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We can all think of a celebrity or two who has forgotten that they are in the public eye and wound up losing the support (and the money) of sponsors who helped to keep them there. Tigers Woods may be the best a man can get on a fairway, but Gillette concluded that better men were available to grace its advertising. More recently, US swimmer Ryan Lochte has seen his swimwear sponsorship float away after less than ideal behaviour: there is only so much that a Speedo can be expected to conceal, as their statement made clear:

“While we have enjoyed a winning relationship with Ryan for over a decade and he has been an important member of the Speedo team, we cannot condone behaviour that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for.”

In an era so given to talk about ‘the brand’, advertising has become a battlefield over the values different brands have associated themselves with – or been associated with by others – and this can cut both ways. While there are plentiful examples of advertisers who have pulled campaigns to signal their ethical dissatisfaction (the wide criticism over racial representation issues in the VH1 TV programme, Sorority Sisters, led to pulling of adverts from several major advertisers), Buzzfeed recently announced that it will not accept advertising for Donald Trump’s election campaign. “While not expecting to “agree with the positions or values of all our advertisers”, Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti wasn’t above making an exception:

“The Trump campaign is directly opposed to the freedoms of our employees in the United States and around the world and in some cases, such as his proposed ban on international travel for Muslims, would make it impossible for our employees to do their jobs.”

While there are undoubtedly hard, measurable costs to these kinds of actions (a rumoured $1.3m in the case of Buzzfeed), another term from the balance sheet needs to born in mind: goodwill. We’ve previously commented on the now infamous Business Insider interview with the (now ex-)Saatchi man, Kevin Roberts,  about women, ambition, the advertising industry and gender equality, and about the furore it has created. As the majority of this commentary has come from other agencies, it would be a naïve reader who did not suspect an element of virtue-signalling in these responses – if the problem is so widespread, how can so many agencies be such angels? – but there is a more important issue here.

Diversity and equality are cultural issues: while value statements may provide a philosophical underpinning, it is behaviour rather than moralising that leaves an impression. In cultural spheres, actions really do speak louder than words. Advertising should be acutely aware of this: not only does the industry have to reach out to as a wide an audience as possible on its clients’ behalf, its inescapable presence in our lives means that its output plays a significant role in ‘social conditioning’. (Women stand together in kitchens discussing washing powder; men stand in garages discussing power tools. The industry shorthand for these tropes does not bear repeating.)

But it’s not just advertising – an industry for whom a note of warning about ‘becoming the story’ might be sounded – but all companies who need to accept that they are now in the public eye. In the inaugural Today Business Lecture in 2011 (transcript online here), the then Chief Executive of Barclays, Bob Diamond, remarked that:

“[…] the evidence of culture is how people behave when no-one is watching”

His words had a lovely cadence, but life left their reverberation ringing like a cracked bell less than eight months later when Mr Diamond tendered his resignation amidst the Libor rates rigging scandal. As the BBC reported, “Mr Diamond said he was stepping down because the external pressure on the bank risked “damaging the franchise”.

The main problem with Mr Diamond’s words was not that they were true – insisting that real culture persists even when it is under no external scrutiny is admirable, as long as one can live up to one’s own rhetoric. The problem is that the privacy that organisations assumed that they enjoyed is increasingly scarce. Increasingly, people are watching.

Our relationships – business and personal – are far less private than they used to be, and our best behaviour is no longer something we can reserve for special occasions. In 2016, ‘media relations’ are not something that can be so readily controlled: the days when the evidence of ‘an outcry’ was mostly drawn from the words of PR statements are behind us. While the ‘evidence’ may not be pretty, we have Twitter now and its existence is verifiable. (Social media can also claim success stories of its own, of course: the ice bucket challenge raised over $100m in funding that has, amongst other things, lead to hope of a breakthrough in treating Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.)

In this contemporary environment, our virtues need to be more than a bullet listing on our websites: we really must now actually ‘live the brand’. As Elvis Costello once sang, ‘good manners and bad breath get you nowhere’, and whether a company operates in a B2B or a B2C world, bad behaviour will probably show up on the public’s moral radar sooner or later. In the week after Starbucks attracted damaging headlines about how much UK tax it paid, sales at Costa – its biggest competitor – rose by 7%: the company’s elegant phrasing of its mission and values was no protection.  Culture should not be a bullet list, but a framework that helps people to make good choices: whichever chain culture sips its morning coffee in, it still eats strategy for breakfast.

And public censure isn’t restricted to financial issues: after a partnership deal that had lasted over 50 years, Lego ended a relationship with Shell after a social media campaign about environmental issues led by Greenpeace. The logic of a deal between a toy company and an oil conglomerate may have been obvious to them, but the public were less convinced. The words of John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, sound a warning:

“Clearly Shell is trying to piggy back on the credibility of other brands. It’s a good PR strategy if you can get away with it. But as we’ve shown, if you can’t get away with it, that social licence is taken away. 

When a company’s brand epitomises its relationship with its customers and the wider world, there will be times when it makes a social media gaffe or two. The real damage comes not when companies misunderstand social media, but when they misunderstand people – or underestimate public strength of feeling around ethical or moral issues. There is nothing to be gained from recognising that half your audience are woman and phrasing this to the effect that ‘women hold up half the sky’ if women’s response – and that of wiser men – is to point out that holding up the sky is something performed from below while the menfolk have their heads in the clouds. If your continuity depends on turning the pound in the public’s pocket into another pound in yours, a little respect is in order. Getting issues like diversity and inclusion or environmental impact right are not add-ons, they’re essentials.

Advertising of all industries should understand that words and (public) images need careful choosing: far from being cheap – even if the intern penned them – words can be very expensive indeed. Behaviours even more so.