Leading with purpose in the face of social disruption

Emma Monks -

Leading with purpose in the face of social disruption

Leadership is challenging in the best of times. Now, faced with a prolonged pandemic, an economic downturn, nationwide social justice protests, and unprecedented political divisiveness, even the most sophisticated brand leaders are struggling to navigate turbulent waters.

This multi-pronged crisis—unimaginable at the start of 2020—is proving to be a stress test for all companies. The uncertainty and chaos of the times can push leadership into decisions that can compromise their brands, harm their financial future, even threaten their survival.

There is a defining opportunity in this, one which brand leaders can choose to take advantage of. They can lean into the challenge and pierce the darkness by showing courage and offering hope. There is no better time for companies to lead with purpose; to show that they don’t just sell something or make something—they stand for something.

Now is a critical time to step up and speak with a clear voice about what their brand stands for. While social disruption—the social justice movement in particular—has left behind reputational landmines for some brands, others have made powerful moves toward leading with purpose.

Many companies that have settled into a regular cadence of dealing with the confluence of the pandemic and social justice issues have adopted purpose-led communications strategies that have been game-changing. By showing consumers that they are willing to “do the right thing,” brands are building a deeper connection with consumers to stay top-of-mind and to create lifelong loyalty.

Adopting values-based marketing can build trust and loyalty while increasing sales, but it can also alienate customers or prospects whose values don’t align with brand messaging.

Whether brands step up or not, they face a new frontier online with social media instigators ready to sew discord and plant disinformation—sometimes just for the fun of it —to damage their reputations. When this harmful content shows up on brand-owned social media pages, it’s more credible and more likely to cause damage.

An instigator upset with brand support of a social issue can create a full-blown crisis if influencers and supporters amplify that negative content and spread it—intentionally or not. On the other hand, in the absence of a narrative from brands, instigators can step in and fill the void with misinformation and false assumptions.

Identify issues when the spark turns into a flame

Brands that decide to lead with purpose need to identify these instigators behind the content and their motive in creating it. In doing so, they will likely weather unprecedented times the best, preserving and strengthening trust and loyalty among consumers. 

Of course, not every brand stands ready and willing to embrace values-based marketing. Not every brand is able to offer material solutions in response to the pandemic. Not every brand will use social media to discuss its values. 

But every brand needs to be able to respond to the narrative and understand how it might be shared—true or false. Every brand needs to understand how instigators create a spark and how influencers—which are oftentimes innocent consumers sharing information they find out later is untrue—are fanning the flame, and how that could very well turn into a fire if it reaches the general public.

With an early-warning advantage, you can lay the groundwork by getting the lay of the land. If, for instance, a tree falls in the forest, sometimes it hits other trees and causes devastation. Other times, it merely falls, and no one is the wiser.

Similarly, an instigator can create a crisis if an influencer picks up their harmful content and spreads it—intentionally or not. In some cases, the harmful content is just a spark and nothing ever comes of it. If, however, an influencer fans the flames, it can become a full-blown crisis.

Brands must identify, uncover, and reduce enterprise risk before the spark becomes a flame. There will always be instigators who are unhappy with the stand you’ve taken or, worse, are intent on killing your brand. Being able to mitigate the sparks early on will classify you as a shareholder value winner long after a crisis ends.


Meeting the risks of social disruption head-on

The combination of an ongoing pandemic, social discord, the exploding use of social media, and the largely unchecked spread of misinformation, creates a different kind of risk for brands—one that demands to be dealt with swiftly and effectively before it creates long-term damage to brand reputation and value.

According to the Reputation Risk Study from Aon, the widespread use of social media has doubled how it affects shareholder value. In the years after a crisis, the “winners,” the brands that handle it well, see a 20% increase in shareholder value. The “losers,” on the other hand, see a 30% decline. The brands that preserve and strengthen trust and loyalty among consumers amongst all of this will be best equipped to weather these unprecedented times best. 


As you think about how to approach leading with purpose, think about how your values meld with those of consumers, and how you might demonstrate it through your communications and follow it up with tangible actions. Take a longer view of what your brand stands for, and couple it with risk intelligence.

With an early-warning risk intelligence solution, brand communications and security teams can get the help they need to detect and block harmful content that can compromise marketing assets, brand reputation, or consumer engagement—in real-time.

As we head toward the twelfth month of this surreal year, one thing is clear: consumers want brands to step up and lead, to offer hope, to create some semblance of normalcy. Brands that lead with purpose and act in the best interests of all of us, will be rewarded with deeper trust and a stronger bond with their customers.

 The true test for purpose-driven brand leaders is to demonstrate you are putting people before profits. Every individual consumer, whether they are your customer or not, is counting on you to deliver.



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