Comms leaders from Walgreens Boots Alliance, McDonald’s and Cars on evolving purpose in a challenged economy

The execs discussed staying the course on purpose in troubling times and the brands’ Chicago connections.

L-R: McDonald's Michael Gonda, Walgreens Boots Alliance's Aaron Radelet, Cars' Marita Hudson Thomas, PRWeek's Steve Barrett

CHICAGO: With talks of a recession looming large, communications leaders from Walgreens Boots Alliance, McDonald’s and Cars used the final panel at PRWeek’s PRDecoded Conference in Chicago on Wednesday to talk about maintaining purpose during economic uncertainty. 

Aaron Radelet, SVP and global chief comms officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, said that the holding company’s values and purpose, to create more joyful lives through better health, are designed to sustain even the most challenging times. 

He also pointed out the similarities between brand and personal reputation: how brand leaders should defend their purpose and image as they would personally. 

“It’s about doing the right thing day in, day out,” Radelet said. “Business is the same way.”

Marita Hudson Thomas, chief comms officer at Cars, used an example from the early stages of the pandemic to illustrate how purpose remains essential even throughout enormous societal events, and can even be economically beneficial. 

Following discussion on which businesses were to be deemed essential, Cars lobbied the Department of Homeland Security to include car dealerships in the category, Thomas said. 

On April 17, 2020, in an update to the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers Guidance statement, the Department of Homeland Security classified automotive repair, maintenance, and transportation equipment manufacturing and distribution facilities as essential services. 

Thomas noted that although Cars “didn’t set out to get business growth from purpose,” dealerships and customers recognized the vehicle-based digital marketplace’s efforts on their behalf. 

Michael Gonda, SVP and chief comms officer at McDonald’s, spoke about the fast-food chain exiting from Russia after 32 years operating in the region. He explained the company faced the question of, “Is unplugging right now in pursuit of our purpose?”

Gonda said that McDonald’s also considered that leaving the Russian market would set a precedent, as well as the impact it may have over the next decade. 

“People felt it when we left [Russia],” Gonda said, “but they also felt it when we turned the lights back on in Ukraine a few weeks ago.”

Radelet mentioned some of the comms strategies the healthcare-focused corporation employed in navigating COVID-19, particularly in underserved communities, where a large amount of Walgreens stores are based. 

“We made sure pharmacists were speaking directly to the communities they represented,” he said. “[Communications] isn’t about words on a page, it's about how people feel about you, not what they know about you.”

Panelists concluded the session by talking about their respective businesses' connection and involvement in Chicago, Illinois. 

“This is a city that expects a lot from businesses and means a lot to businesses,” Gonda said, adding that Chicago is at an inflection point and needs companies to “stick up” for it. 

In September, McDonald’s revealed its plans to expand its Chicago headquarters.

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