The world is finally returning to some sense of normality and we could not be more excited. The high street is open, many are returning to work, and we can even go for a cheeky Nando’s! With so much changing in a short amount of time, keeping up to date with the news may have been a tad tricky, but don’t worry, we’ve put together a round-up of the main news that really caught our eyes this month.

From social media to social justice: many brands have taken and are continuing to take action against Facebook’s inability to block hateful speech and content by banning their advertising. Despite Mark Zuckerberg claiming that the advertising boycotts will “end soon enough,” data revealed that the movement has caused a 42% decrease in advertising spend, causing a huge blow to the Facebook ad market. The Telegraph has the full story.

Similarly, following on from Katie Hopkin’s suspension from Twitter, social media platforms are taking action against hate speech by actively blocking users who are producing harmful content. YouTube joined the wave of those taking action by banning Klu Klux Klan leader, David Duke, and other US far right users for the hateful content they produce along with suspending 25,000 channels for violating hate speech policies. The Guardian dives deeper into this.

Meanwhile, the UK decided to remove Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G network by 2027 causing quite the stir. Reuters explores this further. Following the decision, Huawei UK board members have stepped down from their positions, while China’s ambassador to the UK has called the UK’s decision “disappointing and wrong” – read more on BBC News.

Many are also returning to the world of hospitality, backed by the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak earlier this month, but some aren’t returning to their usual spots. In a bid to help give smaller pubs a boost, a man has created ‘Neverspoons’, an app to show users independent pubs near their local Wetherspoons. The android app was downloaded nearly 18,000 times in the first week alone. BBC News has the full story.

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I’ll skip the usual introduction. I don’t need to tell you about the disruption COVID-19 has caused: all organisations today face challenges, a key one being money.

Chop, chop, chop – you can’t read a news site or have a conversation with someone at the moment without hearing about an organisation reducing staff numbers, cutting suppliers, or lowering budgets, among other cost cutting measures. Cuts are being made across all businesses and all departments, and unfortunately marketing isn’t exempt. But there are ways of protecting your budget, or at least getting a less aggressive cut.

I joined the PRCA’s first MarComms Group virtual conference recently and collected the wisdom from the group on how to show value to the board and management level. The advice came from Infosys Consulting CMO Chris Fiorillo, Shallcross Partners’ Chris Hall, The British Promotional Merchandise Association Interim CEO Carey Trevill, and International SOS Group Marketing Director Nick Jones.

Here are the top tips to all you marketers out there:

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

Create connections: If you’re not already, get out of the marketing bubble, 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 focussed 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: Do the majority right and fast and don’t let perfection slow you down. Timelines have shrunk – the time for change is today, this week –, so forget about plans looking eight weeks down the line. And repurpose, repurpose, repurpose. Be as resourceful as you can.

The signs are showing that this recession will be short but sharp, compared with others in living memory. It may feel gloomy right now, but this is the time for marketing, because once we’re on the up, growth will come fast. Being prepared will mean you can go after every opportunity and look back at this time as just a blip!

Legend has it that King Henry II uttered, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” and four of his (not so bright) knights took this as a direct instruction, rode to Canterbury Cathedral and butchered the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket at the altar. All because Becket had criticised the King.

Fast forward 850 years…

It is alleged that two members of eBay’s executive team sent or forwarded text messages in 2019 suggesting it was time to “take down” a newsletter editor and its publisher, a husband and wife team, and all because they had criticised eBay.

Six former employees of eBay possibly took these messages as direct instructions and all have been arrested. They have been charged with an aggressive cyberstalking campaign targeting the editor and the publisher of a newsletter. “The alleged harassment included sending the couple anonymous, threatening messages, disturbing deliveries – including a box of live cockroaches, a funeral wreath and a bloody pig mask – and conducting covert surveillance of the victims,” says a Department of Justice (DOJ) press release issued last month.

The purported three-phase harassment campaign outlined by the DOJ describes a sensational plot worthy of any blockbuster film.

The details of the case are in the press release and will be unfolding in a court room drama in Boston and New York very soon, and may I remind all readers that the defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

How has eBay responded so far?

Some might question the integrity of a CEO or a company that would ever allow this sort of behaviour to happen, with so many ex-employees possibly involved. It will take a while for eBay’s reputation to recover.

Reputations are lost in a flash of lightning and are glacial to move in a positive direction, but progress can be made. I hope eBay appoints a chief reputation officer or an agency to manage and measure the reputational progress forwards. eBay is wise enough to know how hard it must work to clean up its act, set the record straight and ensure nothing like this ever happens again. What was the company culture that might have fostered this sort of harassment plan and how could it have even entered anyone’s head to do this? And critically, how has eBay’s culture changed?

Quite rightly, eBay had not commented on the DOJ’s investigation, or the indictments, to preserve the integrity of the major government department’s investigation. eBay issued its own press release on the same day, alongside the release from the DOJ. Perfect timing, a clear message of a united front, and meeting such a corporate reputation crisis head on is exactly the advice we would recommend.

Also, on hearing of suspicious action in August 2019, eBay conducted its own internal investigation, with assistance from an independent and external legal counsel. As a result, in September 2019, eBay terminated all involved employees, and eBay’s former chief communications officer.

Where was the CEO in all this?

The internal investigation found no evidence that the CEO knew in advance about, or authorised, the actions that were directed at the editor and her husband, the publisher. However, eBay revealed that the CEO did use ‘inappropriate communications’ and there were apparently a number of other considerations leading to his departure from the company, including this DOJ investigation.

September 2019 seems to have been eBay’s metaphorical blood bath.

At Firefly we have handled crises in all forms. In our opinion, eBay took quick and decisive action. It cooperated fully with law enforcement, apologised to all affected individuals publicly and has made it quite clear that it does not tolerate this kind of behaviour. From our experience of handling crises, and from what we have read, eBay has done the right thing so far to protect its reputation as best it can. Rebuilding it will require proof of a change in culture.

As well as communicating clearly via the media, we hope eBay has not only communicated directly to all stakeholders to reassure them of the requirements for high standards of conduct from its employees but also taken appropriate action to ensure these standards are followed, in the same way as Starbucks provided training for 175,000 employees after admissions of racial bias. There is much work to be done behind the scenes.

Being a chief communications officer or CEO in today’s world is a role which requires impeccably high standards and ethical decision making. You need to take responsibility for building and upholding a culture of trust, honesty, and transparency. Never doubt it.

Clearly, being an influential archbishop in 1170 and in any way criticising the King of England was a very dangerous thing indeed. And Becket paid the highest price with his life.

So, what happened to King Henry and the four knights?

Becket was hailed as a martyr and became a Saint.

King Henry was horrified his words were taken so literally. It was publicly known that he took penitence, wore a sackcloth and ashes, and starved himself for three days. It was a shallow attempt to rescue his reputation.

King Henry didn’t arrest the four knights – apparently, he advised them to flee to Scotland. After a short while they returned to their lands and life carried on as usual, presumably with the blessing of the King.

King Henry’s reputation was as an argumentative, controlling, heartless and ruthless ruler. For all his many faults, in 1166 he introduced new procedures for criminal justice, with 12 people on a jury, trials, judges, sheriffs, writs, prisons and fines. These common law procedures are broadly the basis on which many courts work today, including the US, under rule of law. It will be an experience keenly observed by those six ex-eBay employees.  

Monday 23rd March 2020 – the day the UK’s lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson – feels like a lifetime ago now. Since then, we’ve seen more than one in four workers in the UK furloughed and it has been revealed that the economy saw a decline of 10.4% from February to April. This shrinkage is expected to continue, leading the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to project the economy will soon officially enter recession and contract by 11.5% in 2020.

Unlike the recession in 2008, we have a head start this time – we are more aware of what’s coming and what could follow. If the world avoids a second wave of coronavirus, the OECD predicts the economy will bounce back by 9% in 2021. This is a very different situation to 2008, when the recession was shallower but lasted longer. There is less reason this time for businesses to cut anything and everything they can to reduce expenditure, and more reason to retain staff and services that will be so important later this year and early next year during the bounce back.

Public relations and communications fall into that category. Whether communicating redundancies during difficult times or growth during the bounce back, protecting company reputation at this time is critical – businesses can’t afford a loss of confidence in who they are, what they do, and how they do it. They need to show they’re weathering this storm and, when we come out the other side, they’re stronger than ever.

While the past few months have been challenging, it has been somewhat useful as a test for what comes next. Resources have been stretched, budgets have been frozen, opportunities have been harder to seize – and this is only the beginning of the downturn. If there is one positive, it’s that it provides a chance to take stock, analyse performance and returns, and make improvements before what could be a very difficult second half of 2020.

PR and comms have changed – you should have too

The disruption caused by COVID-19 means that many of the tactics employed by PR and comms professionals, and the manner in which they must be executed, have changed. Put simply, if you’re carrying out activities in the same way you would have done even six months ago, you’re doing it wrong. Whether you’ve had an obvious flop, or a campaign has simply underperformed, the outcomes of a bad idea – or a good idea poorly executed – don’t lie.

If you’re in this boat and you’re disappointed by the results you’ve seen, it’s time to ask yourself some tough questions about what you have been doing right and wrong. With the UK moving towards recession, it’s not going to get easier and it’s better to identify areas for improvement and find solutions now.

The big question: Have you adapted?

This shouldn’t be a yes or no answer. I recommend answering this question by considering the extent to which you’ve adapted on a spectrum, based on a range of activities and tactics. For example:

Social media – Social media giants Facebook and Twitter both reported record user numbers across their platforms during lockdown. Despite this, engagement rates on Facebook fell to their lowest in 2020, and Twitter has followed the same downward trend.

The posts that would’ve worked six months ago aren’t generating the same response now. Brands are having to communicate differently on social media channels, to be more socially responsible while still appealing to customers. At this time, you should be listening and serving, not plugging.

Media relations – The pandemic has decimated newsrooms over the last few months. The publisher of the Mirror, Reach, was forced to furlough nearly 1,000 employees, City A.M. furloughed the majority of its staff, and they’re just two well-known examples – we’re yet to hear of a news outlet that hasn’t been affected in some way.

The effect this has had is to require a major change in approach for most PR agencies and in-house teams. Because there are fewer journalists to pitch company news to, and those who are working are stretched, the competition for media coverage has skyrocketed. There are opportunities out there though, but only for those that have adapted well enough.

Employee communications – Furloughs, pay cuts, redundancies, working from home, redistributing responsibilities, changes to benefits, mental health… has there ever been so many important topics for employers to communicate on all within such a short space of time?

The fallout from poor communication could harm businesses for years to come. Keeping the workforce on side, motivated and unified, while ensuring they’re safe, healthy and, where possible, financially stable, through empathetic and clear communications should have been the priority during the pandemic.

This excellent guide covers this important communications function during COVID-19 in more detail.

Content – Earlier during the pandemic, you’d be forgiven for thinking content marketing should take a backseat. After all, people don’t want to be marketed to at the moment, right?

Well, a number of brands have proved this isn’t necessarily the case. They have established that so long as you seek to connect with audience members for the right reasons, not just to sell, content can still be incredibly powerful and is in demand. IKEA has excelled at this – despite it being unable to sell products while its stores were closed, it released the recipe to its famous meatballs to keep consumers connected with its brand experience. It also shared plans for building home forts to keep families entertained.

So, with the above in mind, do you feel you and your team adapted as well as you could have? That leads us to the next – and most important – question…

Are you prepared for what happens next?

There’s been much talk recently of a return to the ‘new normal’. The reality is that while this applies to the way in which society returns as best it can to business as usual, at this point PR and communications is in flux. With the deepest recession in living memory anticipated this year, what could be deemed the new normal now likely won’t be normal in six months.

By going through the exercise of establishing whether your company and/or PR agency adapted well enough to the pandemic over the last few months, you’re one step closer to preparing for what happens next. When the inevitable does happen, you and your team are going to need to adapt immediately – so, based on what you’ve seen over the last few months, is your PR set-up going to deliver throughout the recession too?

If you’re not confident, it may be time to re-assess and take action to improve before it is too late.

We all have conscious and unconscious opinions that influence our decisions, but it’s the emotional, unconscious opinions that people are more likely to follow. Why? Because we’re human, we like shortcuts and sometimes we don’t want to think too much about something. If ‘Simon’ says it’s great, then it must be great and that’s good enough for me too. We have busy lives, even in lockdown, and sometimes we want to save ourselves the time and hassle of fretting over every decision.

Here’s an example: I decided I wanted to embark on a healthy eating and fitness mission, but being in tech PR & comms, and wanting to enhance my baking skills in lockdown, I also dreamt of buying a Wi-Fi-enabled, app-controlled breadmaker. My friend Simon said his breadmaker was brilliant. So, I didn’t do any research and bought the same one. But, after baking bread daily for 2 months, I have gained a lot of extra pounds and, whilst fun, it has achieved the opposite of my intention. I can’t blame Simon, or the breadmaker, but the decision was hasty and impact weighty.

This shortcut thinking is called heuristic thinking. It’s a way for our brains to save a bit of energy and to work more efficiently. Often, we’ll make a quick, irrational or impulsive decision, that won’t be completely reckless, but sometimes we won’t be aware we’re even doing it. And it happens a lot, every day. Why do we reach for the same brand in the supermarket? Why did we all panic about loo roll a few weeks ago? Intelligent, sensible people became obsessed with a quest to buy loo roll, and yet, the nation survived.

In my lockdown cocoon (and bread heaven), I’ve missed shooting the breeze with my friends and colleagues. Zoom works just fine, but there’s always some element of formality to it and the conversation isn’t as free flowing. I’ve missed sharing problems and giving and receiving those tidbits of information that will help shape my own opinions and perhaps help me make some good decisions throughout the day. That said, I haven’t totally ignored all third-party opinions. I’ve read a lot of content online, attended many webinars and researched many topics via Google. But I do miss the face-to-face exchanges with people, bringing outside thinking into my opinions.

Given the ‘follow factor’ of the unconscious opinion, it’s made me realise that what other people say about you, your product/service or your business is the most powerful trigger. That instant ‘warm recall’ of a product/service or a company that puts a smile on someone’s face, and creates loyal, returning or new customers is surely the holy grail of reputation.

But how do people form their opinions in the first place? They may be based on what others say, or their previous thinking and behaviour patterns, or maybe they have an experience which forms it.

Guessing what sort of reputation you, your product/service or business might have based on a few recent interactions is very dangerous. No data means no depth. And this is where heuristic thinking is positively lethal. You really need to know the truth and not follow your rule of thumb hunch. You need to proactively ask and engage with all your stakeholders. A sample size of 35 per category is a good start because of the Central Limit Theorem. However, asking more people is always more accurate and recommended.

Start with your employees first because they are the window to your company’s soul, and if the team isn’t feeling it, then the customers certainly won’t. Use every opportunity you can to gain employee feedback – whether it’s a team-wide survey after a product launch, a monthly all-hands meeting or an impromptu Q&A session with the senior leadership team. Opening up the floor and encouraging your employees to ask questions will help make informed decisions, and avoid employee backlash later on, when it might be too late.

What your workforce really thinks of how they were treated in lockdown will be known relatively soon. When business picks up, will they vote with their feet and leave? What will your Glassdoor reviews be like this time next year, when you’ll be hiring again? I know plenty of people who have said that they’ll be moving on just as soon as the job market opens up. The true colours of leadership teams were shown recently, and, for some, it wasn’t admirable at all. So, how did your leadership team cope with COVID-19? Are they admired or derided?

Next on the list is your customers. Throughout the pandemic you might have been offering reduced services, how did your customers react? Were they satisfied with the customer service and given clear instructions on what to do in their particular situation? Looking into what’s being said about your brand on social media is one of the easiest and quickest ways to gain customer insights, whilst small focus group can go even deeper. At this time, your customers will expect you to have all the answers, even if you don’t know them yourself, but it’s how you’ve reacted and responded to your customers that will be key to how you’ll be viewed in the post-pandemic world. So, did you delight or dismay your customers?

How businesses have responded to this recent crisis will be remembered for a very long time. And, of course, depending on the outcome of the above will depend on how your prospects see you. How will your business emerge?

Will you pull through with a great reputation? Will you have the reputation you deserve? Will it be a reputation to help you rebuild or grow your business? If not, maybe you need to work out where your reputation gap is between what you say you do, and what people experience.

There are no shortcuts to true excellence and success. It is earned. It needs to be worked on every day. Reshaping a reputation without real insight and data could waste much effort, money and time. It would not be a shortcut but a potentially long road to a wilderness, even if the intention is good.

So, about that bread machine… it’s been a blast, but it’s relegated from the worktop to the back of the kitchen cupboard for now. Simon and I have now signed up to a new healthy eating meal plan, involving no bread, and the extra weight is disappearing very slowly. Bake in haste, repent at leisure.

Communications staff are continually having to adapt to new circumstances, tools, platforms and approaches – but Covid-19 has presented a significantly different set of challenges to pivot around! We’ve reprised our ‘comms brain’ – originally contributed to PR Moment in 2013 and 2017, but now for Just.Marketing in the midst of Covid-19. In the piece, Claire Walker also outlines the biggest changes to her role – and in the feature, you can also read what she thinks are the three most important skills for a marketer today, and the most important priorities.

What has been the biggest change to the way you approach your role during the lockdown?

Walk the talk. As an agency leader, I spend 5 x more time on Zoom and Skype virtually walking the talk to the team and to our clients. I end my day with a strained throat!

Teams comms. I do a daily morning team call so everyone is energized and mobilized. I do a weekly CEO update, total transparency and honesty.

Agility is everything. This is COVID situation has reinforced the need to complete actions quickly before the next changes are announced and everything shifts again. Its speed over elegance, but never compromising quality or sensitivity.

Extracts from this interview first appeared on Just.Marketing.

I’ve always been a fan of Greg James and his light-hearted morning show on Radio 1 and since lockdown began, I’ve found the radio show even more comforting, especially now that the comedy and silliness has ramped up. Just the other day, Greg was talking about a quote he gave for a press release about Radio 1’s Big Weekend – he said when he gets asked for a quote, he’ll always try and add something funny, knowing it would likely be deleted but with the intention of making the recipient laugh. This time round, his quote was left in, it read, “And if it all goes wrong, we can just blame the pandemic and say that at least we tried.” It certainly tickled me, and to hear that Greg James had included it just to make the person reviewing it laugh, made me realised how important humour and laughter is right now.

Laughter as a healer

The pandemic has had a profound effect on our lives, including our mental health. Whether we’ve been directly affected by the virus or not, the uncertainty and being away from our loved ones has been difficult to process. But when our friends have sent us a funny meme or we read or listen to a funny story and laugh, we almost forget about what’s going on – even if it’s just for a few minutes. That’s why you’ll often see news broadcasts end on a light-hearted story after giving the main updates, and we do the same with our daily Firewire newsletter. You want to end on a light-hearted note, so that recipients don’t dwell too much on the potentially doom and gloom stories.

Comedy is also a comforter for many of us because we feel that we can connect with the person that made us laugh. I’ve never met Greg James, but I feel like I know him because I listen to – and am amused by – him and his stories every day, just like with my friends on WhatsApp. Comedy podcasts, like My Dad Wrote a Porno, No Such Thing As A Fish and Help I Sexted My Boss, are formatted in a way that makes you feel like you’re sitting in the pub, chatting with your mates. Of course, not everyone has the same sense of humour but when we do find what makes us laugh, we search for similar material.

Being the funny one

From the comedian’s perspective, making jokes and wanting to make people laugh is part of their personality. However, being the class clown is one thing, but being funny and making jokes as a brand or company is something else altogether. It can appear risky, sometimes daunting, but it can done right.

Innocent Smoothies, for example, is known for its Twitter feed, where almost every campaign is centred around being funny – from their debates on whether new smoothie is blue or green (it’s definitely green by the way), to commentating on TV shows like the Great British Bake-Off, and even the way they handled their mini crisis around the misinformation of ‘conker milk’ was executed in an overtly apologetic but amusing manner. Humour has become part of their brand identity and they’ve used it to personify their brand and give it an authentic voice, which in turn receives a lot of engagement from their audience. It’s clever because it is likely that when their followers see a new Innocent smoothie on the shelves, they’ll remember something funny they said about it and likely purchase it. The power of endorphins, aye?

Using comedy as a tool to evoke an action is also used to raise awareness of more serious causes. The Comic Relief charity and, more aptly, Doncaster Council’s explanation of the government’s ‘Stay Alert’ announcement, both used light-hearted content to spread awareness of a serious message. People tend to remember something if they find it funny, and will often share it with their peers, thus spreading the message further. In these types of instances, especially when coming from a brand, it’s important to find the balance as there can be a fine line between being funny and being offensive. Think of it as laughing with someone, not at them, and focus on the wider story rather than pinpointing a specific person or aspect.

Reading the room

Getting humour right in your communications, whether it’s internal or external, requires a careful balance. ‘Reading the room’ could be a room of 200 people in a highly targeted campaign or a room of potentially thousands or millions, depending on your platform and audience. Within that ‘room’, you might have individuals with different opinions and different senses of humour, so it’s best to accept early doors that you’re not going to please every single person. Take note of the situation and the surroundings around you and avoid stepping over the line if your message or take on the situation could cause offense.

Sometimes funny messaging doesn’t quite sit as well when it’s text only, so it can help to include graphics and images too. At other times, funny images or animations can be powerful on their own. One of my favourite YouTube channels, Kurzgesagt, provides explanations to science’s most difficult questions through beautifully animated illustrations – for people who respond to visuals, like me, the graphics and bright colours really help to understand the message and remember what they’re saying!

Lockdown has shifted expectations immensely and we’ve all had to adapt to the new way of working and living, whether it’s working from home, dealing with the supermarket queues or spending our Saturday nights Zooming our friends. It has been a strange and scary time, and definitely one that we won’t forget, but thanks to comedy and the people that continue to produce funny content every day, it’s been easier to laugh and see a bright side.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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