Every company claims to want to do the right thing for the world it operates in. Yet doing so, and communicating those actions effectively, remains far from straightforward. In a recent roundtable discussion focused on developing communications strategies around purpose, leaders in the field acknowledged that it will never be possible to please everyone.

Factors that make their task especially difficult include an insatiable public appetite for sensationalism; louder anti-corporate rhetoric on social platforms; generational division within companies; and a lack of representation at the board level. At the same time, the ever-present demand for thought-provoking information on big themes such as the environment, and growing recognition of the value of reputation for business signal great opportunity. The roundtable was hosted in partnership with Crisp, a provider of early-warning risk intelligence.

Participants in this discussion: 

Adam Hildreth, Crisp, CEO/Founder  

Jerilan Greene, Yum Brands, Global Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer 

Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods, Chief Communications Officer

Rick Loughery, GoPro, VP of Global Marketing and Communications

Rishad Tobaccowala, Author of Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data and Crisp Advisory Board Member

Moderator: Aarti Shah, PRovoke Media, Executive Editor  

Doing the right thing essentially means “acting in accordance with your values and what your stakeholders care about,” said Jerilan Greene, global chief communications and public affairs officer at Yum Brands. The challenge is ensuring consistency in a fast-changing context. When a police officer murdered George Floyd and sparked unrest across the US, Yum added its voice to other corporations in stating its position against racism, intolerance and inequality.

“In the past we really have not been public about that,” Greene said. “Of course we supported diversity and inclusion" but the company didn't heavily discuss this externally. But this summer's protests made it clear the time had come to communicate those values more clearly to a wider audience.

Crisp Roundtable 2 PM

She said she thinks that as long as the stance is genuine, going out on a limb can engender public goodwill and earn companies a sense of understanding in the longer term. But it also raises the level of public expectation and scrutiny.

Too often, companies still use platitudes when it comes to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). Rishad Tobaccowala — an author, Crisp advisory board member and former chief growth officer for Publicis Groupe, urged them to think in terms of people—“employee, society and government”—instead of in abstract terms. If the employee experience does not match corporate proclamations about responsible behavior, the message is meaningless, he noted.

On the other hand, companies can sometimes be too reticent in talking about their values, which sets them up for criticism when they do speak up. Diversity, inclusion and belonging have always been important to GoPro, but the company has not historically made a song and dance about it, said Rick Loughery, vice-president of global marketing and communications.

This has seen a move as simple as a logo-change for pride day raise accusations of jumping on the bandwagon. “We’re all sitting there internally thinking, no—it’s who we are, but then we realize that we didn’t do a good enough job of showing people what GoPro is about,” he said.

People prefer to read something that’s exaggerated

Companies need to accept that any action carries the risk of public criticism. “You could be talking all year round about how inclusive you are, and there will still be groups out there that want to take a negative stance against it and the tools [for them to do so] are now there,” said Adam Hildreth, CEO/founder of Crisp. Plus, the level of receptiveness for negative content has grown in recent years.

“People prefer to read something that’s exaggerated more than any other type of content and it’s not always possible for brands to create a narrative that defends them against that,” he said. “The thing we’re really seeing change is the level at which this spreads.” The widespread use of closed channels like WhatsApp makes it especially hard to track, he added.

The weaponization of social platforms represents something of an arms race. “In many ways, marketers need the same weaponry because this is really about massive uses of technology and algorithms and people,” Tobaccowala observed.

He said the emphasis for companies has also switched from more straightforward marketing to reputation-building and preservation, yet CMOs are still too often absent from company boards. He expects this to change as messages and corporate entities become more closely linked. “This has gone from being about whether my ad or campaign got into trouble to — did my entire company run into trouble?”

One way companies can respond to misinformation is, of course, to present strong, sometimes shocking, but crucially, true, stories of their own. Addressing and taking a position on concerns about the environment, in particular, the devastating effects of mass livestock farming, has proved effective for Impossible Foods. Social media posts that challenge conventional beliefs have proved by far the most impactful, said Rachel Konrad, the company’s chief communications officer. “People have a real demand for this information. We don’t just do like the ‘Campaign of the Week’ kind of thing… It can be pretty radical, pretty provocative and we actually find that’s how we continue to engage people.”

The superpower of all of us is that we can see crises before they become ragers 

For anything purpose-based to work, at its best, requires alignment between an organization’s leadership, policy and communications functions. At Yum, Greene says her team includes a chief sustainability officer who is an expert in the fields of food and the environment who is leading the company’s climate action policy. “But he still has to do a lot of alignment across our global business and our markets to make sure it moves in the right direction,” she said.

Companies stand a better chance of achieving consistency if communicators are part of the C-suite. “The superpower of all of us is that we can see crises before they become ragers in The New York Times and do something about them proactively,” said Konrad, who has reported to chief executives over much of her career. “Whether it’s a Black Lives Matter post or simply supply chain issues that penetrate into Brazil or China, we are the ones who have to have a seat at the table and it is shocking to me when I hear from executives at other companies who say they just want a ‘great PR gal’ or something like that.”

Recognition of this need might grow taking into account the effects of the pandemic and the outsized role the communications function has played in helping companies navigate it, as well as the change of administration in the US. “I think we’re just at a point where there needs to be even more understanding, even more collaboration between business and government,” said Greene.

Even more broadly, a theme to watch closely in 2021 is the growth of the consumer-driven movement, said Hildreth. “That is the new method of communication that we’re really seeing that people are either worried about it or they are jumping for joy because they are a positive part of it.”

Social media monitoring has changed to “really listening to different groups of people and what messages they’re pushing and at what scale — and working out where everyone fits in that because there are just so many factions,” Hildreth continued. “We’ve seen the social justice movement isn’t just on things like Black Lives Matter, it’s across so many different diverse subjects that brands can accidentally get themselves involved with and not realize the capability of the groups and the people behind it.”

Another pertinent theme for the coming year, which Tobaccowala highlighted, is the cultural makeup of boards and the generational divide. “Diversity of faces is not the same as diversity of voices,” he said. “Unless people are able to speak and have a voice, we have a real issue.”

Ensuring age diversity at the highest level could also help companies confront the numerous threats raised in the discussion. “Many times when I go to the boards of established companies or startups I notice that almost all the directors are of one generation, and to a great extent, there is a generational divide,” Tobaccowala said. He also underscored the need for diversity of opinions—“otherwise we are going to have polarized diversity, which isn’t diversity at all.”

He criticized the facile characterization of opposing conservative and liberal voters and said his biggest worry was that “at some stage diversity will be used as the wedge to make people more separated”.

People are either worried about it or they are jumping for joy
These considerations might be bigger than the communications function itself, but as complexity continues to grow, it seems clear that the importance of reputation management will too. As it does, Greene sees people making more efforts to measure what are seen as "purpose-driven" communications. She said she had created the position of director of social impact planning and governance on her team with this in mind. In five years, “qualitatively we want our frontline restaurant teams and our communities to say, hey, this brand made a difference. But quantitatively we also want to see the kind of progress that we’ve made.

“I think a lot of companies have made big, bold pronouncements about what they want to do and I think we’ll all be held to account on making an impact in those areas,” she added.

The question is how and what to measure. Employee engagement has arguably been the key consideration this year and for Impossible Foods, Konrad said the most important metric will be “our ability to recruit and retain awesome employees… If this is a partnership with HR and other functions in the company, ultimately my number one KPI is increasing the company’s ability to recruit and retain super-global, world class talent”.

Loughery shared this sentiment, noting the pandemic compelled GoPro to expand its ethos of "helping people live their best lives and celebrate and share the moments" by permanently enabling employees to live remotely — without facing compensation penalties. 

"So if you want to go live in Ohio, cool, we are paying you for what you’re worth, not for what you’re worth for where you live," Loughery said. "That was a big thing that our CEO was adamant about." 

He added, employee sentiment was an accurate barometer as to the corporate health. “If that stoke is there and that excitement for the brand is there, that obviously translates into sales,” he said.