Ran Blaer is the founder and CEO of Perceptostrategic reputation management and digital communication agency.
There has never been a neat, clean break between business and geopolitics. As early as the eighteenth century, the American colonies were boycotting British goods, culminating in the Boston Tea Party and paving the way for the settlement of the US. † Rather than simply reacting to events, they have taken increasingly proactive positions and strived to be on the right side of the public debate.
The list of major brands that have taken bold positions in recent years is long. For example, Salesforce threatened with: pull investment in US states considering anti-LGBTQ legislation. Likewise, in Australia, Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, took a public position in support of same-sex marriage. Some top brands also took swift action after then-President Donald Trump’s executive order to temporarily ban refugees in 2017. This is how Starbucks promised to hire 10,000 refugeesand Airbnb promised to reception of displaced persons free are affected by the law.
This trend of companies taking activist positions could be seen as a kind of morale awakening for companies. I think it’s also smart reputation management. More and more brands are attuned to politics and eager to align themselves with the moral compass that is at the core of their customer base. As such, they rightly guard their priceless reputation.
Nevertheless, the pace at which some of the world’s biggest brands have shut down or limited their presence or trade with Russia is seemingly unprecedented. It took less than four days for energy giant BP decide to make a significant investment. There was a real domino effect. Just two weeks later, the list was hundreds longwith a plethora of announcements covering almost every industry imaginable.
What is clear is that everyone is well aware of the central role of perception that goes to the heart of reputation management. Many companies agree that once the winds of public debate blow strongly, speed is of the essence. Once competitors have chosen the moral path, there is no more time to lose. Delay and procrastination can be costly. No one can afford to be considered a ‘copycat’.
In 2016 McKinsey conducted a questionnaire and found that 84% of executives believed that “geopolitical instability will have a significant or very significant impact on global business.” But only 13% had taken steps “to address the risks of geopolitical or domestic political instability.” In the years that followed, the landscape seems to have shifted considerably. I think it’s reasonable to assume that if the study were conducted today, the results would be very different. There has never been a greater awareness of the importance of global trends to corporate perception and the role they play in reputation management.
It’s a shift that I think will stay here. At one time, moralizing and principled attitudes were not seen as appropriate business endeavors. Today, taking positions is critical. Company leaders ignore such decisions at their peril. Any ambitious company must consider the broader geopolitical environment in its strategic planning.
However, safeguarding the company’s reputation in this way is not easy. Joining any fashionable cause will probably be seen as an empty virtue signal. Instead, business leaders must be selective and take principled stances on the issues that reflect their core values and interests.
I’ve seen that a carefully considered attitude, when communicated skillfully, can enhance engagement with key customers, audiences and stakeholders. It calls for quick decision making. Companies cannot afford to lag behind. However, timing is only part of the puzzle. Statements should also be meaningful rather than hyperbolic, and they should be communicated consistently across all available channels. In an unpredictable world, a model of speed and substance enables leaders to take positions that make sense from both moral and business sense.