Communicators require the wisdom of Solomon not the crowd

By Adam Powell.

At first glance, the comms response for corporate comms leaders should be easy. Give the general public (which includes customers) what they demand: condemn Russia and #StandWithUkraine. But the reality is complex and rife with risk. For some, almost three weeks since the Russian invasion, silence is still the order of the day. It is not what they want, but it is a consequence of what looks easy being far from simple in reality. And we need to resist rushing to judgement.

Employee safety comes first – in Russia, as well as in Ukraine. Comms must not jeopardise that. There may be physical assets, supply chains, partners, commercial relationships, and contractual obligations – to consider. Plus a growing list of international sanctions to comply with. And now, increasingly, threats from Russia to jail spreaders of ‘fake news’ and to seize the operations of companies which leave as well as injunct Russia-based business leaders of western businesses.

And yet while social media campaigns are waged against companies who stay silent, what about pharma companies who supply essential medicines? Or agriculture business concerned about global food shortages and rocketing grain prices as Ukraine and Russia – the breadbasket of the world – miss the spring planting season.

How do they make the case in a polarised debate, where nuance is not allowed? What makes it so hard that an awkward and sometimes deafening silence seems the best path?

Ownership can be one reason. The optics of a ‘jewel in the crown’ company taking a different stance counter to the owner’s view is a very live risk. Think China or Saudi Arabia. For others, especially those such as pharma or agriculture, operational sensitivities may be easier in silence, despite a public clamour for comment. Some companies perhaps hope to ride out the news cycle with on-demand lines-to-take prepared and ready.

Yet silence can create its own problems. People will call brands out – with risk of grave reputational damage if seen as ‘as on the wrong side of history’. The longer you stay silent, the harder it is to restart.

    • For those that speak: there are language traps to be wary of. There’s been criticism of using “conflict” and “Ukraine crisis” rather than “war” and “invasion of Ukraine”
    • It is not necessary to name Russia specifically, if this is an important financial or stakeholder consideration. Yet companies are well advised to consider the reputational damage of perceptions of being on the wrong side of history or sitting on the fence.
    • Tactically, companies or individuals can make use of “Pinned Tweets” or Featured LinkedIn posts to showcase a response to the Ukraine war.
    • This can enable business-as-usual posting (with due consideration) to continue whilst demonstrating the company’s prioritisation of the war.

Silence does not mean companies are not acting of course. Many are helping staff, sending aid to Ukraine and its borders, and working with the UNHCR or the Red Cross. There are many articles deconstructing a company’s crisis response. Sometimes they’re correct and the missteps obvious. Often, the real issues remain private despite a rush to judgement. Social media and rolling news are writing the first draft of history on the Ukraine war. Getting on the comms front foot is vital. But words are not always easy – and should never be cheap. Navigating the Ukraine war from a corporate comms perspective will require the wisdom of Solomon rather than the crowd.

Adam Powell is partner at Fourtold, a corporate and advocacy communications consultancy in the UK, Brussels, Germany, and Boston, USA. He helps chief communications officers and directors of multinational business devise and execute strategic comms plans, specialising in complex and contentious areas across financial services, tech, health and food systems. He is also a former national newspaper journalist in the UK, turned issues and policy-comms advisor and social strategist, with a lot of focus on ESG related reputation and advocacy comms. Adam also works with several CEOs on personal branding and executive comms.