In our hyper-digital world, companies risk their reputation each time they develop products and campaigns without PR teams participating.
The social media-driven news cycle means even minor missteps can cause immediate backlash, harming brand equity and reputation. So, it’s critical that executives lean on PR to spot red flags during product development and ad-campaign design processes. That's especially so if a company’s products offer a broader social benefit or tie its brand to certain ethical values.
But, as we know, securing PR a seat at the table isn’t easy.
The pandemic has included shifts in several business sectors, landmark racial justice protests, a vicious presidential election, an increasingly blurred line between home and office life and a surge in social media use. Reflecting on these elements should convince C-Suites the status quo is no longer acceptable. Companies need to create extra layers of caution and care before debuting products or ads.
Unfortunately, too often PR focuses on tamping down crises rather than preventing them. And this won’t change unless PR pros engage in tough conversations with C-Suite executives, convincing them PR's role must grow.
Recalling a product because no one saw or spoke up about a potential PR nightmare is the last thing a company needs. Thousands of units must be pulled, ads and marketing reworked. Resignations might be required.
For example, had Pizza Hut put PR at the center of its planning process, it could have prepared for and responded better to jabs from The Wall Street Journal and New York Post about its Detroit-style pizza.
“A lot of people have no clue what that is,” “Pizza What? Pizza Hut’s new ‘Detroit-style’ pizza has some Americans confused,” the publications wrote.
But while failing to prep for pizza-style awareness may be minor, many companies, such as Adidas, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and H&M, have made far graver mistakes. Had their PR teams been involved, they could have intervened before damage occurred.
In addition, organizations need to regularly review products for insensitivities. PR pros should sit in on those discussions. It’s much better for a company, unprompted, to conduct a review and rebrand, or phase out, products than wait for public backlash to force a change.
Once companies start recognizing PR's ability to navigate the media environment and provide insight about which legacy products could pose problems, they have an advantage over competitors. They’re able to protect themselves before a media crisis hits.
Beyond the moral imperative of evolving as a company, running for cover from offensive products taxes brand equity. Defending them forestalls the inevitable. It puts a company on the wrong side of history and gives consumers a moral reason to abandon the brand.
Make the Case
That’s why it’s critical for communicators to make the case to upper management that they should provide a clear-eyed assessment of current and future products, spotting problems before damage results. PR pros should advocate executives:
Give PR a seat at the table early in the process–whether developing products, campaigns, or reviewing existing offerings. It doesn’t work to bring in PR at the end to rubber stamp an idea. PR needs the freedom to nix ideas before they get off the ground, when stakes are low, which will save a company time, money and reputation.
Take special precautions when products carry a social benefit beyond their specific purpose. Even products that don’t inherently promote a social good often carry an ethical component. For example, some specialty coffee companies donate to local charities for each bag of beans sold. Inevitably, the stakes are higher when designing these products. Problems result when shoehorning a public benefit into a near-final product. PR can provide the development team with insight into how reporters and social media likely will view the product and values it seeks to represent–and whether that’s a fruitful path.
Deploy PR during product development to consider potential marketing and press opportunities. PR strategists can suggest tweaks to a product that can make all the difference when securing critical media attention and generating buzz during launch. It’s vital that companies create narratives around products that will catch media attention and resonate with consumers–without risk of public fallout.
It's key that executives know to tread carefully, and rely on communicators to avoid long-term reputational harm. Any surge in initial sales won’t survive a public backlash against a product. Such missteps can carry devastating consequences.
Matthew Beaton is founder of Beaton PR