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June 2, 2020
Crisis Comms

The right and wrong PR response for crisis moments

This has been a headache of a year, going from one crisis after another. First, the devastation and unnecessary loss of life from COVID-19, and now the outrage and protests to bring justice for the murder of George Floyd and other Black people before him, including Breona Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey, and the list is endless.

Corporate America and brands typically stay silent on these issues, and very seldomly do CEOs and personalities utter a word. The ones who typically speak out are known for pushing the envelope instead of being politically correct.

But in the case of the recent protests over George Floyd’s murder, Corporate America has broken all of its typical PR rules, and it’s about time! Perhaps, it’s the safety net of being able to speak in support of protestors now that most of America is outraged by the murder and that it’s not just Black American protesting. Perhaps, there’s public pressure for Corporate America to speak out or simply because it’s just the right thing to do. But whatever the reason, brands from Apple, Peleton, and Nike and even PR holding companies Publicis Groupe, WPP, and IPG Mediabrands are issuing statements and finally speaking out.

Some of the statements of support have been well received by the African-American community, and largely because those brands are known for speaking out against social injustice. But some brands were obviously out of their comfort zone and it showed.

First of all, this is not a PR moment.

That’s the first lesson in corporate response to crisis moments. Standing in solidarity is the socially responsible thing to do. However, it must be authentic to the brand and corporate culture, or else it comes off as being another publicity stunt.

Nike got it right

Nike released a beautifully produced piece in solidarity of the protestors. It was right because it's true to the brand. Nike has made bold moves in the past despite faced public backlash with its support of Colin Kaepernick.

The best crisis response is both authentic and believable.

A knee-jerk reaction can sometimes do more harm than good. Both the Guggenheim Museum and Amazon also released statements, but they were met with backlash for coming off as boiler plate statements and not authentic. In Guggenheim’s case, the museum’s first African-American curator, Chaedria LaBouvier, publicly rejected the museum’s message of solidarity and stating that the museum refused to acknowledge her history-making milestone as the first Black curator in the museum’s 80-year history.

In Amazon’s case, its Tweet of solidarity drew criticism for the company firing employees who just a few weeks ago protested the company’s treatment of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ultimately, consumers want brands to be civically engaged and socially responsible, which means that it’s also irresponsible not to speak out or take a stance on crisis moments. However, brands must first do their homework and tune in to what their consumers and employees are saying and feeling. It’s important to proceed with action, but such action must be backed with genuine measures on how the brand will continue to be a better partner to its community.

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