Andrew HealyAndrew Healy

As with all sectors, the role of the communications function within financial and professional services has gone through a dramatic overhaul in recent years. From the explosion of social media to personalizing and tailoring the way news and content is shared with clients, to implementing a content marketing plan to tell stories in different ways, our industry has almost had to adapt to constant adaptation.

While this has created a mountain of opportunities and allowed our profession to expand its horizons and get a bigger seat at the executive table, it has also presented a flurry of challenges and landmines for brands, one of which has dominated the marketing and communications world this year: the rise of purpose driven communications.

O'Dwyer's Aug. '19 Financial PR/IR & Prof. Svcs. PR Magazine
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Aug. '19 Financial PR/IR & Prof. Svcs. PR Magazine.

When I started my career 15 years ago, a rule of thumb was that financial and professional brands and their executives avoided commenting on social issues as if they were the plague. The downside risk was simply too great for companies to consider. “We’ve never done that before,” was a common response to new ideas in an industry that—especially back then—was extremely slow to try new things.

And perhaps the biggest reason brands were reluctant to be vocal on certain issues was that consumers simply didn’t expect them to have an opinion.

It’s almost quant to think back on it now, but pre-social media, the relationship between consumers and brand was much different than it is today. It was almost understood by consumers that executives at financial institutions were focused on what they were hired to do: grow, lead and run successful operations. No one seemed to care what companies felt about politics, culture or social issues. In fact, commenting on this type of story might even come off as unusual.

How times have changed.

Over the last 10 years, the relationship between companies and their constituents has changed dramatically. Some of this was driven by internal needs, as brands recognized the value of their workforce and saw that having a more human/less rigid culture helped attract and retain top talent.

Social media opened doors to a financial landscape that had previously been almost entirely walled off to the public. And as firms attempted to rehab their image post-Financial Crisis, they adopted a more open and engaging level of interaction which grew over time and changed consumers’ behavior and expectations. Now, firms often get accused of trying to hide and “no commenting” their way out of things, which simply didn’t occur much pre-2008.

While there’s myriad benefits to taking a visible and vocal stance on timely social issues today, brands need to consider a lot of angles and avoid feeling pressured to jump into every conversation taking place. “Woke-washing” is being said left and right these days, rightfully so, and you’d be hard pressed to attend an industry conference and not overhear a discussion about the pros and cons of this.

Through our work with clients and observing the media landscape every day, here’s a few tips on how to navigate these waters:

Be authentic. Consumers have extremely well-honed BS detectors and if companies are seen as jumping on a bandwagon simply to make money, it can have disastrous effects on customer loyalty and future revenue.

Don’t feel pressure to jump into every social conversation. This ties back to authenticity. Brands can’t be all things to all people, so they don’t need to opine on every topic that captures the public’s attention. Spreading yourself too thin can backfire and make people question whether you truly care about something or if it’s just a marketing ploy.

Think long and hard about social issues you want to add your voice to and ask yourself, “Do we deserve to be here?” “Do we have a history we can point people towards to show them we’ve cared about this in the past?” “Does this connect back to our DNA in a way that gives us a chance to share our voice, or are we stretching a bit too far here?”

Embrace internal communications. While securing positive media coverage is a mainstay in all communications strategies, don’t overlook the power that employees have today. A company’s workforce today is more engaged and vocal than ever before. As we’ve seen several times this year, they’re rallying together to spark discussions about key issues within their companies, and in some cases are even working with the C-suite to change certain procedures.

A company’s workforce is the most important thing they have. Don’t overlook this critical audience. Engage and listen to them. 

Many expect to see a course correction in purpose driven communications at some point, which —as with a traditional market correction—is something that’s healthy and can help re-set the stage and balance things out.

It’s important to recognize that many companies are dealing with this on the fly for the first time, so it’s natural to see some misses here and there, and in many cases, companies do actually genuinely support something that goes beyond their traditional set of topics.

But this is a sensitive area that’s only going to become more volatile as time goes on. Consumers are adjusting their expectations of what they want companies to be and say, so it’s a dynamic that’s literally changing by the day.

As with many of the new challenges that have arisen in the communications space over the last several years, companies are experimenting, learning and adjusting their strategy in real time, so progress is being made. And as brands begin to recognize the advantages and risks inherent with engaging in these kinds of conversations, they’re forcing themselves into thinking more strategically about the best course forward.

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Andrew Healy is a co-Founding Partner at Water & Wall Group, an integrated marketing and communications agency supporting financial and professional brands.