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.
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