How an Ethical Story in a Crisis Can Boost Your Firm

Finding a way to survive has been a challenge for many firms during the pandemic; but being on the side of the good guys can certainly help your cause.

Every so often there is a development that affects the business world in a way described euphemistically as ‘disruptive’. The internet and E-commerce, the use of apps to hail taxis (Uber) and other innovations are examples of such game changers.

Nothing, however, has brought disruption in the truest sense of the world than the pandemic, making the world of 2019 seem a distant memory. Quite apart from the catastrophic health implications, the economic consequences have been dramatic – and may have far-reaching implications long after the coronavirus has either fizzled out or been vaccinated into submission.

The specific consequences have been varied. Overall, recession has been inevitable through the curtailment of normal economic activity such as the movement of goods and people. Sectors providing customer-facing services or performances in front of live audiences have been hit hardest, whereas online retail and gaming has boomed. For Zoom and Amazon, this has been a good crisis.

However, it is not just practical circumstance that has shaped how companies have been affected and might fare going forward. It is also the case that the way firms have responded has varied and might either gain or lose them customers and goodwill because of it.

A surprising ‘good guy’ to emerge from the crisis was Manchester United Football Club. A team many loved to hate in their trophy-laden halcyon days of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, the club has not been renowned for its good PR. This has been true even among the club’s own fans since the Glazer Family’s controversial hostile takeover of the club in 2005.

However, the response of the club to the crisis was universally positive.

  • Firstly, there was the donation of food for upcoming home games to local food banks.
  • There was the selective illumination of the neon sign with the club’s name to highlight the letters N, H and S.
  • Despite the club admitting it had lost an estimated £28 million in revenue as games were played in empty stadiums, there as a willingness to waive small fees owed by other clubs whose finances were much more strained.

All this was then topped by one of the club’s players, Marcus Rashford, who earned acclaim – and an honourary degree from Manchester University – for his successful campaign to persuade the government to provide free school meals in the summer holidays. Even neighbours Manchester City backed him up when he was trolled by Katie Hopkins.

When it comes to marketing, football clubs don’t win market share from those already following other teams, such is the tribal nature of rivalry. But positive PR of this kind can win friends in the wider world and bring benefits such as new sponsorship deals – something United’s bean counters will never miss the chance to set up.

On the Wrong Side of Furlough

Part of the reason Manchester United were praised was also a declaration that it would not use the furlough scheme, something Premiership rivals Liverpool and Tottenham initially declared an intention to do – something both clubs backtracked on after this was met with outrage.

There may be a number of firms that end up with a damaged reputation precisely because of their response to the furlough, especially where the public perceive that using the state’s help is unnecessary.

A prime example was the Virgin Group, whose billionaire owner Sir Richard Branson put 8,000 Virgin air staff on furlough and sought government help for the airline sector. Critics argued that Branson’s vast personal wealth meant he could have easily dipped into his own pocket to pay their salaries while planes were grounded.

Another businessman in the firing line was Tim Martin, the chairman of pub chain Wetherspoons. Already someone who divided opinion due to his unambiguously pro-Brexit position, Mr Martin not only furloughed staff, but told them they should get jobs in supermarkets until the scheme kicked in. It remains to be seen how many customers may have decided not to return in response to these actions.

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Staying on the Side of Good

Business ethics are under the microscope now more than ever, with recent debates about racism prompting discussion of how firms and organisations have addressed the issue. Your firm may not have the high profile of Virgin, Wetherspoons or Manchester United, but increasingly consumers will have an eye on how firms treat staff and the public alike.

In the case of the pandemic and its fall-out, the way issues of redundancy, retention and future recruitment as the economy recovers may all play a significant part in how firms are perceived.

All this should inform your marketing as well as your firm’s general approach to doing business. As you tell your story, it is vital to show why there is a clear aim and a cause to what you do beyond simply making money. Having a good cause to support is no longer a ‘nice to have’ that makes your company look like it has nice people working for it. Skin deep ethics will not get you very far when the stakes are as high as they have been this year.

Instead, having a genuine sense of cause and mission can be invaluable, and if you have this you can emphasise it constantly in your marketing:

  • It can be highlighted in your content marketing news and blogs
  • It can be featured in your PPC ads
  • It can be a central element of your social media

By positioning yourself as a force for good in a world where so much has gone wrong, you can strengthen your brand image, gain new custom and help create opportunities and a legacy that can stand you in good stead for years to come

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