When faced with seismic political events, the rule is ‘deeds, then words’

Brands should look first at how their business and people are impacted by social and geopolitical issues, and only speak publicly when their actions are already making a difference.

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It is something of an understatement to say that the last few years have been tough. A decade-long war in Syria; the impact of climate change, with rising temperatures and waters across the world; the huge movement of people seeking a better, safer life. And then of course we had the outbreak of a global pandemic, which we are still living with.

But that hasn’t been all. We have felt the impact of the murders of George Floyd and Sarah Everard; the toll of months of lockdown on our physical and mental wellbeing; the further erosion of trust in our government as a consequence of ‘Partygate’; and, just when we thought we were emerging from the darkness of Covid, our old friend Vlad invades Ukraine. That glint of light at the end of the tunnel seems to have been extinguished.

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The bleakness persists. And that bleakness can feel paralysing. What can you do, what should you do? These are difficult enough questions for the individual but can be even more challenging for a brand. What does a brand do in the face of these kinds of issues and crises, which are not of their own making; for which they do not, generally, have to take responsibility; but which are dominating the minds and attention of so many? When and how should they respond and react? And how do they do it with credibility and authenticity?

I think the starting point for all of these questions is always the same – the organisation’s purpose and values. These set the framework to enable the organisation to consider if, when and how to respond.

I am not saying don’t make announcements, but only do it if you are taking action.

To be clear, I do not mean those purposes which seem to have been cribbed from a Little Book of Aphorisms picked up at the airport; or the values which are painted on the walls of the open-plan office, but no one in the organisation can tell you what they are or give a single example of how it lives by them. Lofty and pointless. No, I am talking about those organisations which understand that purpose is not a strapline, but a modus operandi based on the belief that long-term success (financial and otherwise) is dependent on pursuing strategies that create societal benefit.

In my experience, those organisations that have struggled less to respond to what the last few years have thrown at us are those with a clear purpose, aligned to values which they live by, and which runs through everything they do. I have deliberately not used the word ‘easy’ because it isn’t easy. But these organisations have had the advantage of a clear framework to enable having painful discussions and taking difficult decisions – and, importantly, being able to do so consistently.

We can all think of brands that make loud proclamations on a particular issue at a particular time but are then silent the next time the issue comes to the fore, or take a completely different approach on a similar issue. It naturally leads to accusations of insincerity.

When and how to respond

Having a purpose and aligned values makes responding to the questions which all organisations need to ask themselves that bit easier. The questions will vary a little, but fundamentally are:

  1. How are we impacted?
  2. How are individual colleagues impacted and how can we help them?
  3. What must we do?
  4. What should we do?
  5. What do we say publicly?

The answers will be different depending on the situation and the type of organisation. The first few are pretty straightforward.

Question 1, for example: in the case of Covid, we were all affected. The war in Ukraine has had a massive direct impact on organisations that trade with and/or have operations in Ukraine and Russia.

On question 2, thinking about the colleagues impacted allows you to prioritise your internal resources. Black colleagues and women were more impacted by the killings of George Floyd and Sarah Everard; they weren’t direct victims but more likely to be distressed.

For question 3, all organisations must comply with the law, which often changes very quickly.

It is with the latter few questions where having a framework really helps guide decision making. Do you really need to do anything beyond obeying the law? The answer has to lie with what you can do that will benefit society. All those companies that transformed their production facilities to make ventilators during the pandemic didn’t have to, but they did it for the common good.

War in Ukraine: How brands are responding

Finally, what do you say publicly? My advice is ‘deeds, then words’. You will recall all the brands declaring themselves at the vanguard of the fight against racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. I am willing to bet that very few have actually done anything about it; in fact I know, because I keep a check on it.

I am not saying don’t make announcements, but only do it if you are taking action. Indeed, in the case of Ukraine, telling people you have taken action is really important. So many brands want to know what others are doing and, as importantly, it will give heart to Ukrainians that the world is standing with them.

I say this as a South African. The knowledge that people in the rest of the world were demonstrating against apartheid and boycotting South African goods, and that businesses were withdrawing from the country, gave succour to those working for democracy and freedom.



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