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How to Respond to Cultural Crises as a Brand

Jun 24, 2022

Okay, writing this post is challenging.

When horrible things happen in the world, it’s easy to feel hopeless, powerless, and despondent. I know I have felt that way too many times in the recent months. 

I cannot tell you how to respond to a cultural crisis as a human or as a brand. What I want to do is provide some thought starters for considering how to respond to these really tough, difficult moments. 

Take what is helpful, leave what isn’t. I would love to hear your thoughts as a brand leader, too. This post is just my perspective. 

There is no right way to respond

On a human level, we need space and grace to let ourselves respond in a human way. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves to even “respond” at all… everyone’s story is different. Our stories shape how we react. Some of us are ready to immediately move to action, while some of us need more time to process and grieve. And of course, every situation and every cultural moment is different. 

When the recent Uvalde mass shooting came on the heels of multiple traumatic mass shootings, I couldn’t even think. I needed space. My brain and body were overwhelmed. I wanted to post something action oriented because that is my usual wiring. But I couldn’t – for myself or my brand. That is okay. 

Engage in ongoing dialogue 

Brands have power and speaking on behalf of a brand in a cultural moment can be meaningful. There is no “playbook” here. In moments outside of a crisis, it’s important to have ongoing dialogue with executive leaders. What do we want to have a voice on? Whose voice gets shared? How do we decide? Who reviews and approves responses? How do we ensure what is shared is genuine and not virtue-signaling? Again, I cannot answer these questions, and they are situational. Having the dialogue already started will make these decisions slightly easier during traumatic times. 

Respond through your values

Your brand values are foundational for your brand voice. If and when you do respond to a cultural crisis, speaking through your values can be an authentic way to show care, and also to prompt action if you choose. Remember this “response” is not one post or statement, it’s an ongoing effort and dialogue. 

If it’s just going to be one statement … I honestly recommend not doing it. It’s performative, and it can be better to wait until you feel it’s truly authentic to your brand and company. Again, this is so nuanced, and you know your brand best. Engage with a diversity of perspectives in this decision-making process who can speak truth and provide critique (ahem, Brand Advisors, a key part of our brand inclusion consulting).

Be personal

While speaking on behalf of a brand has power, it’s also powerful to be personal in the response. I always respect when executives of companies share their own personal experiences. As mentioned above, ensure this is backed up with ongoing conversations. One example of this playing out – a company as a whole can have a commitment to DEI, but we can tell when top leadership has a *personal* commitment to DEI and growth; because that is when powerful, systemic change starts to happen. 

Check your framing

Arguably one of the most traumatic collective crises in our lifetime has been the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have already begun unpacking brands’ responses. Their analysis helps us understand how framing can evade the “structural inequalities and intersecting oppressions.” Be aware of how art, messaging, context and medium frame your content. (PS: We review these elements in our Inclusive Brand Audit!)

Don’t expect to be perfect

If, as a communicator, you’re expecting to release the perfect, polished, authentic statement into the world and only receive pats on the back … time for a reality check! (Ahem, I’ve already said it but, one statement is performative.) 

What if instead of fearing “backlash” or “what if I get it wrong?”, we didn’t expect perfection? What if our brand response to a cultural crisis prompts a really interesting dialogue, we receive some important feedback, and we grow by knowing more and doing better? What a beautiful mindset, versus worrying only about not making a misstep and being paralyzed. Mistakes are to be expected because we are human. Of course, we don’t want a gaping mistake to damage our brand reputation … so that is why we surround ourselves with people and do our best. Ultimately, we need to have grace for ourselves, humility to constantly learn, and be better. 

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How about you? How does your team process these decisions? Do you personally as a brand leader view your role as the voice of your brand? Let us know in the comments >>>

We’d love to hear from you because this is an important, nuanced dialogue. Sharing and learning from each other helps us all grow. 

>>> And, if you’re interested in learning about our Inclusive Brand Audit to grow your brand inclusion, authentically, let’s chat.

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