It’s hard to know where to begin when thinking about the implications for communications and marketing professionals of everything that’s happened in the world over the past few months.
The two main topics dominating the headlines are the COVID-19 pandemic and the race issues that exploded in the US and then spread rapidly to other countries. Both occurred against a backdrop of rising economic inequality, political and geopolitical instability, plus technological disruption and automation that is seeing an increasing amount of jobs being replaced by AI.
These are uncertain times, and many have drawn parallels to other decades over the past century that saw troubled societies and the rise of new ideas, protests and friction, with the ‘30s, ‘60s and ‘70s often cited as lessons from history and the shape of things to come.
Unlike those times however, the interconnectedness of the modern world and the prevalence of instantaneous digital communications magnifies and spreads news faster than ever.
This communications technology has been a boon to professionals in the field, but also carries its own set of risks – from the occasional social media gaffe to rapid global coverage of industrial accidents and widespread criminal wrongdoing.
Put simply, there is no place to hide anymore. The decisions you make today are essentially on the record forever, and cannot be easily undone.
We’ve already seen this play out in some parts with the pandemic. Politicians and bureaucracies have handled the disease with varying degrees of success, both in terms of actual health outcomes as well as communication strategy. These approaches will now be picked apart for years to come, with every good moment and misstep preserved and analysed in the context of one of the greatest health challenges the modern world has faced.
The same is true for corporations, some of which have done well, others less so. Many well-trained crisis teams did a sterling job getting to grips with the rapidly evolving situation, while others got off on the wrong foot and ended up on the defensive. A key question facing many organisations was how to handle the challenge and still appropriately promote themselves, while not appearing to be capitalising for self-interested reasons on other people’s pain and misery.
In a way, similar choices now face corporates regarding race issues.
Teams need to be asking the tough questions to determine if and how far they wade in – questions such as: Have you spoken out previously about this? Are you involved more generally in social causes? Or is this the first time? What do you have to say about this? And why should anyone listen?
It’s important to remember that entering into this, and in fact any other, debate opens a door and invites people in. Talking about such controversial issues will encourage people to take a closer look at your organisation within the context of those issues. A classic example would be if a company made a prominent statement on racial equality, but then had to defend itself against having an all-white board of directors and executive team.
So is your own house in order? And are you ready for such scrutiny?
Hypocrisy is an easy accusation to make and often a hard one to defend against, so making sure your credentials hold up when dealing with emotive issues is absolutely essential for starters, let alone working on your actual statements and associated initiatives.
A more general question is that once started, where will this scrutiny stop? The Mayor of London recently announced a review of street names and statues in the UK capital in order to investigate their links to the historic slave trade, with the clear implication that something would be done if those links are proven and are serious enough to warrant further action.
What will this mean for businesses, especially older ones? Delving into the history books on slavery will reveal many associations with all kinds of organisations, including the banks that funded the slave trade and the transportation ships that carried many unfortunate people to their lives of shackled misery.
There will likely be some uncomfortable times for some companies, just as there was for German chemical businesses regarding their role in the two World Wars, for example, as well as Swiss banks and the Holocaust.
Will the same questions now spread beyond slavery to other race-related issues or specific incidents that litter the history books from eras that were unambiguously racist by today’s standards? One school of thought suggests this may well be the case, and that sooner or later corporate communications and marketing teams will face new and unusual reputational challenges that may undermine many years of consistent hard work and brand building.
These are the times we live in, and they are full of difficult questions that require both soul-searching and brave decisions. Tread carefully out there…