Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 have shown us that PRs need to do their jobs better

The global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement are putting pressure on brands to reflect upon their public image. Here, Phoebe Netto provides a guide on how good PR can guide a client through this period and come out stronger on the other end.

As any PR professional will tell you, the public perception of a brand, business or organisation has always been important. But throw international Black Lives Matter protests and a global pandemic into the mix, and getting your brand’s perception right is suddenly a whole lot higher on the agenda.

During any form of political or economic turmoil, people’s emotions are a lot more raw, their sensitivities are heightened, they are less forgiving, and they have much higher expectations of brands, businesses and their leaders.

In a world where everyone is an armchair critic and a Twitter expert, the risk of misunderstanding, judgement and outcry is far higher today than in the past. During this time, marketing and PR professionals need to seriously up the ante across every key message they’re putting out.

A Black Lives Matter protest in 2014

Positive isn’t always positive

Messaging that might have worked in 2019 will almost always need to be adapted to the new world we now live in. For example, any communication that talks about your incredible success during the loss and suffering of the pandemic, needs to be approached with a great deal of caution.

And if you continue to talk about your wins without acknowledging the context of the situation in America, especially if you’re talking to a US audience, you risk coming across as insensitive. People could easily read positive news coverage as taking advantage of the situation, being oblivious to the pain being experienced all around you, or worse, rubbing your good fortune in everyone’s face.

Get the message right

In such a time of heightened emotion filled with uncomfortable dialogue, brands need to think very carefully about the role that they play. PRs need to do their jobs better: simply throwing things out there and hoping it’ll work isn’t the way to go about it.

You can’t take these things back: the fallout from saying the wrong thing – or not saying the right thing – can damage a brand’s reputation potentially forever. It could result in a loss of sales, or even a loss of leadership when people are forced to resign.

Many brands will feel they can’t win; that they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. It is easier to criticise a brand for attempting to support change than for those critics to do something meaningful themselves – especially when expectations on a brand are so much higher than on an individual.

PRs themselves also need to pay attention to the brands they’re working with, because not only will continued bad publicity harm the brands themselves, but could harm the PR’s reputation too.

Avoid slacktivism at all costs

Tokenism or slacktivism never comes across well, even if it is well meaning. Speaking out without the intention to make real change is simply noise, and puts brands at risk of justified criticism.

Black Lives Matter is such an emotive, deeply felt issue, brands need to be expecting huge scrutiny whether they say anything or not.

It is not easy – it shouldn’t be. Nothing about racism, suffering, injustice, or tragedy is easy. And if you are in a position to be part of the solution and to support those who are experiencing hardship, then you should be unsettled enough to engage in their reality, ask questions, seek to understand, and then look within. Only then should you respond.

Don’t let the weight of the situation stop you from trying to do what you can. But you need to dig below the surface instead of simplifying many lifetimes of hurt, or reducing it to one gesture and moment in time.

So how do you get it right? There’s a simple formula to follow. First, ask yourself: have you already been proactive in the past, or are there past missteps that you need to account for? If you try to erase your past mistakes with sudden new-found advocacy, people will immediately sense the dishonesty.

Secondly, are you prepared to commit to uncomfortable change? Are you prepared to make that change in a sensitive, educated and informed way that involves asking the right people the right questions? This also includes preparing yourself to apologise if need be.

The next question a brand needs to ask is: is this completely left field for me to comment on? If you’ve never commented on anything of this kind before, then you need to think very carefully about how you approach the situation, so it doesn’t seem like you’re simply jumping on the bandwagon with a tokenistic gesture. Hollow words risk criticism.

Prepare for a crisis

We can expect that there are going to be a lot of businesses and organisations with bad news outside of their control coming at very short notice. As we slowly emerge out of lockdown, there’s a chance that your client could be struck down with a case of COVID-19. If and when a coronavirus crisis hits, strategic PR insight will be the differentiating factor to whether they sink or swim.

The same is true with any supposedly ‘woke’ messaging your clients choose to engage in – you only need to look at the 2017 Kendall Jenner Pepsi controversy to see how very wrong this kind of messaging can go.

Kendall Jenner’s much derided Pepsi advertisement

And don’t assume that because your clients regularly have articles published that you’re going to be able to tackle the media in the same way during a crisis – it’s a completely different beast.

TV crews could begin showing up at your client’s premises without a moment’s notice, and requests for comments will start flooding in. You suddenly need to have a spokesperson that knows how to be compassionate, likeable, confident, in control, and calm in the midst of chaos. The time to be looking at your client’s reputation and perception is not when the issue happens: it needs to start far before then.

PR is the difference between a completely negative crisis and actually coming out the other side with your client’s reputation intact. In fact, if you take the right steps today, there’s a chance both you and your client could come out of 2020 with a better reputation than before.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations


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