As political and societal crises impact brands, PR’s role more important than ever

by | Jun 21, 2018 | Public Relations

Brands of all sizes and in all industries are increasingly being impacted by America’s divisive political, social and cultural storms. This new reality makes the roles of communications leaders like CCOs and CMOs as strategic decision makers, planners and guardians of a brand’s goodwill more vital—and more challenging—than ever before.

This was the overwhelming response from comms execs in a new research study from Peppercomm and the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), Taking a Stand: How CMOs and CCOs are Redefining Their Roles in Today’s Highly Charged Social, Cultural and Political Climate.

“CCOs and CMOs recognize they’ve entered an unprecedented world marked by continual societal crises and fueled by the explosive political environment and 24-by-7 news cycle,” said Steve Cody, co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, in a news release. “Part of the challenge is for CCOs and CMOs to determine, with the CEO, which issues to take a smart stand on and which have no relevance to their business—while still being prepared for traditional crises that have always existed in relation to their core business.”

With crises breaking seemingly every day, from White House statements and #MeToo revelations to racist celebrity tweets and mass shootings, the research study reveals that two-thirds of CCOs and CMOs said they are not fully prepared to respond to such events. But those executives who are ready reveal in the study their best practices for working with their CEOs and other leaders to decide whether or not to take a stand on an issue—and if so, how.

One of the most significant changes from last year to this year’s study was the increased discussion on social and cultural issues

Most respondents said both internal and external stakeholders were pressuring their organizations to publicly respond to issues, regardless of whether an issue affects their organization’s core business. Anti-transgender bathroom bills, immigration, and health care were some of the most oft-cited issues. Across the board, company values were most cited as the pivot point for whether CCOs and CMOs engaged. Some responded publicly to issues, some only internally, and some not at all.

As political and societal crises impact brands, PR’s role more important than ever

“We definitely saw a shift in responses from our last study, with communication executives more comfortable with uncertainty and more prepared to deal with issues strategically and thoughtfully,” said Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO at IPR, in the release. “We also found that in many instances, CCOs who may not have had a seat at the C-Suite table in the past are now emerging front and center as the ethical and moral compass of their organizations.”

The study found that because crises erupt so often now, savvy executives realize they cannot respond to each one ad hoc

Instead, they are defining their company’s purpose that rises above merely building shareholder value and communicating where they stand based on it. CCOs and CMOs are aware that more consumers and employees today expect corporations to speak out on issues of the day. So they are working with the CEO and other leaders to take a smart stand. Communicating based on purpose—and only on issues that impact the business and its key stakeholders—helps keep them above the fray. “You have to have principles that scale across all issues,” said the CCO of a global technology company. “Our decision to create those principles was invaluable because the worst-case scenario has proven to be true.”

Which executive are you?

Based on the varied types of responses in this study, Cody and McCorkindale categorized CCOs in six categories:

As political and societal crises impact brands, PR’s role more important than ever

Regardless of what category a CCO fell into, most used current events as an opportunity to remind their employees of the organization’s stance on issues

For example, the #MeToo movement spurred discussions at an executive level and a chance to review and evaluate the efficacy of policies in place (most said they were robust). Even though most did not speak publicly about the #MeToo movement, some organizations did send internal memos or they reminded employees on the proper course of action for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. The study authors anticipate, in this age of transparency and accountability, this movement will only continue to grow.

“These issues are not going away, which makes this research study incredibly relevant,” said Cody. “In the corporate communications world, every week there’s another educational webinar or quantitative survey aimed at CCOs or CMOs about the rise of societal crises. However, our Peppercomm/IPR research report is unique. It provides a qualitative examination of exactly how the roles and responsibilities of Fortune 500 CCOs and CMOs across multiple industries are evolving.”

Read the complete study here.

This is the third in a series of in-depth studies on the changing roles of CCOs and CMOs by Peppercomm and IPR. The first one titled, “A Time of Change: How CCOs and CMOs are Handling a New Presidential Administration,” was released in April 2017. The second one titled, “Managing the Digital Age: A Dialogue with CCOs and CMOs,” was released in August 2017.

Peppercomm and IPR conducted in-depth interviews with more than two dozen executives from companies ranging from manufacturing and software to consumer goods about how their roles are shifting in this contentious environment.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter