“These are the times that try communicators’ souls”

by | Aug 10, 2020 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

Thomas Paine is best remembered for writing Common Sense, the pamphlet advocating for the 13 colonies to declare their independence from Great Britain in 1776. Its signature line was, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

While Paine’s comment needs updating to reflect the inclusiveness of our 2020 workplace culture, the Revolutionary War-era political activist and author might very well have been speaking about communications executives whose corporate purpose has either helped or hurt them during these dark days of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests, and a looming recession.

Stakeholder backlash

Unfortunately, more than a few organizations have seen their corporate purpose come back and bite them in a major way in recent days.

One case in point is Airbnb, whose “You belong here” purpose and promise was torn to shreds by many of the 1,900 employees who were recently laid off (and, in effect, told they no longerbelonged at the once robust darling of the travel industry).

One erstwhile employee tweeted, “There are a lot of people who feel very betrayed.”

This recent Sunday New York Times Airbnb article is MUST reading for anyone involved in creating, shaping or updating organizational purpose.

Then there’s REI, the outdoor retailer often lauded for living by their corporate purpose. The latter states that REI’s cooperative membership model allows it to “put purpose before profits and act in the long-term interests of our members.”

That didn’t play very well after the company was slammed for its handling of employee COVID-19 cases. According to the New York Times, store managers failed to notify employees when a co-worker tested positive for the virus. That serious misstep resulted in employees taking to social media and generating a petition that garnered over 2,700 signatures.

One disillusioned employee said, “I would expect this behavior from a lot of companies, but REI’s entire thing is they’re a different type of company and that the people and their employees are such a priority.”

Rising to the occasion

We are not here to call out those who didn’t live up to their corporate purpose, but rather to point out the slippery slope it’s become for organizations that viewed “…making the world a better place.” as just another box to tick off on a To-Do list.

We also wanted to shine the spotlight on organizations whose purpose hasresonated with stakeholders and hasplayed a major role in guiding their thoughts, feelings, and actions since mid-March.

It was in late-March that the Institute for Public Relations and Peppercomm began collaborating on the first of three in-depth research reports focused on communicating during the multiple crises. The first report, COVID-19: How Businesses Are Handling the Crisis, focused on how communication executives were handling COVID-19. The second report, Special Report: How Companies Are Engaging Employees During COVID-19, analyzed in-depth how companies were communicating internally.

We’ve just released the findings of the third collaboration in an eBook.

Communication executives shared their views on topics ranging from returning to the workplace and the impact of Black Lives Matter protests to the future of work and corporate purpose. The latter included some best-in-class observations from CCO’s whose businesses have done it right in terms of walking the purpose talk:

  • Linda Rutherford, senior vice president, chief communications officer of Southwest Airlines, offered these reflections (just before the Second Spike began): “Southwest’s Purpose is to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel. No one, from the CEO to the line mechanic lost sight of the purpose, even in the dark days of April when planes were flying with one or two people on board. No one may be rushing to their flight to get to the beach, but they are rushing to get on a flight to get to a loved one in need.”
  • Paul Gennaro, senior vice president and chief brand and communications officer of Voya Financial contributed these thoughts: “As our CEO shared during an interview, during times of crisis, organizations act based on their values and culture. Everyone can look good when times are good. When times are challenging, you can see whose values, culture and purpose are real. Throughout the crisis, as employees have asked about hypothetical things that could happen and what the company would do, I have told them that we will make decisions based on the health and safety of our people. That is the one answer for the hundreds of scenario-based questions that could be asked.”

We could share many other pearls of wisdom from the eBook, but the point is this: If your purpose has been questioned, if not pilloried, by various stakeholders, the time is NOW to go back to the drawing board and re-think everything that is authentic and everything that you can deliver on day in, and day out.

Everyone likes to think that theirs is a purpose-driven organization but, as we’ve seen with Fox Corp., Amazon, Facebook, Airbnb, REI and many others, it’s best to anticipate every conceivable strain or crisis that could test that purpose before telling one and all you’re making the world a better place.

IPR’s mission is dedicated to the science beneath the art of public relations. IPR creates, curates, and promotes research and initiatives that empower professionals with actionable insights and intelligence they can put to immediate use. We’d like to think we’ve delivered on that mission in a myriad of ways over the past 125 days.

IPR and Peppercomm will be continuing the dialogue on August 6th when we’ll be co-hosting a webinar featuring three executives talking about their contributions to the eBook: Moyra Knight of Astellas and the Astellas Global Health Foundation, Jennefer Witter of The Boreland Group Inc., and Jill Carapellotti at Macy’s.

The corporate purpose you save may be your own.

Tina McCorkindale and Steve Cody
Tina McCorkindale is President and CEO of IPR; Steve Cody is the Co-Founder and CEO of Peppercomm.