Current global issues such as diversity and inclusion, COVID-19 and presidential elections have triggered brands to take a stand. These crises have brought a democratisation of communication in how brands can involve their audience so that they also have a say.
Global issues have placed the spotlight on brand value and brand purpose to break down barriers of uncomfortableness and communicate differently with their customers. This new focus applies both to external and internal communication. In this session at the Event Planners Talk e-conference in Bern on 30 August with Dagmar Mackett, Global Development Director DRPG, we discussed some recent examples of the trends shaping our society and how these trends translate to internal and external brand communication and events. We examined cases of ‘brave’ brands who are being vocal about communicating their values, purpose and showcasing authenticity.
What has trigged brands to become vocal and engage with social causes?
According to Dagmar, ‘Brands have begun to listen to their audiences. The social causes have become increasingly important. Think about the target audiences today; the main audiences, if we are looking at generations, are, in fact, increasingly the millennials and generation z. The large majority of the workers now are millennials, and generation z is pushing in. Their expectations when looking at an employer are different from what expectations were in the previous generation. They want to know what companies are willing and able to give back to the community that they operate in. And the community can be local, national or global.’
‘Social media were a massive trigger in the way expectations were changed. Social media are always there; they are global at any point, and they communicate and highlight certain key issues. So, brands can’t run away from these issues. These new generations of employees want to know: so, brand X, ‘if I work for you, what is your position on this particular social issue’, and brands must react to that. They want to be attractive as an employer and attract the best talent.’
‘Out of necessity, we suddenly saw a merge of genuine understanding. Brands increasingly realise what value they have to bring to the table, and they understand their purpose in the larger context of society. It was a development we’ve seen over the past few years, and it’s gone to the point that brands have to proactively communicate their values and purpose. If you want to do it, you have to be a lot more courageous about the way you do it, and that’s certainly what we’ve seen this year, in particular, because sometimes it takes a crisis to bring it to the fore.’
What are the social issues that brands must address?
‘The first really big one that we’ve seen in the last few years is climate change. Of course, that affects many brands directly because it could be affecting their production. So, people had to make a stand and demonstrate how they are sustainable as a brand. Sustainability is a key topic. And the great thing about sustainability is that you can’t check that; you can ask the company to demonstrate it, and the government is doing that in the UK, for instance.’
‘Coronavirus was another big thing. A lot of brands said “No one expected that—it’s a terrible thing for both societies and companies. So, what as a company do I do to ensure that my employees are safe and don’t lose their jobs.” Many companies were put to the test, and a substantial number of them stated that they were ethical and acting with the right moral motivation, but actually what we saw them do does not correspond to what they communicated. Social media almost works as checks and balances because you can easily detect whether or not someone is telling the truth.’
‘Black Lives Matter was the next big topic where some brands said, “we are gonna keep out of it, we don’t want to comment on it because we don’t want to offend anybody”; that didn’t go down very well. I think there was an expectation that brands need to take a stance.
Are there any differences in how brands should communicate on global issues when they communicate internally and externally, and do both internal and external messages need to be aligned?
‘Absolutely. I remember a time when external comms would do one thing, and then internal comms would say something completely different to their employees. I don’t think that was ever helpful. But now, how we communicate has made very clear that as a company, you need to send the same message out internally and externally. You must never forget that your employees are your best brand ambassadors. Communicate with them first, make sure they understand your position on a particular topic, and then you take it out. And they are your brand ambassadors and can go out and amplify what you said.’
‘The message that our own CEO, Dale Parmenter, communicates internally first, is the same as externally and I think it’s absolutely important. More and more brands understand that, and there’s no going away from that anymore.’
Internal communication has become more personal. During the first lockdown, there were issues of mental health, and there were CEOs, also in the events industry, who were very open about how they dealt with it and the isolation. What do you think about becoming more personal with communication? Does it show vulnerability? Can you as a CEO, a strong brand, talk about struggling with mental health?
‘We are now seeing a democratisation of communication—externally and internally. If you then add to it, and social media contributed to that, there’s the need to communicate consistently across internal and external audiences. One can also observe a real drive towards transparency and authenticity. I think those are the key terms. It also means that the senior leadership of a company needs to be more visible. In the past, we had “from-the-top-down” communication, and most audiences were quite happy with that or were accepting of that. But these days are gone. We’re seeing more levelling of communication; so, we need senior management to be more visible and authentic about their own experiences. Actually, those companies where we see that have a higher satisfaction level when it comes to employees, who feel more proud to be working for such an organisation.’
‘I will provide two examples of companies we work with. One is Jaguar Land Rover. They realised three years ago that they’d lost a lot of working hours in the year through employees being off work due to mental health-related issues. They looked at the systems they had in place to support their employees, and there weren’t enough there. What also wasn’t there was communication to reach out to those employees, “if you need help, we are here for you.” One part of the campaign we worked with them on was called “let’s have the conversation”; we created a series of films with real employees suffering from mental health issues, and they spoke very openly and honestly; that was communicated internally, and it was very well received.’
‘Another example is Lloyds Banking Group, where it was hugely important to the current CEO António Horta-Osório to explain to his employee base and customers that he himself suffered from mental health issues. The company’s credibility benefited substantially from that because it was the CEO who stepped in front of the camera and told everybody about his own experience. It was highly authentic and very believable. That’s the key.’
Do you feel that in the light of authenticity, brands should allow their employees to be more open brand communicators rather than stating that everything they post is ‘personal views’?
‘There’s a bit of a balance to strike there. I think absolutely. If you are being seen as a company to sensor opinion that doesn’t reflect positively, but if you conduct your internal communications in a certain way, and you do it openly and honestly, then you would get this effect of employees being open brand communicators pretty much automatically. I’ve seen this with a number of brands where this highly authentic internal communication happened, and the employees then went out and communicated that on, without having to say, “that’s my personal view.” They got properly engaged in a valuable debate. I think, do your internal comms right and transparently, and you would create this very open brand communication platform automatically.’
Why do you think some companies are cautious, whereas others are highly vocal?
‘I think some of this relates to experience and tradition. Not everybody is used to it. We are now seeing companies that are quite openly saying, “We’ve never done this, we don’t know how to do this, but we are going to try anyway”.’
‘I have an example of Salvation Army Switzerland. When you think about the Salvation Army, they are traditional in the way they communicate. The Swiss Salvation Army realised that they were not reaching modern audiences anymore, and they changed the way they communicated quite dramatically. They put a lot of trust in the agency they worked with who recommended they change their approach completely, and it paid off.’
‘I think it’s a learning process, like a lot of things. Being brave is not something that comes easily to everybody. I think once we’ve taken the plunge, you will realise the benefits and never look back. Master up the courage, and give it a go. Also, have a look at what’s happening around you, and take some lessons from that. I think it’s a learning process—we need to give credit to those who are trying to learn and adapt, and we need to be a little bit patient with them. For me, the key thing is that there are still companies that are not even trying, and they are ultimately the ones that will be left behind.’
Do you think it’s better to engage an expert or a communication/event agency to support organisations with internal communication around these issues?
‘When you come to a good event agency, they do more than just facilitate an event, but they advise you on those topics as well. If that’s not the case, you need both. As a communicator, you need to examine the entire picture. It’s pointless to see just a small corner of communications; you need to see the bigger picture. Any events that you do should be a reflection of your communication, whether it’s about social issues, internal issues or change. A lot of internal events that we are doing at the moment are all about change and communication. And I think you can’t ever do that without being aware of the bigger strategy picture behind it.’
What’s the best medium for a brand to communicate its purpose, values and showcase authenticity?
‘It’s a mix of all of these factors, but the key thing is consistency. We’ve seen this, for example, with Black Lives Matter. Some companies were jumping on the band waggon; they hadn’t spoken about the topic before, and frankly, that doesn’t come across as particularly credible. Our audiences these days are rather clued up, and they see right through that. And you can do more damage to your brand than you can do good. I think that the thing with consistency is it is something that the company feels very strongly about and being very consistent in the messaging across all platforms. And events, of course, are hugely important in that context.’
‘Obviously, physical events are hard to do. So, we are seeing a significant number of virtual, and increasingly, hybrid events. There’s no problem showing that consistency and communicating those messages at your internal or external events. I think you need to be consistent, and you require evidence to prove it. Personal experience from top leadership is critical, and so is storytelling. Pick out individuals who work for you, and let them tell their stories and share their views on that topic. That approach makes you more credible as a brand.’
How does this translate to events? How can brands translate their brand purpose and values to an event, and how they can do it for an online event?
‘Online events, in some respects, are not that different from live events. You don’t have that real experience from sitting in the room—that’s the element you are losing at the moment, but you can still provide that brand feel through online events. We are currently doing more studio-based virtual events. In the studio, we have presenters from the company, and you can bring in the audience in different ways.’
‘So, first of all, how do you transport the value message internally? It’s not just that one event that does that; it’s the consistency across all your communication channels that is being reflected in your event. You can bring in people live talking to your audience and can also have a number of pre-recordings and tell little stories. I think storytelling during the pandemic has become vital. When you have an online event, you tell the story of what has been going on around your company by showing little films you may have created, showcasing employees. You can bring your audience in. I think it’s really important to involve your audience through the ability to ask questions via polling.’
‘As an industry, we’ve proven resilient. The events industry has been hit particularly hard by coronavirus, but we’ve seen on the positive side a good level of resilience, creativity and flexibility. And we’ve developed solutions. As long as you are consistent across all channels with the messaging, communicating your values and brand purpose through an event should not be difficult.’
There’s a pressure to be ‘called out’. Can you talk about being authentic vs jumping on trends?
‘If, as a corporate communicator, you believe that it’s an important topic and as a company you believe in that, and it reflects your values, you need to start somewhere. But you must do your research properly. We are now seeing more companies invest in research and insights. Analysing your audience base, competitor base and the topics and how they are being discussed and sharing your strategy around that are all important.’
‘Know your facts, your audience, and align that knowledge with your values. There is no point in jumping on the band wagon of something if it doesn’t fit your values. Your company values have to align with that topic really well.’
‘Then, it’s about consistency. If the company is suddenly coming out with a message that the audience doesn’t understand because the company never took that stance previously, it will be called out.’
Sometimes, you get brands where you haven’t necessarily expect this. For example, Ben & Jerry’s, who addressed the refugee crisis with the campaign ‘Cone together’. ‘This message came across as highly authentic because they had done their background research, and their arguments were particularly well thought through. One aspect you really need to think about is that they didn’t have to do this. They sell ice cream. They didn’t have to take a stand in order to sell ice cream. They did it anyway. So, I think by the pure nature of it and the highly considered argument they put forward, they came across as extremely authentic.’
We are currently seeing a democratisation of communication. So, how can brands involve their audience so they also have a say?
‘On an internal level, we’re seeing this approach on the event side of things. Because companies can’t meet in person, more virtual events are being held. Companies are now doing this on a regular basis. There are certain ways of involving your audience; if they know that your internal event is a regular thing, you can prepare accordingly. You can encourage them to submit ideas for topics, questions, and once the event is live, you can encourage them to submit live questions. There are ways to involve your audience so they don’t feel left behind, and an increased level of communication internally through online events can, therefore, now be observed.’
‘There are also internal social channels, which many companies now have. You should ensure that the right comms mix is in place that allows your internal audience to regularly communicate, and internal virtual events are part of that. The more you have this homogeneous mix of different comms platforms internally, the more engagement you get.’
‘That also works for the external audiences. What we’ve seen is the change in ways companies communicate externally, whereas the craze of feeding sometimes meaningless snippets on social media (a 10-second video clip, for example)—we’ve moved away from that. We can now see more meaningful communication with the external audiences, whereby companies are putting out more meaningful, longer messages. Rather than doing 15–30 second clips, we’re seeing 6–8 minute films again.’
Do you think all events should ‘pivot’ to virtual to be consistent in comms, or do you think other comms are just as effective?
‘I think we are all missing live events. Although they are not possible at the moment in the way we used to love them, I think we want to carry on with events. I feel that you cannot substitute live events. Virtual events are now common because they are the only option. Moving forward, I suspect that we will increasingly see a mixture of virtual and real events—a hybrid. For me, it’s important that you’ve got the right communication mix, and events are an integral part of that. We’re even seeing more requests right now because people are desperate to communicate face to face again. Good virtual events with a level of creativity and interactivity (rather than old-style webinars where somebody just talks at you) are most likely here to stay because we’ve always had audiences who were difficult to include due to them not being able (or being unwilling) to travel for whatever reason. Now, we’ve suddenly found a good way to include them. There will always be an element of virtual events now because we’ve realised how to do them and how to do them well. I think that once there’s a vaccine for COVID-19 and once people find it’s safe again to hold face-to-face events, they will return. My personal prediction is that we will see more big live events where’s there’s always a virtual element now. I think it’s a good thing, and in the long run, a substantial amount of creativity will emerge from this industry regarding how to make events on the ground really exciting but considering the virtual element as well. In my view, that’s a highly positive development.’