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George Floyd: a tipping point for social purpose

Published Jun 04, 2020 – By Martin MacConnol


For those working in corporate communications and marketing, who are thinking how do we reignite the engines as we come out of lock-down, there is a lesson to be learned in what is happening in the aftermath of the outrageous killing of George Floyd.

While the US and other parts of the world continue to burn this might seem as important as worrying about the Titanic’s breakfast menu the night after it hit the iceberg, but there’s a big point at stake here.

I’ve written before about my fears that the pandemic will lead to companies ditching their social purpose agendas in the interests of basic survival. I now suspect I was wrong. Corporate survival and social purpose are going to be inextricably linked in future and George’s death is the final proof. How we communicate and market is going to change for good.

Corporate and government institutions only exist by permission of the people. What we have seen in the last three months is an increase of people activism. Much of it is very positive. In my street we’ve been clapping for carers, coming together on WhatsApp to support the vulnerable, and forming a committee to get people to give to food banks. We are part of a positive patchwork that covers the UK and world.

But something far angrier is emerging from behind the positivity. This is unsurprising. Unemployment rates are soaring, a class of the newly needy is emerging, hardship is hitting many and will hit more people to come. There is a growing awareness of unfairness and inequality in the air.

Into this powder keg walks Derek Chauvin with his prejudice and his killing knee. If ever one wanted to find the definition of ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, George’s death is it. Forgetting the horror of the actual racist murder, George’s plea of “I can’t breathe” resonates even more powerfully at a time when thousands are choking to death on Covid wards globally. It’s not hard to see how the situation has become so explosive for so many reasons.

I’m pretty certain, as I look at my TV screen and the news on my mobile phone, that far from slowing the impetus to greater social purpose, Covid will act as an accelerant. It’s similar to something that we saw happen after the financial crash of 2007. Back then, what had been a slow journey to digital from print became a stampede as companies could no longer afford the paper and delivery. Today the journey to social purpose is similarly going to be accelerated, for the reason that companies won’t be able to afford to ignore the public mood. The reaction to George Floyd’s death shows how people are ever more sick of being taken for granted by those in power.

This is a macro point which will touch everything from corporate reporting to advertising to employee engagement. Wise brands didn’t need George’s death to start on this journey, think of AirBnB’s compassionate CEO message to furloughed and redundant colleagues or EE’s advertising pivot with Kevin Bacon to focus on free data for NHS workers.

But they are the standard bearers and as we emerge from our lockdown bunkers, all companies that want to prosper will have to demonstrate they are part of a solution for a better planet, and not part of the problem. Otherwise the people will withdraw their permission for these businesses to exist at all.

If you would like to hear and talk more on this issue, please join us on June 11 for a webinar we are co-hosting with Singaporean agency Klareco. We will be looking at how companies need to communicate and market as the world comes out of lock-down. For more details, please click here.

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