Business Reputation in Time of War
Proving their fortitude, Ukrainian companies are rebuilding their activities every minute in real-time
Any conversation about reputation in business typically boils down to the degree of correspondence between the words spoken on behalf of a company and the actions it takes. On the long term, the closer the alignment between a company’s words and deeds, the greater the prospect that its reputation will grow.
In this post-truth era, exacerbated by the technological revolution, a rather large divergence between a company’s declared intentions and its actual behaviour has become socially acceptable. Only certain information consumers are prepared to spend time on in-depth fact-checking unless they have a personal, usually material, interest in doing so. This was especially true during the pandemic, when humanity was walking blindly and with completeuncertainty through the darkness. However, we seem now to have reached a turning point in this societal complacency, at least in the business world, as tolerance for eloquent cover-ups for is plummeting.
Since 24 February 2022, all economic sectors and businesses have been “stress tested.” This notion is derived from the conceptual apparatus of theoretical mechanics and refers to the ability of an object to withstand the application of an external force. Proving their fortitude, Ukrainian companies are rebuilding their activities every minute in real-time by adapting to unavoidable changes and planning ahead.
Reputation management strategy is also changing in sync with the business approach and in response to the challenges of wartime. In fact, the entire reputation management system has become more ‘anti-crisis’ and reoriented to counter two critical threats:
- physical destruction (loss of property, loss of personnel, disruption of supply chain, and other breaches of business process);
- mental destabilization (destructive attitudes and actions of business leaders, employees, partners, and consumers).
Most companies have suffered significantly both in terms of a loss of fixed assets and a decrease in sales volumes. They are now faced with concerns not so much around promoting a business product as of survival, preservation of financial capacity, and continuation of business activities. Also, many large corporations have been affected by a wave of public anger and government restrictions on their activities, such as the threat of state sanctions and public opprobrium in response to any manifestations of “Russianness”.
In response to today’s challenges, businesses are focused on salvaging/relocating capacity that can be saved or restored, including moving key employees, and assisting them with shelter, re-adjustment, and material support. Supply chains are being reformatted due to issues with production space and changes in the operational geography. Companies are replacing lost demand by expanding their areas of business activity and satisfying ‘new demand’ – new product offers oriented to the specific needs of people in a conflict environment, and particularly to the needs of Ukrainians abroad. Those who have connections with the aggressor country in one way or another, depending on the global strategy of the headquarters, distance themselves from it and prove their patriotism through social initiatives. Meanwhile reputation management continues, albeit in the context of frozen strategic PR projects and slimmed down of budgets, although the impact of this is less notable in the information field as it is in practical actions.
The most visible reputational activities today are naturally found in industries where a decent level of business activity has been preserved. Of course, the Ukrainian economy now resembles a puzzle with fragments burned with napalm – heavy industry is destroyed, depleted, or working purely for defence, and the most sought-after product categories are FMCG goods, medicines, fuel, electricity, communications, logistics services, banking retail, and IT services. Business activity is therefore understandably concentrated in critical infrastructure, the digital economy, and meeting the population’s basic survival needs (B2C).
At the same time, the public expects SIGNIFICANTLY increased social responsibility from a business. It is no longer enough just to offer conscientious work and traditional CSR/ESG activities, but fully-fledged corporate citizenship. Therefore, businesses are simultaneously solving the issue of their own preservation and development while also helping to save the country.
As a result, regardless of the economic sector in which it operates, the current priorities of reputation management in a company are as follows:corporate-wide PR — to confirm that the business continues to function and has development prospects:
- corporate-wide PR — to confirm that the business continues to function and has development prospects;
- product PR — to support demand for a traditional business product (if possible) and raise interest in products for which “new demand” has to be formed;
- GR — to offer commitment to national interests and a readiness to support the state;
- IR — to give trustworthy messages to the investment community regarding the competitiveness and anti-crisis stability of the business and its ability to participate in post-war reconstruction programs;
- personal branding of public businesspeople – following the personal goals of their life project (there is an overall decrease in activity in this direction);
- internal PR — to conserve the key team, maintain the image of the employer, and save the mental health of the employees;
- CSR/ESG — to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine and humanitarian programs; search for foreign financial donors to help the country; restoring destroyed infrastructure; and, corporate volunteering.
At the message box level, this means that Ukrainian companies with effective reputation management systems assert “We are alive!” at the strategic level. That is, “We work, help the country, have plans for the future, worry about people, invent new things, appeal to the international community on behalf of the national interest, and are heard.” And secondly, at the operational level, they explain that business is being conducted under conditions offorce majeure, “We are working almost beyond belief; not everything can be as it would be in peacetime, but we do not use the war to justify irreversible violations. Such an approach means that the hypocrisy of the so-called “new sincerity” is out of favour, and sincerity in the classical sense of the word, stripped of unnecessary and convoluted political correctness, has been restored.
The moment of truth has come – deeds have become more important than words, and they are the most effective PR tool, especially considering the media landscape has changed completely. Most of the mass media is struggling to survive and does not show a desire to cover even the most wonderful projects of corporate newsmakers. Therefore, you should paddle your own canoe and rely on owned media and various digital formats (your own representations in social media with accompanying promotional support, messengers, working online mass media). Even companies that previously gave no thought whatsoever to mobile applications are now creating them or considering doing so. All of this means new requirements for the qualifications and range of tasks required of a PR professional.
Humanity and Professionalism
Whatever the capabilities of the artificial intelligence are, it is unlikely that it will quickly master multidimensional reputation management skills, especially considering the reality of a country like Ukraine. Meanwhile, PR professionals of flesh and blood and with access to GPT-chat and similar systems can work marvels.
Heads of PR teams recall the half-forgotten skills of working without budgets and protecting the PR functions in the face senior management and beneficiaries, who try to ‘cut’ reputational activities during any significant crisis. In conditions when so many people are unable to meet even the basic needs of life, heroic PR directors save their subordinates from dismissal or depression, allowing them to shed tears of despair during video conferences while simultaneously trying to maintain the ability to think rationally. Humanity, the ability to keep strategic and tactical priorities in sight, and superhuman patience are the three ingredients of successful management of PR teams today.
In terms of professional requirements, the situation is the same for both PR managers and team members. There is no one to rely on anymore, and there are no templates – the time has come for handmade PR. Furthermore, effort is not permanently transformed into material reward. When society expects increased social responsibility from a business, the business expects the same from its employees including additional pro bono duties and no right to a digital detox without work gadgets.
Light is Ahead
It is still too early to draw conclusions or discuss lessons learned from this tragic moment in time. Stress tests are ongoing. However, people frequently ask me what reputation management will look like in the post-war era, and I say with confidence that it will be more technological in that it will increasingly use the capabilities of neural networks and artificial intelligence. Secondly, its leitmotif under any conditions will be reconstruction, in which Ukrainian companies, transnational corporations, international organizations, and donor countries will participate, and each of them will broadcast their vision, messages, and themes in the information space. Thirdly, and more pessimistically, we will face a new dimension of crisis communication related to the non-economic redistribution of property. Many will be tempted to reformat the markets and assets in the country, using wartime events as a pretext and making accusations. This will cast a shadow over the positive changes that have taken place in society in terms of cohesion, self- organization, devotion to high ideals, and self-sacrifice.
For this reason, we should start installing ‘fuses’ today – whoever knows about the danger is ready for it. It is impossible to give a talking-to to every kleptocrat or unscrupulous person in business now while all ideas pertaining to post-war Ukraine are at an embryonic stage and unrealizable for now, but we can always keep in mind red lines that no one will be permitted to cross.
In light of the tragedy that currently befalls us, the world is beginning to perceive Ukraine as a courageous, trustworthy, and ingenious country. This regard has been gained at a terrible price, so the task upon us all is to maintain this perception as weapons supplies and financial support from partner countries depends upon it. And if we are able to preserve the reputation of our state after the victory, we will have good reason to look into the future more confidently.
10 Tips for Reputation Management During Wartime
- A working business saves jobs, pays taxes, and is worthy of respect per se.
- Corporate social responsibility measures must correspond to the scale of business and society’s expectations.
- Real help and cooperation with actual volunteers always has a reputational effect.
- There is no need to rely on mass media; it is better to develop your own media and effective SMM.
- A company is invisible to the general public if its news is not available in “instant messengers.”
- Personal brands of business leaders are significant, but it is necessary to get priorities straight so that their promotion does not annoy the audience.
- Company management is often tempted for financial reasons to reduce the PR function in times of crisis, so be prepared to act as in-house attorneys on behalf of your teams and operations.
- Artificial intelligence is not yet able to manage corporate reputation without people, but it is a professional challenge that will force us to learn and acquire new skills.
- The recipe for PR team leaders’ effectiveness: common sense + superhuman patience + humanity.
- The reputation of Ukrainian business is an essential element in forming the reputation of the state of Ukraine, so do not embarrass yourself and your Motherland.