Red Havas Global PR Boss James Wright Reveals How Big US Brands Grappled With 2020

Red Havas Global PR Boss James Wright Reveals How Big US Brands Grappled With 2020
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Havas PR global collective and global CEO of Red Havas, Aussie James Wright (main photo), recently returned to Australia and chatted to leading comms professionals at an event hosted by freelancing contract site Commtract. Check out his words of wisdom below…

James Wright helped pilot some of the world’s biggest brands through the PR maelstrom that was the United States in 2020: from the pandemic to the murder of George Floyd, to the most contentious Presidential election in living memory.

So, we were honoured to introduce him to some of Australia’s leading corporate affairs and comms professionals last week at our latest boardroom briefing, facilitated by Vanessa Liell, chief executive of Commtract.

Wright, who is global chairman of the Havas PR global collective and global CEO of Red Havas, was briefly back in Australia from his base in New York City, and joined us at Havas’ Sydney office to share his unique insights into US and global trends in communication.

We were fascinated to hear the role that America’s corporate and brand communications functions had played in the response to COVID; and how they had navigated contentious social issues in a nation at its most divided since the US Civil War.

With huge thanks to James and those who participated, here is just some of the gold we came away with, with one of James’ biggest comms tips at the end…

CORPORATE AMERICA STEPPED UP ON COVID AND GAINED TRUST

By the time COVID had really hit the US economy in late April 2020, its people had been served up wildly divergent narratives about the virus by different States, Mayors, the Federal Government and the President himself.

At the same time, the increasingly tribal and fragmented American mainstream media, reflecting and stoking the political split in the electorate, presented starkly differing views on Coronavirus, its gravity and how the country should best respond.

That is before you even consider the vortex of conspiracy thinking proliferating on social media.

In Wright’s view, therefore: “It was corporate America that stepped up to the table deliver consistent messages around the pandemic.” Businesses, he said, were very clear that COVID was a health issue, not a political one.

That built trust with employees, even those who might have haboured strange ideas about the pandemic. “This is a generalisation but if you speak to someone on a one-to-one level [about COVID], they get it, but if you speak to people in a group situation, they become super tribal,” Wight said..

“Equally if you are a warehouse manager with frontline workers delivering food packages, and I speak to you as a manager, you are going to be all over the safety protocols – even if at home and in the bar you are a staunch Republican. You tow the line at work, and you actually know it is sensible to have mandatory mask wearing.”

The result of these kind of internal comms when managed well? “There was a positive impact on employees who could say ‘my business is actually trying to do the right thing here’.”

OWN-BRANDED NEWS CHANNELS HAD A QUANTUM LEAP

It was not just through internal comms that businesses took a lead on health messaging as the realisation grew that brands with vast online communities are increasingly becoming news brands themselves in a world of ever-more fragmented media channels.

“Coca-Cola America and Nike America have more Facebook followers than The New York Times,” notes James. “They can use their own channels to deliver those health messages – and a lot of big brands did.”

For about three months some brands, including Coca-Cola America, decided to put no brand comms out at all and instead presented simple messages around social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.

When they did it consistently well, and backed their words with actions, they built trust with the public.

Wright adds that in the last six months brands have been embracing social channels more than ever, with many using the opportunity to to gaze into the future to say: “We need to make changes, let’s make them now.”

He added: “It is becoming more of a strategic play in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) in how companies play a role not just in the pandemic but also at a local level to champion issues to their employees and the community in which they operate.”

Wright predicts the focus will return to sustainability and climate change as vaccine rollouts put a dent in the pandemic.

BRANDS FACED HUGE PRESSURE TO TAKE ACTION ON SOCIAL ISSSUES

The diverse nature of US opinion came to a crescendo going into the election in November. Wrights said that guiding clients through that period was especially challenging.

The same was true in May following the murder of George Floyd. After the hugely controversial incident it became increasingly clear in media circles that if brands did not take a clear position on an issue like racism in America then they would be seen in effect to be advocating that such things were okay.

Wright: “You need to know who your stakeholders are and what their expectation of you is, that’s where you start from. There was a lot of pressure, primarily from internal stakeholders and this is where I think there was a big switch in the US whereby internal stakeholders became as important as external stakeholders.”

There has been unprecedented pressure too surrounding the concept of “purpose”. “In the past decade we have a lot talked about ‘purpose beyond profit’ but that was properly tested in the last nine to 10 months when you had to really stand up and say, ‘we are no longer just about pledges we are about action and we want to see actual action’,” he said.

PR AND COMMS GOT A SEAT AT THE TOP TABLE

With brand reputations under the spotlight on the pandemic and social issues, and with the ever-present threat (for some corporates) of a sales and share price drop resulting from a rogue Presidential Tweet, CEOs turned to their communications professionals and PR advisors for counsel like never before.

“All our of clients were very concerned about where to go and in a way that really elevated the PR and comms functions,” he said. “You had the ear of the CEO, who wanted to know best advice to make smart calls, so we weren’t as impacted as other disciplines (such as marketing, by the economic impact of COVD).”

LEADERS BUILT TRUST BY ADMITTING “I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER”

“As leaders we are all hard-wired to have the answer,” said Wright, who oversees 1300 consultants across 40 offices worldwide in his role as global chairman of the Havas PR Global Collective.

“There was an acceptance when COVID hit that we didn’t have all the answers and that acceptance did build trust in a few ways.”

The message that “we don’t know but we will figure it out and we will figure it out together” resonated with employees, and it is one that James says he reminds comms professionals and executives regularly.

“The fact is,” he said, “some days you will get it wrong, and you’ve just got to back yourself.”

 

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