How to avoid PR nightmares: Advice to brands

CEO Aedhmar Hynes explains that when it comes to recent PR nightmares, the question shouldn’t be HOW these things happened, but WHY.

CEO Aedhmar Hynes explains that when it comes to recent PR nightmares, the question shouldn’t be HOW these things happened, but WHY.

A series of PR “nightmares” have dominated the headlines over the past few weeks, involving some of the biggest and best-known brands in the world. Plenty of smart people have dissected the flaws in how these companies have responded (or failed to respond) to their respective situations. I find myself looking for the answer to a much different question: Why is this happening so often, and to brands like these?

After all, there’s no shortage of experienced communicators inside and outside these companies who can provide sound crisis counsel. Yet all these companies – large and small, established and new – made many of the same fundamental errors. They outright failed Crisis Communications 101. While that is surprising, the real issue worth exploring isn’t why these companies responded poorly – it’s why those crisis situations were able to arise at all.

This shouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t in a purpose-driven company, one that knows itself and its values and where everyone in the company is invested in them. If these situations make anything clear, it’s that companies that aren’t purpose-driven, or haven’t communicated that purpose at all levels of the company, will find themselves in situations that create immense damage to their brands.

Remember that all the PR nightmares I’m talking about happened even though the company, and its people, were in control of the situation that created the crisis. They weren’t coping with a flood that put a factory out of commission, or a prolonged blackout that shut down an office for a few days. In every case, people inside these organizations (including managers and leadership) took an ill-advised action they didn’t need to take, or ignored a festering problem they should have fixed. They behaved deliberately in a way that was sure to trigger a crisis.

That is a fundamental flaw that stems from companies that have failed to define their true purpose, the fundamental reason they exist.

A company’s purpose is not simply to make a profit; that’s a goal of any company, large or small, but it isn’t a purpose. A purpose defines the why of a company. It defines how it does business and what guides its decisions, and it does so in context of both the marketplace and the larger society.

Purpose-driven companies also see their stakeholders as partners, including customers and employees. They don’t have to bolt on a corporate social responsibility function; they understand their role in society and their responsibility to act for its overall benefit. They also understand that how their brand is perceived – and therefore its long-term value – is 90 percent what they do and only 10% what they say. Communications can illuminate the values of a purpose-driven company and the actions it takes, but it can’t substitute for actions that don’t match the purpose.

Creating a company’s purpose isn’t easy, especially when an enterprise has been around for many years or even many decades. There may be many different views of what the purpose is or should be, and how to express it. There may be resistance within the leadership ranks, from those who say “we’ve always done it this way.”

What’s even harder – but also most important – is to socialize the purpose throughout the entire organization. The challenge comes from the many different roadblocks that exist within the organization to this kind of transition. Leaders have to overcome the short-term thinking that prevails in many teams – to address the pressure that has them worry how to solve an immediate problem without taking the time to consider it in a larger context, or to make choices that produce the numbers Wall Street demands for this quarter but don’t build toward long-term growth.

Being a purpose-driven company is not only the right thing to do, but it will determine a company’s success in the coming years. Newer competitors, especially millennial entrepreneurs, are far more purpose-driven than at any time in the past. That is quickly becoming a competitive advantage when it comes to building and maintaining trust with their customers, particularly millennials.

I can tell you that from both professional and personal experience. Text100’s global employee base is more than 50% millennials, and I’m a parent of two millennials and two GenZs. Not only do they have a deep sense of personal purpose but they want to buy from brands who also share that purpose. I see firsthand how impressively well informed they are about a brand’s purpose, and how that influences their decisions – including quickly abandoning brands whose actions don’t live up to expectations. That’s far less likely if a company is purpose-driven.

Companies will know they’ve succeeded when they can ask “what would our brand do?” to anyone in their company, from the CEO to the cleaning crew, and get the same answer. That’s the point at which the CEO can respond to a crisis effectively and immediately – instead of needing three tries and a slew of consultants and attorneys in the background. It’s also how they avoid the mistakes that lead to a crisis in the first place. By taking the time to create a purpose-driven company now, it’s a lot less likely they’ll be spending time dealing with a PR nightmare of their own making later.

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