As we close the book on another year, there are many teachable moments for communications and PR teams around the world. The biggest brands in the world gave us, in equal measure, examples of how to get things right—and terribly wrong. Let’s dive into the highlights from 2023 and the key lessons we’ve learned.
1. Swift + Kelce = The Ultimate Brand Collab
Taylor Swift’s love life has had no shortage of attention over the years. Yet somehow we were caught off guard by her latest power coupling with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
Cynics were quick to jump on the pairing as suspiciously lucrative and all-too mutually beneficial. Swift, who regularly gets wall-to-wall coverage (hello, TIME magazine’s Person of the Year) appeared at Chiefs games and seemingly launched both not just an unlikely power couple but a cultural collision: chart-topping pop icon with Super Bowl champion.
It also did Kelce’s personal branding wonders. The NFL star has since seen a 400 percent sales increase in his branded jerseys, while Chiefs tickets sales skyrocketed, selling more tickets in a single season of the year to date. As Swift began turning up to Chiefs games in support of her new beau, female viewership increased by more than two million, bringing NFL ratings to a peak of 29.4 million viewers and is even boosting the city’s economy.
The lesson: The right brand partnerships, no matter how unlikely, can have considerable impact when they are truly authentic. We’ve seen this before when two brands that you would never imagine collaborating come together, because of a synergy, a shared history, goals or values that align.
Take the recent Skims and NBA, WNBA and U.S.A. Basketball collaboration for example. The Air Jordan brand once transcended the basketball court to become a fashion staple, and ever since there has been a strong connection between fashion and basketball. Skims clearly zeroed in on this insight, using the NBA sponsorship as a moment to launch the brand’s menswear range.
Genuine connections like these are what make a partnership—whether it's a romantic one or otherwise—resonate with consumers and their audience.
2. The Twitter Layoffs
Elon Musk’s feted acquisition of Twitter (now X) had a rocky start in late 2022, with mass layoffs and a management shake-up making headlines. Whilst we all know that Musk is notoriously dismissive of PR (even though he has shown serious communications acumen in the past), the optics of Twitter (now X) soon asking dozens of employees back was simply one of confusion. Musk clearly lost his grip on the narrative.
The lesson: Whether it's 7,000 or just a few, if you are going to make layoffs, take responsibility, show empathy, be accountable and don’t fuel the fire. Layoffs are painful but they can be dealt with compassionately, and should be communicated with candor and transparency to the remaining team, who will be watching closely how their leadership manages the process and supports those who exited. If business leaders miss this crucial step, they risk negatively impacting company culture and upsetting a key stakeholder—their employees. This leads us on to the next lesson quite nicely…
3. The A-Ides of March
For “Succession” fans it was the year for high-stakes boardroom shenanigans. But, away from the fiction, OpenAI gave Kendall and the gang a run for their money after the board’s unceremonious firing of founder and CEO Sam Altman.
Framed at first over Altman’s lack of transparency over communications with Middle Eastern investors, the axing soon morphed into a narrative about his leadership increasing the risk AI posed to humanity. Big themes indeed.
What happened next? Three C-suite executives resigned in protest. Over 700 employees signed a petition for Altman’s reinstatement. Meanwhile, Microsoft (parent company of OpenAI) offered him a job, cementing his position as the scorned, true leader. After a tumultuous few days, Altman was back, and it was the board who said their goodbyes.
The lesson: If you’re going to stage a coup, your comms strategy needs to be airtight. Whatever you do: account for all stakeholders’ viewpoints, ensure full transparent alignment on internal and external messaging, and if your decision is controversial, tell people that you get it. Instead, the board’s lack of conviction and opaque communications created a vacuum. Altman could then seize the narrative while using social media to display, by contrast, his openness, humility and good-humored nature. After all, what kind of leader would you want?
Christine Reilly is SVP at Clarity, a global digital marketing and communications agency.