By Alan Dunton, Managing Director, West
When I began my career in public relations, the Internet was in its infancy. Sure, we had websites and online games and information moved quickly all things considered. In retrospect, though, it was pretty darn slow. The majority of information was still consumed via physical media — newspapers and magazines — which, if we did our jobs correctly, would become the stuff that made their way into clip books we dutifully mailed to our clients.
But as Silicon Valley’s pioneers were building a better infrastructure for their enterprise customers to run their businesses, everything was getting faster, better and more useful — and more practical for consumers to adopt into their personal lives. Apps like Facebook and Twitter were born. Apple’s App Store became a thing. Changes in attitude about a brand’s responsibility to the communities they operate in were underway. The notion of bi-directional communication between consumers and brands was accelerating.
Early on, the overriding counsel we provided our clients was that taking a stand on hot-button issues was not recommended. The feeling was that weighing into a politically-charged issue was fraught with peril and ultimately not worth it from a business and reputational perspective. Most companies didn’t advocate one way or the other; they simply chose to focus on their people, their customers and the next business milestone. The speed at which companies could effectively respond did play a role in this decision; their ability to quickly understand a new issue, formulate a response, get approval, and disseminate it in an effective manner was limited. But what really mattered was their bottom line. They weren’t compelled financially to engage the issues of the day in a public setting, and therefore many did not.
If judged by today’s standards, those (in)actions may not be remembered fondly. But even just a decade ago, the perspective of our industry’s most experienced professionals was to largely stay calm and carry on. And that’s what we did.
The speed at which communication moves, however, has changed. That speed has further enriched the notion of instant gratification.
Access to information, to steal from Mel Brook’s 1987 juggernaut, has gone plaid. Consumers have been conditioned to expect near-instantaneous interaction with our colleagues, friends and family. This ability to communicate quickly is empowering. It empowers us to share our thoughts, feelings, and ideas. It also empowers us as individuals to speak directly to the executives and investors who run the companies we buy products and services from. This insatiable appetite for instant gratification has morphed into an expectation that those brands, institutions and leaders we communicate to must communicate back … and quickly.
This empowerment has created a sense of connection, albeit artificially that in retrospect may be making us all stressed. It has led us to believe that what we care about should be exactly what the brands we buy from should care about. And if there’s a disconnect between the two, or if the level of enthusiasm we have for an issue isn’t reciprocated by the brand we admire, then we are out of sync and that’s a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.
As individuals, many of us believe our expectation isn’t unique and there will undoubtedly be other vocal individuals who feel the same way we do and therefore we should combine forces so we can help the brand in question understand our position and take steps to correct its behavior/actions/words. If they don’t seem eager to listen, we’re going to have a problem.
Here’s the rub. Though some issues are clearly defined, ethical, and easily supported by a clear majority, many are extremely complicated, multi-layered situations often weighted down by generations of struggle and debate. In those instances, the brand in question — many of whom maintain global operations and thus must consider their global audience — hears from us loud and clear. It also hears from the other side(s) of the argument loud and clear. Ideally, the brand would like to continue marketing and selling its products and services to both/all camps.
It would most likely still prefer not to engage, all things considered, but given today’s climate, with the general consensus that brands should take a stand on the key issues of the day, it’s going to have to pick a side. Consumers and employees demand this.
In doing so, the brand knows it will alienate perhaps up to half of its customer base and potentially frustrate half of its employees because today’s issues are so incredibly powerful, emotional and divisive, driving people to march, protest, and burn neighborhoods down. Compromise, mutual understanding, and genuine reconciliation seem ever-elusive.
Ultimately, brands do need to take a stand. Companies that run successful businesses are admired, companies who take big swings on issues of the day are viewed as heroes. Opting to sit on the sidelines will be viewed by both sides of the issue as an affront to their perspective.
Brands, however, at this moment have an amazing opportunity in front of them. Because of the power of their voices, and the speed at which they can share that voice, they have the opportunity to help drive real change. They can respond in a manner that is in alignment with the instant gratification its consumers expect. But a warning: Brands who attempt to engage an issue with superficial overtures won’t be viewed kindly. Consumers are all too familiar with those tricks and will dismiss them in kind. A business can’t promote a virtue or perspective in one market while contradicting that viewpoint elsewhere. For major corporations who manage tight, global supply chains, this is not an easy exercise.
Brands, however, that recognize an issue, engage in open and honest dialogue with its employees, customers, and the community at large — and who create a tangible system or approach to universally support or address the issue — will be judged kindly. This engagement should not be entered into with a PR mindset. Yes, our profession can help articulate the issues, we can help formulate an engagement plan, and we can provide the necessary feedback loops to ensure the brands we represent understand the fluidity of the issues before them. But the issues we’re contending with will not be solved by a standalone press release or a tweet – or even a series of tweets. The issues of the day will be resolved by internal action at the corporate and leadership level. Tangible, measurable action. And yes, speed matters.