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Are You Ready for a Year of Amazing Achievement or Incredible Disappointment? Who Will You Impress?

Right now, everywhere you turn, management teams, boards of directors, employees, investors, consumers – in fact, all stakeholders in our industry – are talking about 2022.

More specifically, 2022 as the year of Impact.

From improving health care outcomes, patient journeys and customer experiences to providing more employee choice in work formats, career development and professional growth, organizations are fixated on moving the needle from maintenance to making a difference. As communications and marketing professionals, we are seeing the rules being set and the lines being drawn.

So, the question is, “Are we listening?”

Let’s explore the year ahead and begin making plans to take advantage of an opportunity to redefine health, relevance, quality and confidence and thereby generate results that impact people. Starting with a pent-up need to explore, interact and integrate with society again, people are ready for new experiences and different paradigms. No more warmed-over programs, products, services or promises.

Impact 2022 is about all things new. It’s about truly making an imprint on someone.

Download the full white paper here.


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Understanding Business Evolution As A Guide For More Effective Decision-Making, Communications Planning and Organizational Positioning

Sometimes watching companies and brands evolve in today’s digital reality is a painful experience. The communications and storytelling approach doesn’t align with the business reality, causing confusion, apathy and distraction. Much of it has to do with the speed and connectivity that digital entails.

The business acumen and leadership discipline required to generate a savvy, smart portrayal of a company as it evolves today goes without saying. What’s really intriguing, from a communications perspective, is the ability to inform and influence decisions projected on how the business would evolve, and not on what it is today.

This reminds me of what hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Understanding business evolution is not just about corporate strategy. It’s also about clearly designing initiatives and programs, directing behaviors and guiding resources on behalf of the enterprise. Business evolution requires companies to think on two planes at once: where they are, and where they are headed. It requires leaders to make moves today that will affect the way their world looks two or three iterations down the road. Companies hoping to understand their evolution – and where their game will be played in the future – need to foster alignment among their leadership, core management and communications. Each is an essential ingredient required to anticipate – and define – the future.

From a communications perspective, knowing where a business is in a digital-oriented lifecycle allows managers to better determine the real questions that need to be answered involving corporate reputation, brand relevance, internal credibility, competitive balance and customer trends. Additionally, from the standpoint of communications as a system and corporate function, comprehending a business’ evolution is critical, because it:

  • Ensures various elements of the organization (departments, locations, managerial levels) are sharing information – and that all of this information is filtering upward to senior management;
  • Brings the outside world into the organization, eliminating the myopia plaguing many laggard companies;
  • Helps identify best practices from comparable industries through an ongoing exploration of how leading companies are marketing themselves and carving out new niches.

Even in today’s digital world, there remain finite ways for organizations to distinguish themselves. These include employee knowledge and motivation, technological superiority, manufacturing practices, product development and unique pricing strategies. Communications enables companies to understand how all of these are evolving.

If you insist that “communications is for telling people about us,” it’s time for your organization to evolve, as well.

The magic, if you will, lies in comprehending and pulling the right levers at the right time to advance the business.

Business evolution is far more than a euphemism for “keeping current.” Over the course of time, we’ve learned that, successful businesses drive growth that incorporates lessons and failures to push it forward.

The organization that fails to see its own evolution is too often dismissive, or has its figurative head in the sand. It fails to capture its narrative  adequately, and eventually becomes marginalized, purchased, or non-existent.

Managing Evolution

Ultimately, there are three major evolutionary phases that managers and communicators must be cognizant of in their strategy planning, budgeting and training:

Managing the Downside

At each phase of a company’s evolution, it will confront downside issues. The downside comes for every company – upward trajectories don’t last forever. The key is to manage the downside, minimize its “steepness,” and identify ways to reverse the curve as quickly as possible. This requires constant reality-checking and information-sharing among the various company functions. It can even mean employing outside-of-the-box thinking, such as consulting with futurists about cultural trends that might directly or indirectly affect what you provide.

Leading the Growth

Growing companies feel invincible. But, the growth needs to be channeled and guided, lest spending run amok and employees fail to keep up. It’s critical that senior management continue to articulate a vision that is simultaneously aspiring, inspiring and practical. Communications and training must facilitate the ability to lead and maintain growth, while performance measures and reward and recognition must encourage the behaviors to support it.

Shifting the Playing Field

The time comes for every organization when the nature of the game shifts – huge stereo systems gave way to portable music and online music options, for example. Assuming that your company has anticipated this sort of shift, it is imperative that you adequately prepare your organization and your customers to accept you as a player of a new game – after all, what gave Apple the “right” to become a music company?! It built a reputation for being at the forefront of technology. Apple could probably invent a better automobile today and be accepted.

Getting the Right Inputs – Analytics and Insights

One of the most subtle – meaning often missed – aspects of determining your organization’s evolutionary position is how the company gathers information.

More often than not, strategy and planning sessions undertaken by the Board, CEO and leadership team are comprised of the same type mindset – that is, people who are in the business now and have been for a while. While their opinions are certainly important, they are also biased by what they can and cannot see.

How does such blindness happen? Simple. The inputs sought and received are from people who share the same beliefs, see the same data, and interpret the same insights.

Smart organizations utilize analytics, insights and perspectives concerning stakeholders who either are or aren’t using the company’s products to open the aperture and gain different viewpoints.

Further, strategic-oriented chief communications officers, sensing the need for “fresh air” in decision-making and internal discussions, are “opening the windows,” so to speak, and peppering internal communications and management communications channels with external cases, viewpoints, philosophies and business models from outside the organization’s core business.

Self-awareness requires a full 360-degree scanning.

Who do we talk with to gain insights? How many “outsiders” are invited to strategy, planning and/or management sessions?

Does our senior management engage outside influencers and experts to discuss common issues and opportunities?

Coherence Out of Chaos

One of the key elements of recognizing the organization’s current state in its evolution is the ability to bring coherence out of chaos for employees, which is inherent in business today.

Employees are inundated with information, contradictory objectives and irrelevant messaging and are watching actions versus words. In effect, people are “working with the volume off.” To crack this code, leaders must employ a “discover versus sell” approach to managing and communicating with today’s employees.

With growth a necessary reality, it’s both practical and critical to assess how leaders can create and sustain momentum in order to move forward. Is leadership continuously focusing on the future, maintaining a sense of urgency, testing the limits of individuals and teams, challenging the status quo, embracing uncertainty and driving real and substantive changes?

One of the most beneficial aspects of comprehending your organization’s position, and thus its evolution, is that it allows you to frame initiatives, decisions and programs against a real-time view.

For example, a relatively innocuous program to improve the content and channels of internal communications can in fact be a window on its future. The results of such an effort may in fact provide a clear vision of the need to overhaul or dramatically strengthen all of communications or even other key staff functions, such as marketing, HR and IT.

Starting from a place where everyone inside the organization comprehends the company’s current position is the basis for creating new excitement around the brand and new ideas around the products.

In today’s complex and competitive business environment, leaders and communicators who figure out where the game is being played, assimilate their position, and encourage an active dialogue among employees will avoid the downward slide of business’ evolution.

So, where are you?


12 Strategic Considerations to Properly Navigate Your Business’ Evolution

Where is your company on the evolutionary curve? Equally important, are you directing decisions and aligning communications to optimize your position? Ask yourself:

  1. From a digital standpoint, where is the connectivity with key stakeholders?
  2. Can we realistically expect our product/service to still be in strong demand next year or two years from now? If not, what are we doing about it?
  3. Do our senior leadership, management and communications functions jointly envision the future?
  4. What is the current state of our industry revealing to us about “where the game is being played?” Is it marketing, technology, innovation, channel, pricing, etc.?
  5. What are smaller competitors doing that looks and feels fundamentally different from what we do? What do they see?
  6. Where are we right now on the Business Evolution scale? How do we know? Do our employees know?
  7. If we keep doing the same things the same way, where will we be in our lifecycle one year from today?
  8. Do we have the right employees in place for what’s needed tomorrow? If not, are they trainable?
  9. What analogous industries can we study to determine how they have dealt with such issues as disruptive technologies, commoditization or maturation?
  10. Do we have an infrastructure that brings the outside world (trends, industry news) into our world? Do we analyze that data and then do something with it?
  11. How smart are our employees about the business and the future?
  12. Forget products and services for a moment. What made us “uniquely us” when we became successful and do we still operate that way today?

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In 2019, executive consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas recorded 1,640 CEO exits in the U.S. alone.

Leadership change can create momentum: positive or negative, internally and externally.  Depending on where a company is starting from, the move can be perceived as the driving force for continued, positive momentum, a new direction, or a continuation of what was before.

One thing is certain – a new CEO attracts attention.  Suddenly, everyone is interested in the company. Stakeholders may ask, perhaps for the first time in a while, “How is the company doing?” “Where is it headed?”

The “honeymoon” or first 100 days of a new leader becomes a unique window to define the company’s future while establishing a distinct leadership style and approach.

During this time, a cogent plan is needed to re-emphasize or re-define the company’s relevance.

The irony is that it really all begins with the outgoing CEO.

Companies are faced with a delicate balancing act – providing a positive retrospective on the departing leader’s tenure, specifically for an iconic CEO – while emphasizing the new leader’s strengths and fit with the organization. Even in the case of a planned retirement, companies must be prepared to communicate both proactively and reactively to key constituents starting with employees. In looking at recent examples of leadership transitions at leading organizations, communications professionals can better understand how to prepare and communicate this type of change in a way that will minimize the negative impact while leveraging maximum momentum while key audiences are paying attention.

Navigating the Transition from Multiple Angles

Most successful CEOs begin their tenure by focusing inward. Establishing a relationship and new dialogue with employees and then ensuring the right senior management team is in place typically takes on priority status – as it should. Dealing with Wall Street or the media during the early stages is also important, of course, but should be tightly orchestrated with an emphasis on gaining external understanding of newly defined messaging and goals.

How will the external world respond?

When a corporate leader steps down, the media typically responds in several ways. First, they will examine the departing leader’s tenure, scrutinizing it for successes, major milestones, key errors and a legacy. When it’s an iconic figure, media analysis and Wall Street will place the new CEO in the context of needed changes or reforms, continuation of a successful agenda, or a complete overhaul of the business.

The incoming leader should be prepared to face the media’s scrutiny head on. When considering the arrival of a new CEO, the media and financial community tend to look at both skills and persona – and, specifically, how they are linked to the company’s current needs. For instance, when Tim Cook replaced the larger than life Steve Jobs at Apple following Jobs’ death, initial media reports and Street analysis called into question the wisdom of replacing a visionary with an operations expert.

Preparing for Scrutiny

The main question that audiences ask when faced with a new leader is, “Are they up to the job?”

During the first year of the new leader’s term, people will be watching closely, assessing effectiveness, looking for shortcomings, and trying to find the answer to that key question. During this “probationary period,” the media will be quick to link blame for problems to the change in leadership. For example, when Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced he is stepping down and turning the company over to Andy Jassy, the media and analyst communities were quick to point out the great shape the company is in as a threshold for measuring future actions.

Prior to the arrival of a new leader, the company must assess the critical issues that could arise during this probationary period. Perhaps the most effective way to protect a new leader from undue blame is to ensure a relentless focus on the business and an avoidance of extensive media attention. Companies also must avoid allowing the new leader to become “the face” of the organization but rather an element of a much larger picture. While the tactic sometimes works, a company does not want its future inextricably linked to a single person, particularly during this sensitive period when the new leader is under the media’s microscope.

Today, corporate leadership is more important than ever. When introducing a new leader, companies must be prepared to respond to the concerns of employees, media, customers and analysts. These stakeholders will be looking to the company for an explanation and clues as to what lies ahead. A major change in leadership will undoubtedly attract attention. But how that attention is leveraged can have a lasting impact on the company and its leaders for years to come.

Leadership Transitions: Situations and Implications for New CEOs

The incoming CEO is faced with myriad opportunities and challenges as he/she must quickly articulate a point of view, establish an agenda, prioritize initiatives, craft a vision and strategy, and steady expectations from Wall Street to Main Street. Of course, the playing field will chart the course needed but, whatever path taken, the most important tenet is to be authentic and transparent. In reviewing CEO transitions over the last decade, the following components reign supreme:

  • Discover vs. sell – Don’t overpromise and never sell your agenda. Rather, allow stakeholders to configure your moves through actions.
  • Never compete with the past – Acknowledge your predecessor and his/her accomplishments but always point ahead.
  • Convey the future – Paint a picture of what’s ahead: good; bad; ugly.
  • Focus. Focus. – Core themes, imperatives, metrics.
  • Always point outside – Bring the marketplace and customer/patient inside.

Communications Guideposts for Announcing a Change in Leadership

Organizations should consider the following when announcing a change in leadership:

Leverage the opportunity to clarify the company’s business priorities, direction and value proposition. The departure of one leader and the arrival of a new one attracts the attention of various constituents, including employees, media, investors and analysts. Even if the incoming leader does not plan to make major changes to the company’s business strategy, he/she can use the opportunity of people listening to reiterate where the company is headed and how it will get there.

Link the new leader’s skills to the current needs of the company. When introducing a new leader, the company should highlight the types of experience that are relevant to the company’s current situation. It should also stress the aspects of his/her personality that make him/her particularly appropriate. The outgoing leader must also articulate and praise the skills and qualities of the new leader that are different from his/her own style.

During the seamless transition phase, it will be business as usual. The outgoing and incoming leaders must share a consistent understanding of the organization’s current situation and the appropriate strategy moving forward. This shared understanding signals to others that there will be minimal noticeable impact on the business. The company should also stress consistency in the overall leadership team.

Listen to the landscape. Social and digital channels/platforms for comments, misinformation, opinions, etc. Be ready to address where appropriate.

Set realistic goals and time frames for the transition to occur. A leadership transition must be perceived as smooth and deliberate. The company must clarify how long the departing leader will continue working with the organization to provide guidance and counsel and predict when internal and external audiences will begin to see the results of the new leader’s efforts.

The company must stress that the new leader has the ability and commitment to continue the efforts made by the outgoing leader. The outgoing leader must send a message to employees, customers, investors and the media that  “I’m leaving the company in good hands.” The board members should reiterate that message.

The transition is taking place at a time when the business is stable or growing. The company should clarify that the change in leadership does not signal a problem. Instead, it’s coming at a highly appropriate time when the organization has begun heading in the right direction under the departing leader’s guidance and will continue to move forward with the momentum of a new leader.

Pick an appropriate forum to introduce the new leader. Companies must think strategically about when and where to formally introduce a new leader – whether an industry forum, product roadshow, employee town hall meeting, or luncheon with media and analysts.

Regardless of the specific situation, a handful of critical, penetrating questions can enable the professional communicator to map out the most effective strategy to support the new CEO – and even give them some previously unconsidered food-for-thought.

In theory, there is no end to the logical questions to ask a new CEO. But, with time likely being of the essence, following are 12 key questions that will help you counsel the new CEO through the first 100 days…and beyond.

“How did you get here? or “Why the change?”

Given the short tenure of CEO’s today, the first question on people’s minds is the reason for the change. Was it a mandatory retirement? Board initiated based on performance or a clash over strategy? Was it a personal decision? The basis for the move is important to establish the foundation of your communications.

“What are your short- and long-term priorities?”

You can’t support what you don’t understand – so first, find out what the CEO has in mind for the near term and down the road.

“Why did you take the job?”

It’s easy to assume that all CEOs have always wanted to be a CEO. CEOs have numerous reasons for taking the top spot. Maybe it was a lifelong dream. Maybe they have a burning vision and passion that can only be acted on from a senior platform. Or, maybe they simply felt obligated to say yes. Knowing the answer to this question will help you much better understand the psyche of the CEO.

“How will you define success?” or “What’s your agenda?”

 A critical component to a new CEO achieving initial credibility and being heard is the ability to convey a common understanding and definition of what success looks like. You can’t draw a roadmap without knowing the end destination. To that end, the new CEO needs to have an agenda that guides not only what he/she does but how people should follow progress.

“What employee behavior do you expect?”

A new CEO’s prescription for the future is going to ultimately rest in the hands of the company’s employees. They need to know what behavior is expected of them to carry out the organization’s agenda.

“How is that behavior different from how they act today?”

Transforming employee behavior isn’t like turning on and off a light switch. To get employees to where you need them to be, you need to better understand where they are today.

“What do employees, customers and other key constituencies think and believe right now? When is the last time you asked them?”

It’s a common mistake: companies and their CEOs “know” what key audiences are thinking, only to find out later that they didn’t. Assumptions can be lethal, derailing the new CEO’s strategy before it’s even initiated. The lesson learned: if you haven’t asked key audiences what they think since the new CEO appointment was announced, your information might be woefully out of date. This is where analytics is a must to properly frame the new CEO’s reality on Day 1.

“What is the biggest market opportunity you see right now?”

One of the best ways to gain concrete insight into a new CEO’s vision and market perspective is to ask for clarification on the most significant market opportunity as of this moment. It will also help you frame your most immediate recommendations.

“What will be the biggest obstacle to success?”

This question can be interpreted two intertwined ways: the biggest obstacle to the company, or the biggest obstacle to the CEO. You should find out the answer to both. Understanding the obstacle (or obstacles) in your way will help you make preemptive recommendations.

“What keeps you up at night?”

All CEOs – especially new ones – have the proverbial challenges that keep them up at night. Sometimes they’re not even the most pressing issues; they’re simply the ones that get under the CEO’s skin. Successfully tackle one of these issues and you have immediately endeared yourself to the new CEO – and done a tremendous favor for him/ her.

“What do you picture your first day looking like?”

When you have the good fortune of counseling new CEOs before they take office, it’s worth asking what they envision their first day looking like. By encouraging the CEO to talk anecdotally – really, by asking them to tell a story – you’ll gain an even better sense of how they will really act and talk once the planning documents are put away and the real job begins.

“How would you describe your style?”

There are a couple of reasons to ask this question. For one, you’ll want to structure your communications differently for a cerebral type than for a vocal leader. Secondly, as you talk to employees and other important groups over time, you’ll find out if the CEO’s take on his/her style matches what the rest of the world thinks.


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How Companies Are Navigating Heightened Stakeholder Expectations and New Rules of Engagement

They say we all have 20/20 vision in hindsight. I believe it’s safe to say that, as we look at 2020, no one would be able to offer even now a prescription for what could have been done better.

From a Corporate Relevance perspective, 2020 was akin to “riding the wave” with regard to stakeholder expectations and new rules of operating.

Since 2016, W2O has introduced a completely new means of understanding reputation in a social digital age – the Relevance Quotient.

Relevance exists at the nexus of stakeholder expectations and company expertise, purpose, values, what companies say, and how they behave. Relevance attunes companies to a sense of cultural, societal, political currency and urgency. To be relevant is to be thought about, sought out, talked about, engaged with, believed in and advocated for on the topics that matter to an organization’s stakeholders.

Our Relevance Quotient – both quantitative scoring and deep content analysis – allows us to benchmark organizations over time and spot audience-specific gaps in content, engagement and language.

From 2016-19, Relevance awakened organizations to the new dynamics of a digitally oriented marketplace.  

Then 2020 happened. And it changed everything. 

Today, we are issuing our 2020 Relevance Quotient Report, which looks at year-over-year shifts in overall relevance​, calling out drivers and detractors. The report outlines the anatomy of relevance leaders in 2020 and offers guidance for healthcare companies navigating new expectations and new rules of engagement in 2021.

Stakeholder Expectations of Companies Heightened in 2020

Stakeholders were clear in demanding that companies and CEOs should:

  • Serve the interest of all stakeholders not just shareholders​
  • Take a stand and speak out on issues (stakeholders say they’ll reward it and they want to help)
  • Go beyond the statement​ or singular campaign
  • Focus on action that matches the words ​
  • Be accountable
  • Deliver on mission, vision, values, purpose and promises in a genuine, honest, fair, transparent way
  • Be a catalyst for real, sustainable change provided it’s aligned with the company’s expertise and mission

The Anatomy of Relevant Companies that Responded to the Clarion Call

In 2020, relevance leaders:

  • Took action on issues early and often​
  • Intensified focus on values, purpose, and environment, social, governance (ESG​) and DE&I
  • Moved with agility and kept up momentum
  • Were transparent, empathetic, bold, open to some risk​
  • Re-introduced themselves, sharpened narratives
  • Focused on all stakeholders all the time​
  • Closed the company < > stakeholder language gap
  • Recognized that employees are enablers rather than a singular audience​
  • Leveraged the CEO but broadened the bench beyond the C-suite​ for thought leadership
  • Leveraged always-on, integrated, cross-PESO storytelling

10 Tips for Navigating 2021

Looking back can help us look ahead. The following 10 tips offer guidance for companies navigating new expectations and new rules of engagement in 2021.

  1. It’s time to re-introduce yourself. Organizations need to retell their story, re-establish their value, and re-engage stakeholders.
  2. It’s about the “how.”In thought leadership, addressing the “how” vs. the “what is more important than ever.
  3. Use data and insights to get smarter ​about the business (vs. only communications).
  4. Focus on all stakeholders. Understand who they are and what they expect. Meet them where they are. Intensify efforts to close engagement gaps with patients and advocacy groups in particular.
  5. Environmental, social, governance (ESG) and DE&I should permeate and dictate how the organization is operated and managed. They are not campaigns.
  6. Adopt a relevance-centric perspective to drive authenticity, alignment and resiliency.
  7. Being discoverable and encounterable is critical. Search is increasingly more important to corporate identity as stakeholders look for content.
  8. Corporate communications must proactively shape, sharpen and “own” the narrative: how the business talks about itself, the culture it nurtures.
  9. A strong, clear point of view aligned with stakeholder expectations precedes and underpins thought leadership. 
  10. Employees are active enablers rather than strictly a singular audience. Relevance begins within, and employees are complex, well-connected shareholders, advocates, community members.

In Summary

2020 challenged the entire world to think and act differently. For organizations, staying relevant meant not giving up basic communications, marketing and operating principles. Rather, they maintained consistency, shifted content to reflect expectations and needs, and became even more diligent in listening and responding to stakeholders, especially employees.

Learning the anatomy of 2020 relevance leaders and implementing the 2021 guidance can ensure that companies are thought about, sought out, talked about, engaged with and advocated for.

In other words: they remain Relevant!

Alan 

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With contributions from Stephen Yoon, Gary Grates, Emily Poe and Chuck Hemann.


Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.

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Relevant organizations are answering their clarion calls.

2020 was unprecedented in almost all ways. In the past year, we have seen stakeholders dramatically give voice to demands for companies and CEOs to take a stand on civic issues. Stakeholders have been clear that they are looking for companies to align with their own personal values and principles. They will reward companies for doing so (loyalty, consideration, intent). They say they’re willing to help. Stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders – want to see organizations be a catalyst for real, sustainable change. They want more than words. They want to see organizations deliver on corporate purpose and values.

So far in 2021, we are seeing increased scrutiny on who and what companies support – with stakeholders asking the hard questions about whether companies are putting their money where their mouth is. In 2020, we employed our relevance framework and issued a series of reports on COVID-19, Social Injustice, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. After the disturbing insurrection in Washington, D.C., last week, we’ve done so again with an analysis of CEO and corporate responses to these events in our latest W2O Relevance Framework report.

The Intersection of Stakeholder Expectations and Company Expertise = Relevance

Relevance is the nexus of stakeholder expectations and company expertise, purpose, values, what companies say, and how they behave. Relevance attunes companies to a sense of cultural, societal, political currency and urgency. To be relevant is to be thought about, sought out, talked about, engaged with, believed in and advocated for on the topics that matter to an organization’s stakeholders. Our Relevance analysis approach allows us to measure the impact of that intersection and inform our strategies to increase and deepen connections with stakeholders.

Stakeholder Expectations are Shifting the Rules of Engagement

  1. Many organizations now believe there is a new expectation or foregone conclusion that brands must respond to any-and-all major issues. Organizations are wrestling with whether to issue statements (a cautionary “wait-and-see” approach that is increasingly noticed and called out when they don’t immediately respond). Organizations are challenged by balancing and not ignoring controversy, but not leaning in either.
  2. Organizations are experimenting with responding to social and civic issues (with mixed reactions).
  3. The insurrection is uncharted territory. Some well-intentioned statements of support were lauded in some cases but seen as non-committal “soft stances” and criticized by stakeholders for not being more explicit calls-for-action. Standard thoughts and prayers and calls for unity and support did not resonate as much as dedicated stances calling for the 25th amendment or impeachment or suspension of political funding, for example.

Responses Lauded by Stakeholders Focused on What Mattered

  1. Authenticity mattered: Companies with a long, proven history of social activism and weighing in on civic issues with a very clear perspective (e.g., Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia) were able to quickly respond to the events in D.C. and do so effectively. Their positions were met with positivity from their stakeholders, and they were cited in media coverage as having responded “as expected.”
  2. Timing mattered: Day three was too late. Companies that didn’t issue statements immediately were called out for their conspicuous absence.
  3. Agility mattered: Many companies started with a statement of support and then days later took more active steps, such as suspending campaign funding, with more explicit calls-for-action.
  4. Channels mattered: Effective responses employed multiple channels for a surround-sound effect.
  5. Language mattered: Strong, personal, emotional language directly citing those responsible and calling for action (e.g., article 25, impeachment, suspending political funding) resonated.

Applying the Learnings

Brands bracing for next week’s inauguration – or looking at best practices in engaging with stakeholders in this evolving landscape – should consider the following:

  1. Agility: Timing is everything. Move with speed and flexibility, whether pausing media spend or preparing statements based on the nuance and context of multiple scenarios.
  2. Alignment: Stay true to your organization’s purpose and values as your North Star. Resist the assumption / foregone conclusion that all organizations must issue a statement. Any statement or action should only be considered if it aligns with the organization’s purpose, values or history of social activism.
  3. Authenticity: If you do respond, make it authentic and plausible. Be empathetic and sensitive to the tone, nuance and context of the moment. Recognize that your organizational “truth” and language isn’t that of stakeholders.
  4. Action: Listen to and act on what stakeholders are telling you. Make it a dialogue not a monologue – engage your stakeholders. Your response needs to be more than a passive, non-comital “soft stance.” It needs to focus on explicit calls to action. In the healthcare industry, many companies took real, decisive action by suspending political funding and stakeholders lauded the move.

Our democracy faced an important test last week, and many companies responded in ways that showed them as human, authentic and credible. 2021 will be a year where we will continue to face new and unique challenges, giving us more opportunities as companies and brands to show up as the leaders we want our stakeholders to know us as.

With contributions from Alan Chumley, Chuck Hemann, Katy Hagert, Stephen Yoon, Marianne Gollub, Elisabeth Bromberg, Eileen O’Brien, and Jennifer Paganelli


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