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As part of our full length, long-read report ‘Institutions of the Future‘, we sat down on our digi-sofa with Craig Ling – Director & Head of Southern Region – from our friends’ over at Grayling, a global PR and public affairs agency, to chat all things crisis comms.
If – as the report highlights – the message on cancel culture, brand ethics and discussion around social issues is ‘do it real and do it right’ – we wanted to offer some tangible advice on how to do so.
You’ve googled ‘my company has just been cancelled, what can we do?!’, you’ve then made your way to our report download page, you’ve got the PDF open. You’ve read the condensed interview and it just wasn’t enough, and now you’re here.
Then once again: sit back, rest easy, read on to the unabridged, extended, disco-edit below.
FABIO: There is an inherent conflict over Cancel Culture: many argue that it’s hugely lacking in compassion, others that it’s the most real way of talking truth to power? How does it relate to the world of PR?
CRAIG: The first thing to say is that Cancel Culture is not a new phenomenon by any means. When business or businesspeople step out of line, there have always been mechanisms for bringing them back into line. For every example from 2021, there is a Gerald Ratner. Audiences have always voted with their feet and in most sectors of the economy there is always a challenger brand ready to step in and fill the void.
Where I think there is understandably concern is whether it is right to ‘punish’ a whole brand for a rogue statement or piece of behaviour from one part of its business or one person in its business. For example, should you stop spending money in X retail outlet because it’s CEO says something counter to your values? On the one hand, it’s a good way to show your objection and will impact the success of that CEO, as their business will make less money. On the other hand, you are also having a knock-on impact on all the innocent people who work throughout that business, particularly is other consumers also vote with their feet.
I’d argue you can learn more about a business from how it responds to a crisis, than you can from whether it is caught up in a crisis in the first place. What do I mean by this? I mean that crises can hit all organisations – good and bad. Bad things happen to good people too and we’d all do well to remember that. If you accept that principle, then it’s really a question of how a business carries itself through a time of difficulty. Does it try to be honest, clear and fair or does it believe itself to be beyond rebuke? You can learn a lot from a crisis.
The reality is that consumer behaviour has the power to influence businesses and the actions that business takes – whether that be the way it treats its staff, its supply chain or the environment. That means consumers can be a very powerful force for good, as long as the values that consumers are championing are good in the first place. Don’t forget that one of the reasons there is modern slavery or poor working conditions is that consumers have demanded products on the cheap. I think one of the encouraging things we see emerging from youth culture today is a willingness to, where possible, pay more and own less. That invariably means that brands have to adapt and those that don’t will simply fall away.
We are really talking about consumers force brands to change. But, what’s really fascinating is the brands which are trying to force consumers to change. Take Levi Strauss for example, who have been a really interesting business to watch since Chip Bergh took over as CEO in 2011. Their core audience in the US (broadly speaking) isn’t young people anymore – it once was, way back when the Berlin Wall was coming down and Lisa Stansfield was at No.1. Their core audience in the US is midwestern, mainstream and to generalise, right of centre. The kind of audience who buys guns. Lots of them. But Chip and Levi’s have taken the step of being very vocally in favour of gun controls and have thus been willing to actively alienate their core audience because they believe in a cause. Now there are many angles at play here and of course it’s concerted effort to move Levi into a more youth-accessible position having lost market share to new entrants, but it’s interesting none the less and raises fundamental questions about whether businesses can and should actively make the running on social and ethical issues by promoting their views and activity via PR.
FABIO: So, first and foremost, brands and businesses are going to want to steer clear of having to do crisis comms in the first place. What role can PR play in helping them do so?
CRAIG: Ultimately proactive PR is about building brand resilience. Companies invest in communications to increase their profile with their key audiences, whether that be customers, business, stakeholders, or Government. They might do that to sell more or develop partnership opportunities, influencer public policy or creative a competitive advantage over their competitors. Whatever their motivation, a crisis can represent a clear and present danger to their reputation and has the potential to undo the hard yards a business has put in building its reputation.
So, the first role PR can play is in building brand resilience in the first place and publicising the kind of business or organisation you are – your values, belief, personality, ethos, and mission. If you spend time making people aware of who you are and what you represent, you are more likely to weather any future crisis storm. The brands that tend to recover quickest are those who have invested in their brand in the first place.
The second role PR, or perhaps more accurately ‘communications’ should play, is in helping business prepare for a crisis. This is typically where PR firms like Grayling can most value. We spend a lot of time working with businesses to design their crisis processes and also stress-testing them, often via live simulations. This work often involves establishing clear crisis protocols, agreeing who is involved in the event of crisis, sign off processes, pre-prepared statement, as well as important work anticipating what potential crises could affect a business and what can be done to mitigate them in advance. We often encourage our clients to learn from competitors or from other industries – for example, FTSE exec pay has been a significant issue for some time, so it was only a matter before charity CEOs were thrust into the media spotlight, or indeed Vice Chancellors. Alongside this we also help businesses horizon scan – what are the political of policy issues that they need to be sensitive to and prepare for?
For me, there is a strong argument that the Boards of organisations should maintain a risk register which goes beyond traditional material business risk and also includes communications risks, many of which have the capacity to snowball and impact financial performance.
Thirdly, we of course help clients manage live crises as they occur. Sometimes that’s a simple as having more bodies, by which I mean more media professionals handling inbound calls and managing interest. By more often than not, it’s advice and strategic counsel gleaned from our experience in crisis communications across all sectors of the economy.
And finally, PR can help organisations recover and rebuild trust from the customers and partners. It can help showcase what you’ve learned and how you have changed as a result. It can help you regain the confidence to start telling positive stories again.
FABIO: The worst happens and a story breaks which paints your organisation in a negative light. What crisis comms advice would you have for an organisation?
CRAIG: Hopefully, businesses will be able to lean on the existing crisis protocols, having prepared for the worst. But failing that, I’d say that it’s important not to bury your head in the sand. Instead, seek help from experts, as you would if you wanted financial or legal advice.
It’s hard to talk about general rules that a business should follow, as every incident and every organisation is different. Attitudes shift, environments change, the media cycle moves. So, really every incident should be taken on its merits and examined from every angle.
What I would say is that organisations can often tie themselves in knots early on in a crisis. Fast forward a few hours or days and they’ll have inadvertently boxed themselves into a position they find it hard to row back from – the Government’s repeated position on free school meals during the pandemic is a good example.
I think the British public are generally fair and appreciate honesty above all. They don’t expect anyone or any organisation to be perfect. So, there is often value in being relatively straight forward in your approach, admitting what went wrong or where fault lies (subject to the legal implications of doing so), rectifying things and then clearly articulating what you are going to do better as a result.
FABIO: I think this really speaks to wider trends in youth culture – the move towards more authentic, real experiences and portrayals, over those which are perhaps more manufactured. Are there any risks in being open and holding your hands up?
CRAIG: Of course. I’m not a lawyer, but in crisis communications you regular find yourself working with legal counsel. One of the main risks is legal liability and that can be one reason why some organisations feel unable to admit fault. But putting that to one side, there are still risks in being open and holding your hands up, particularly if you don’t do so for the right reasons.
I’m a big believer in authenticity. The same thing can be said by two separate people but interpreted in different ways depending on whether they truly believe what they are saying is true. They same is true of the actions we take. So, holding your hands up only helps if you genuinely believe you have done something wrong and want to make amends. Take Lance Armstrong for example, as I think you would find few people who found his mea culpa believable and genuine. As a result, he’s found it hard to win back his audience and to regain trust. In short, he wasn’t authentic. And my view is that the public have an impeccable radar for authenticity.
Read the full Institutions of the Future report here.
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