What brands say and do
In solving challenges, we need to identify what the business problem is. It requires us to step off the assembly line of client work, take two steps back and think about the world around us.
There is no better way to luxuriate in solving business problems than in the time and space of a classroom. Innovation in the classroom can be messy and unstructured but rewarding. Imagine if we built in this time toward client work as a platform to develop our creativity and reach new ground in our thinking? There would be fewer blind spots and more efficiency with less frustration.
With new thinking comes the risk of change to your organization. Is your organization structurally prepared for innovation? Why would you want to change the status quo if it isn’t broken? For starters, you’ll fall behind. Organizational outcomes are tied to the hiring, training and retaining of top talent. Talent will walk and employee activism will rise. The time of hierarchal power structures is over, and clients want ingenuity. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing, but expecting different results."
In my PR Branding Campaigns class, we explore trends before they reach their crescendos. Over the past two spring semesters, between 2017 and 2019, my students and I explored issues related to diversity and inclusion, social purpose and corporate sustainability with a special focus on identifying the S in ESG, which stands for environmental, social and governance.
Each time, these values become embedded into the work we do as public relations professionals at the management table. Last semester, we were reminded of our roles as strategic counselors in understanding our brand’s stakeholders and audiences through environmental scanning. Our research involved analyzing a company’s social purpose and sustainability practices that are relative to its brand value, stock price, stakeholder engagement and policy issues. Just last week, CEOs said they have an obligation to society first, and meeting shareholder expectations is an important third or fourth.
This past semester, we examined some of the most beloved brands to see if they are truly aligned across mission and values, internally and externally. There is no single textbook that could cover these topics because we are unable to explore them without the input and enriching support from professionals in the industry, such as Michael Marinello, a strategic comms pro and independent consultant, and Barie Carmichael, author of Reset: Business and Society in the New Social Landscape.
Ethics and transparency
To my surprise, we spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand policy issues, such as the role of an organization and brand in self-regulation. Boeing, Facebook and Amazon made headlines. These companies and brands have a fiduciary responsibility to be ethical and transparent to their stakeholders and audiences. We learned that ethics and transparency need to be explicit in the work we do as public relations professionals. Otherwise, there is a lack of trust among the brand and its stakeholders and audiences.
Understanding Facebook’s main business problem in real-time was challenging because the issues were complex and required developing a deep understanding of regulatory policy issues that would inform the student team’s ability to develop its messaging of a mix of awareness and community building and connecting with its diverse stakeholders and audiences that fall into categories of active, latent and passive.
In her co-authored book, Carmichael encourages readers to identify "inherent negatives" before these become crises. Inherent negatives are often found within the business model itself or within its leadership ranks. Brands will continue to address these events, both certain and uncertain, in an ethical and transparent manner. My student groups researched sustainability in McDonald’s food chain and made recommendations on how it could improve the sourcing of its meats. Another group developed a tech recycling campaign for Samsung by educating its customers on how to be environmentally conscious. Again, what we have been learning in the classroom is unfolding in the headlines. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported on Amazon’s inability to keep track of its third-party vendors.
Business and society: License to operate
In the case of Amazon, the power of social listening could not be more pronounced. There was an opportunity for the brand to engage in the formation of public opinion when it was considering New York City as its home for its second headquarters. Instead, it caved to the opposition when there was an opportunity to address the concerns of its stakeholders and audiences at a town hall meeting. Today, brands need a license to operate with the consent of stakeholders and audiences.
Wegmans, a well-known supermarket chain in the suburbs, is planning to move into Brooklyn where its brand may not be easily recognizable by those who haven’t grown up with them. Unlike the suburbs, people in Brooklyn don’t drive cars. Wegmans would need to consider a pedestrian-friendly shopping experience.
This student team’s environmental scanning also pointed out the indifference of its customers as the chain sold out its complete inventory of Trump-labeled wine. Earlier, Wegmans did not seem to feel the need to comment on sales of Trump wine in its supermarkets, but it may run into an issue once it moves to Brooklyn, an environmentally conscious, liberal set of constituents, far away from the suburbs.
Avoiding blind spots: Understanding stakeholders and audiences
Gucci removed its "blackface sweater" from its stores following outcry over social media and threats of boycott. It apologized and promised to hire a diversity and inclusion officer and more designers in its Rome office. This student team recognized that Gucci was prominent in rap culture. Yet, the brand didn’t pay much attention to this segment of its consumers. The student team made recommendations in connecting with these stakeholders across social and digital media. Gucci will need to do more in identifying its inherent negatives since its words need to align with its actions in today’s environment in which trust between brands and stakeholders is a measurable, qualitative intangible that poses social risks.
Angela Chitkara, is assistant professor, Branding + Integrated Communications at the City College of New York.