From the editor-in-chief: This crisis brings ethical purpose to a critical juncture, meaning tricky calls for bosses

Brands and leaders will long be remembered for how they acted during the great Coronavirus crisis of 2020.

Hopefully this is driving their behaviour right now, but we should also recognise the tricky calculations they face.

As many of us near the end of our eighth week ‘WFH’, we have been watching carefully the actions of companies and leaders during the crisis. We’ve all become a lot more judgemental. That’s what happens during crises.

Amid the narrative that ‘we’re all in this together’, former brand and publicity paragons have suffered a dramatic fall from grace. Sir Richard Branson’s call for a government bailout of now struggling Virgin Atlantic suddenly grated with his non-dom tax status. Business insurer Hiscox, whose branding has long been themed on ‘reputation’, was now slammed for failing to pay out to SMEs that had been forced to shut their doors. 

On the other hand Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO, Brian Chesky was lauded this week after he addressed staff at the crisis-hit hospitality firm with a heartfelt and honest memo. Chesky was announcing 25 per cent staff cuts, but with detailed explanations and extremely generous support.

Not only did this feel totally authentic, but one suspects Chesky is smart enough to realise Airbnb’s employer brand will only be enhanced by this - and that he’ll be able to re-hire the best talent when a recovery comes.  

I believe it will burnish the brand in the eyes of customers, too, because all internal comms is now also external comms, in this time of heightened scrutiny. We finally arrive in the age of multi-stakeholder relations; where companies and leaders really must walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.

But while brand reputation, and the comms director who is responsible for this, comes to the fore – something PRWeek has demanding for decades – we must also recognise there are major challenges presented.

One comms director, for one of the UK’s largest companies, confides: “We’re doing some great things, ethically. Some were part of our existing corporate purpose work, some the Government has asked us to do. The challenge, however, is to undertake all these valuable initiatives - to help the NHS and Britain’s vulnerable groups - but still to remain profitable in the long run.”

One senses corporate purpose has reached an interesting juncture. For many years business has been asked to ‘do the right thing’ because, on balance, it will pay off in the end, in terms of stakeholder goodwill and loyalty. 

And now many CEOs are being forced into action out of sheer necessity; because the Government, the media and the public are demanding immediate measures.

Some companies, particularly airlines and hotel groups, are struggling for their very survival, let alone their brand reputations. Others wonder how many cuts they need to make in order to keep paying their staff for the rest of the year.

So while the public, and the Government, rightly calls for companies to do the right thing, we would be advised to recognise the tricky tightrope that business leaders walk. 

Brands need to act ethically, and they need to be rewarded for doing so. They also need to operate efficiently at a time of tight margins.

Hopefully, with all this in mind, the conclusion that most will reach is the last thing they should cut heavily is their comms budget.

So far, the signs are good. After two months of this crisis, PR and comms activity is patently being reduced less by organisations than straight brand promotion. This can be measured in the comparatively lesser pain of PR agencies.

Talking to communications directors over the past week, they are busier than ever. Whether or not they’ve had to furlough staff in their teams, or cut back on expenditure, depends very much on the sector in which they operate.

“We have a recruitment freeze and we’re struggling a bit financially, but we’re continuing to pay all our PR agencies that we have on retainer,” says one big brand comms director, which has simultaneously slashed its advertising spend. 

“We are keeping our consumer PR agencies busy with new things, while the corporate and public affairs consultants are really proving their worth. With thousands of our employees now working from home, internal comms has become really important, too, and we are having to innovate as never before to connect with them, but it’s rewarding work.”

Observing the comms industry over recent weeks, this is typical of what I see; professionals working incredibly hard, from home, often with less resource, sometimes with significant salary cuts. And yet still being innovative, still being creative, still being human.

For all these reasons, despite the obvious hardship, one remains confident that all this fine work will pay off in the end - that when things finally improve, professional communications will be seen to have had ‘a good war.’

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