34% of employers do not have a structure in place when someone goes holiday, 85% have to do someone else’s work on top of their own workload, and 34% feel extreme pressure or have anxiety attacks when colleagues are on holiday.
Is there a word for having someone else’s business workload dumped on you, on top of your own workload? How about ‘I’ve been bizumped’?
Bizumped or not, how will your year-end workload impact you? And how will it impact on your colleagues? Well, you usually can’t avoid it; business doesn’t just stop. But here are some top tips for handling heavy workloads during the busy autumn/winter season and how to avoid any nightmares in the run up to 2020:
Originally published in PR Moment.
Receive thought pieces from our leadership team, views on the news, tool of the month and light relief for comms folk