Fleishman panel: The days of brands staying neutral are over

More than a dozen brands have dropped the NRA since the Parkland, Florida, shooting. Communications experts in financial services are wondering what's next.

L-R: Business Insider's Sara Silverstein, Fleishman's Peter Verrangia, John Hancock's Anne McNally, Fleishman's Dom Pendry, JPMorgan Chase's Anne Pace
L-R: Business Insider's Sara Silverstein, Fleishman's Peter Verrangia, John Hancock's Anne McNally, Fleishman's Dom Pendry, JPMorgan Chase's Anne Pace

NEW YORK: It’s impossible for brands to stay neutral on divisive issues in 2018 - even gun control - experts said at a FleishmanHillard event on Tuesday.

Communications leaders said that many companies are still figuring out how to handle relationships with the National Rifle Association.

"We’ve seen questions about whether it’s appropriate even to provide insurance to members of the NRA, and that’s an extraordinary position for a company to be placed in," said Dom Pendry, SVP and group practice leader of the corporate, financial services, and public affairs team at FleishmanHillard.

Anne McNally, VP and head of corporate communications at John Hancock, said she was on the phone minutes before taking the stage to figure out how the insurer should respond to the NRA story.

"You have to ask yourself why you’re engaging, and if it’s core to who you are," she said. "Maybe gun control isn’t a big issue for John Hancock; maybe mental health is. We’re thinking about the health and wealth balance of our investors and making sure they have healthy minds and bodies and full wallets."

McNally noted that mental health is not an issue John Hancock would definitively tackle, but "it’s part of the conversation."

More than a dozen brands have ended business or marketing partnerships with the NRA since last week. One of them, Delta Air Lines, has been caught between politicians on opposite sides of the issue after dropping the group, with Georgia’s lieutenant governor threatening to kill tax breaks for the carrier and his counterpart in New York encouraging Delta to move its headquarters to the Empire State. Meanwhile, FedEx said it will not end its partnership with the NRA despite calls on social media for it to do so.

The event, held at the Yale Club in New York, featured a look back at the last 10 years of financial services since the Great Recession and a roadmap for the next 10 years. It was moderated by Business Insider executive editor Sara Silverstein.

Pendry referred to the period following the recession as "post-financial crash disorder" amid fears another downturn was inevitable. It also forced brands to reevaluate their communications, simplify their products and jargon, and lead on social issues. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, for instance, has urged public companies his firm invests in to contribute to society or risk losing his business.

"The time I spent on media responses to social issues [10 years ago] was zero," said Anne Pace, head of consumer and business banking comms at JPMorgan Chase. "Now, it’s half my week. Every morning, it’s: what’s the topic? What will get called on?"

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