Simon Webb
Mar 23, 2022

Should we stay or should we go? Five principles for brands when conflict arises

Brands must start by running through a checklist of questions related to how the emergence of the conflict impacts their ability to operate in market, says a VP at Ogilvy PR.

Many global brands have stopped or severely curtailed their Russian operations.
Many global brands have stopped or severely curtailed their Russian operations.

As we see wave upon wave of international businesses decide to leave the Russian marketor in the case of some, justify their decision to stay—it is perhaps not surprising that brands are looking to understand how they can, in a systematic way, understand and evaluate the choice they face.

(It is worth noting at this point, that Ogilvy’s owner WPP has taken the decision to discontinue our operations in Russia, as have many of our peer holding companies.)

Should I stay or should I go?

So how then are brands to approach decisions like these? Brands must start by running through a five-stage checklist of questions related to how the emergence of the conflict impacts their ability to operate in market. These key principles are, in order:

  • Safety
  • Legal compliance
  • Values alignment
  • Supply chain integrity
  • Reputational impact

We should note that while reputational impact may be the last item on the checklist, this does not mean that crisis communicators are anything other than central to the decision-making process. We have worked with several brands in the last 12 months that have had to make decisions on these sorts of matters, in Russia and elsewhere. As crisis advisors we are usually—and most successfully—brought in upstream, when brands are still determining their position and want to have a crisis and reputation advisor at the table. 

The first place you must start is with the safety of your employees in the country and that of your customers. For example, when a 2021 coup saw the Myanmar military seize power in the country, and, in ensuing violence, kill over 1,400 civilian protesters and bystanders, many international businesses saw fit to re-evaluate their presence there.

Assuming that you can meet all reasonable security concerns, you then ladder down to considerations like, can we be in business in the country while complying with local and international laws? And does operating a business in the current environment align with what we stand for as an organization?

Think here about the decisions that news-media companies recently had to make about reporting from Russia. Recent changes in legislation made it impossible for media companies like Bloomberg, the New York Times and the BBC to report from the country while complying with draconian new propaganda laws, even while pulling out of the country would have been an affront to their journalistic values. 

If these criteria can be met, you then start to focus on more practical concerns like whether you can secure your supply chain and what the reputational impact of being in business there will be. This is where much attention has been focused recently in Russia. Closely coordinated sanctions have disrupted many businesses’ access to components or finished products, making it practically impossible to remain in operation. In many other cases we see clear evidence of reputational considerations driving the decision to leave.

And, of course, the decision to leave has many critical impacts to employees and business partners to whom brands owe a clear responsibility.

These are not easy decisions, and it is naive to think that they are clear cut or can be answered quickly.  

So, you’re leaving, what next?

Having reached their decision, brands need to plan for how they communicate and defend that decision to all their stakeholders internally and externally. 

Brands must communicate inside-out on these matters. Staff first, customers and clients immediately afterwards and then more broadly as the situation dictates to your government regulators and other stakeholders, business partners and if necessary to the public at large. There is a balance to be struck between having a fully developed plan (which takes time to prepare) that can be shared in detail to those whose lives and livelihoods are about to be disrupted and giving those affected early and interim updates. 

A brand that has reached its decision by following the steps above will be well placed to communicate—and importantly to justify—its decision to audiences both internal and external as it will have arrived at that decision based on an interrogation of its corporate values.

When it comes to ‘taking sides’, brands need to know who they stand with and what they stand for. But that is very different from gratuitously causing offence and injecting yourself into an issue where you have little standing. 

Are you buying a one-way ticket?

Deciding to return to a market is a difficult and important question. You start by running through the same checklist that will have seen you leave in the first place: is it safe? Is it legal? Is it aligned with our values? Can we secure our access to inventory? Will there be an impact to our reputation? You also must try and forecast a little through the medium term to understand what the likely trajectory is in relation to answers to all of these questions. 

A brand re-entering a market may find there are more communications hurdles around credibility and fences to mend than entering a market for the first time. But nothing that would be insuperable with patience and a good plan. 


Simon Webb is a senior vice president at Ogilvy PR.

 

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