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How should businesses respond to global crises?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has sent shockwaves across the world. Whilst many countries have announced aid and support for Ukrainians affected by the conflict, brands have also stepped forward with their own responses and reactions.

However, some brands have suffered reputational damage due to their responses, or lack thereof, for a multitude of reasons. But what is the cause of this? Data from our recent study, regarding brand reactions to Ukraine, has provided insightful findings on how their responses to the crisis impacted their reputations.

Listen to the wider discourse

Crises often emerge out of nowhere, making them difficult to plan ahead for. For this reason, it’s important for the first course of action to involve listening to what’s being said about the crisis by other brands and the public.

Information is key to crafting responses so all the information acquirable should be used to construct a worthy response. Digital listening is an incredibly useful tool for this (tracking online content and conversation), as it can encapsulate all opinions and topics of discussion, which can then be filtered through to understand what’s happening and what relevance it has to the brand.

Once all the relevant information has been understood, then brands can work on how to issue a response that reflects the stance the business will take.

Respond decisively

Based on the findings from the Ukraine study, it’s clear that one of the deciding factors in how well brand reputation fares in a crisis is speed of response. Ensuring that the response time is short and swift boosts the chance of positive recognition from both the media and the public. Not only does this make the stance of the brand clear, but it also presents the response itself as genuine.

Applied specifically to the Ukraine conflict, the study found that the brands that failed to do this were accused of following by example, as they’d put out their statements or actions after other brands had released their own.

Those with the lowest approval rating were either slow to react, closely associated with the Russian state or (in the public’s view) had put business need ahead of humanitarian concerns.

This creates a difficult scenario for brands wanting to respond to a world crisis, as they do need to listen to discussion surrounding it, but also take care to avoid the perception that they’re simply saving face and mimicking other brands. To navigate this issue, transparency is key, issuing decisive messages that reflect the honest opinion of the brand, expressed in a way that lines up with its key messages and values as a business.

Swift and decisive action, at the right time in the news cycle, had a greater impact than the ultimate decisions companies made, however there are exceptions to this. For example, Nestle was one brand which didn’t suspend activities in Russia, and yet scored highly. Its decision to suspend non-essential brands whilst still providing essential products such as infant food was respected by the public.

Microsoft was a similar story with its actions in raising funds for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, plus added support to protect against cyber-attacks was seen as making a positive contribution.

Why brands should respond to world crises

Whilst some would argue that brands have no reason to participate in societal discourse, especially world crises, from a business standpoint, it’s vital that their stance is known to their target audience. For example, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are two global brands that operate their business worldwide, including Russia.

Their response to Russia’s actions was to pause their businesses and they did this quickly, within ten days of the invasion of Ukraine. Because of this they received praise from the media and the public, and a reputation boost.

Brands can learn a lot from this. In today’s interconnected global society, if major brands like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola had silently taken action, or didn’t take action at all, their position in the discourse would be unclear, something potentially detrimental to their reputation amongst their target markets.

So, how should they respond?

Although the nature of response will change based on the situation, the important factors for brands to consider are always what the key arguments are and what their business can contribute to the discourse.

It’s also important to create a clear set of values for the brand to follow. These should be non-negotiable and apply across all aspects of operations, whilst reflecting the values of those who make up the company in a true and authentic way. This should build a firm foundation of character for the brand, which can then be used by leadership teams to make the proper judgement calls in a world crisis.

In addition to this, listening to stakeholders is also vital. Understanding the expectations placed on a brand by consumers and business partners will make decision making easier, as the brand will already know what’s expected of them.

Ultimately, it’s important to ensure that a response is given in a clear and decisive way that genuinely reflects the brand’s stance on the matter. This promotes honesty and transparency, traits sought after and appreciated by the public.

Written by Steve Leigh, managing director at research firm Sensu Insight

Key findings from the study will soon be published in PRmoment’s research section

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