The days of brands sitting on the fence over contentious social issues are over, Havas’ global PR boss has declared.
James Wright, global chairman of Havas PR Global Collective and CEO of Red Havas, delivered the keynote speech at Mumbrella’s CommsCon this morning, in which he dubbed “the three Ps” now haunting the public relations business.
“It’s polarised politics, which we’re seeing pretty much all over the world, the pandemic, which is still with us, and protests that are seemingly happening everywhere about every issue,” Wright said.
“For businesses and brands, it’s never been a trickier time to navigate these shark-infested waters that can leave them bitten by the community, customers, stakeholders and even government.”
That has ushered in an “age of purpose” where brands must find their conscience – and declare it proudly, he said.
“It means moving away from mission statements and not just saying you support something but doing something about it to create change.”
Vague or broad-brushed comments without substance will not do either, Wright said, pointing to the now-infamous campaign from Pepsi featuring supermodel Kendall Jenner, invoking the Black Lives Matter movement.
“That went nuts,” he said. “It was seen as trivialising a significant and important issue. It shows how critical it is for brands to be authentic and genuine in what they do. The days of misleading consumers with marketing campaigns to drive sales – they’re over.”
Wright conceded taking these social stands are not without a cost for brands in some instances.
“Look at Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ legislation, which was opposed by Disney. Disney is the biggest employer in that state and their employees really pushed them to take a position. As a result, their licence to operate is under attack by Ron DeSantis.”
The recent backlash against US beer brand Budd Light over a campaign featuring a transgender activist is another example, he said.
“But the cost of doing nothing isn’t insignificant either. If you don’t make a statement or take a stand, it’s seen by many customers as an acceptance of a bad situation.
“Purpose goes off the table in a lot of organisations when the rubber hits the road. But the question of how seriously a brand should take its values [corresponds] to why customers purchase and why people show up for work.”
Mitigating those risks and responding to them when they eventuate is the role of communicators, he said, who must now adopt an ‘always-on’ approach to crises.
“Expect the unexpected. Always be prepared with strategy. Wear your crisis comms hat even when there’s no crisis. Constantly monitor the landscape and prepare tour clients accordingly.”