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Public relations in times of war
The Russia-Ukraine war is front and center in the media and the minds of many Americans. As events continue to unfold, companies are getting involved to show their support of Ukraine, from Airbnb announcing free, temporary housing for up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to Apple pausing product sales in and exports to Russia. As measures like these continue, companies across the board will inquire about how they can engage. As PR professionals, we must be prepared to advise on what a thoughtful, genuine response looks like – or if one is warranted at all. Here are a few guideposts to consider in managing client queries. Fervently advise against any self-promotion of products or services Companies self-promoting during a time of conflict, especially if they stand to gain monetarily from that promotion, may aggravate reporters and pose a reputational risk to the company. A Buzzfeed article highlighted how some of the responses to the Russia-Ukraine war were “cringe-worthy” and “insensitive” at best, including an author urging people to buy his book. Reporters will do their due diligence and highlight any discrepancies. As advisors, we must do the same. Consider going through a risk-assessment exercise that outlines any concerns. Encourage them to stay in their lane As a general rule of thumb, we should encourage clients to not put a tangential spin on political discourse, which is very different from voicing humanitarian support for Ukraine. Proactively pitching clients who have no real insight to offer to speak on the issue when most reporters are looking for specific expertise in politics or foreign affairs can reflect poorly on the brand. We should recommend not inserting the company in conversations that have yet to ask for their input. Discuss standards for supporting causes The continuous coverage of the war is driven by both America’s interest in ensuring democracy and concern for international human rights. There are also currently 30+ ongoing wars and conflicts happening all over the world. As an NPR article said, “It's a fact of modern life that some wars get more attention than others. And Russia's invasion of Ukraine has captured the public's attention in the West in a way that other recent wars — like those in Yemen or Ethiopia — simply haven't.” While the client has no control over what conflicts are prioritized in the media, candid conversations on the standard for engaging in political and social discussions should be had. For example, clients who “ban” such discussions on human rights and penalize staff for activism in some matters but then take public stances on this particular conflict may be putting themselves at risk of being called out for double standards. By creating and setting guidelines proactively – and then sticking to those guidelines – the client is much less likely to suffer reputational damage.