Life is not what happens but how you deal with it

Communications leads at major companies are overseeing one long political-style campaign in which their brand is the candidate and the electorate is unforgiving.

Demonstrators stand outside of the Capitol building in opposition to House Bill 531 on March 8, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Credit: Getty Images)

One reason PR fared best of the marcomms disciplines during COVID-19 is that brands and businesses realized the crucial value of smart counsel to navigate difficult corporate reputation issues.

It’s a measure of the impact and importance of PR that I keep thinking to myself I should occasionally write about something less serious in these weekly blogs only to get derailed by heavyweight current events that all demand commentary around the communications implications.

This week is no different.

The topic of business weighing in on political and societal issues has once again been high on the news agenda all week.

Senator Mitch McConnell kicked off the debate on Monday at a press conference in his home state of Kentucky where he advised corporate CEOs to “stay out of politics.” He doubled down on the theme on Tuesday, saying it is “stupid” of major companies to “jump in the middle of a highly controversial issue.”

He was particularly referring to Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball weighing in on voting rights legislation in the states of Georgia and Texas.

Delta had initially only made a lukewarm statement on the voting issue, but CEO Ed Bastian responded to a quick backlash by insisting last week: “The final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.”

Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey said: “The Coca-Cola Company does not support this legislation, as it makes it harder for people to vote, not easier.”

Some might view it as ironic that a man like McConnell, who has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in donations from big business throughout his career, should take such a stance on business and politics. And, indeed, he rolled back his comments a little on Wednesday when he reiterated he wasn’t referring to corporate contributions to campaigns when he made his statements (especially his own donors presumably).

But one thing McConnell said that particularly caught my eye, and with which I wholeheartedly agree, was: “Republicans drink Coca-Cola too, and we fly, and we like baseball.”

And that is one of the fundamental conundrums when brands decide to take a stance on social, cultural and political issues.

As our podcast guest this week, Republican-leaning founder of Firehouse Strategies Terry Sullivan, said, for every relatively niche brand such as Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s making big social statements that are a fundamental part of their DNA, there are fully mainstream mega-brands like Coke that have to weigh up their responses incredibly carefully.

Indeed, Patagonia actually called out Delta and Coke for previously making donations to Georgia Republicans through their political action committees.

Amazon recently adopted an aggressive pushback approach on social media against Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren around issues such as the minimum wage, but made a misstep when it claimed its drivers didn’t have to pee in bottles due to the nature of their schedules. It quickly had to roll that one back.

While it might be enjoyable to ding Warren and Sanders and the edict appeared to have come right from the top in the form of CEO Jeff Bezos, once you make a false statement you have lost any claim to the high ground. Subsequent comms efforts by Amazon were more conciliatory, hopefully driven by the PR function at the company led by the world's richest person.

All the leading research and data from sources such as the Edelman Trust Barometer suggests consumers actively want brands and business to get involved. They have lost trust in other institutions such as government, media and even “people like themselves” and they want their employers and the other brands they consume or with which they interact to help fill the vacuum.

In an interview that will be aired on Tuesday during PRWeek’s Connect global virtual event, WPP CEO Mark Read notes that CEOs are looking more carefully at what they do and how they do it.

One told him: “We can steer away from politics but we can’t steer away from political issues. It matters to our people, customers and, increasingly investors. There is no simple or easy answer.”

In his annual shareholders letter released this week, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon reinforced his belief that companies have to step up and get more engaged in the big issues of the world, they cannot remain passive bystanders.

Dimon was chairman of the Business Roundtable when it released its statement in 2019 saying purpose should have an equal footing in business as shareholder value and “promote an economy that serves all Americans.”

BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink, overlord of the largest asset manager in the world, has also consistently pushed the purpose agenda hard and emphasized that this issue will inform its investment strategy moving forward just as much as traditional dollars and cents business criteria.

But this noble mission has to be backed up by appropriate behaviors, so there were probably some cynics on this topic who enjoyed the schadenfreude of Fink having to commission an internal review following reports describing sexual harassment and racial discrimination incidents at BlackRock.

“I know our culture is not perfect,” said Fink in his annual letter to shareholders this week.

It’s yet another example of how tricky the CEO, C-suite and corporate communications functions are these days. As Sullivan pointed out on the podcast, leading communications and reputation at a brand these days is like conducting one long never-ending political campaign that rolls on 24/7 and plays out in endless social media and mainstream media blow-ups.

It’s exhausting and unforgiving. It requires significant expertise, agility and street smarts.

The truth is that no individual, company, brand or institution is perfect and it would be foolish to pretend that they are.

The key is to be honest, authentic and transparent in your communication around issues and your responses to transgressions.

As Mark Read told me: “In life, it’s not what happens but how you deal with it.”

* PRWeek Connect is a global virtual conference that takes place on April 13. Sessions will focus on the most important topics in comms and feature leaders such as WPP's Mark Read and from companies such as Mattel, Google, J&J and more. As a loyal reader of Steve Barrett on PR, we're offering you one complimentary VIP pass to the event. Click here to secure your VIP ticket using the code: USVIP910

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