FRIDAY 3 JUL 2020 2:09 PM

IS IT TIME TO TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE?

For the past three months, governments, institutions, media and businesses have only been able to talk about one thing: Covid-19. Many ask themselves, 'when will this change?' According to Alberto Lopez Valenzuela, founder and CEO of technology consulting firm Alva Group that time is now. He writes about how, for the first time since lock-down, multiple businesses are talking about something else, focusing more on environmental, social and governance topics.

Companies have been reticent to talk about subjects other than COVID-19, but this is now starting to shift, albeit slowly.

The global events that followed the killing of George Floyd have certainly had a huge impact. The Black Lives Matter-inspired activism that has taken centre stage in recent weeks has moved many large companies out of their inertia to support the strong anti-racist sentiment being driven by communities.

The most notable announcements included the Bank of America’s donation of $1bn to local communities to address racial and income inequalities exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. It was swiftly followed by announcements by companies including Diageo and Comcast, launching equality funds of their own – again couched within a framework of supporting those affected by coronavirus.

Indeed, alva’s own tracking of the announcements from companies relating to COVID-19 has found that, for the first time since Lockdown began, a significant number of businesses are talking about environmental, social and governance (ESG) topics. In the week of June 9-15 it became the second most prevalent topic in alva’s weekly tracking of most impactful announcements.

While many companies are sensing that now may be the right time to begin discussing non-COVID issues, they are still doing so by using COVID-19 as a sort of ‘bridging mechanism’ to get into these other subjects. The simple formula is Company + COVID + ESG announcement. Perhaps they feel that their communities are not quite ready to look past the pandemic.

But others no longer feel the need to couch their ESG activities in a COVID narrative. Google has announced that it has set up a $175 million diversity fund aimed racial equality initiatives, primarily focused on financing black-owned businesses and supporting entrepreneurs. Elsewhere, Eli Lilly has pledged $25m to fighting racism and Unilever has launched a €1bn investment in green projects - neither have tailored their focus around COVID-19.

I do not think that this is simply an oversight. As Alan Jope, Unilever’s Chief Executive stated: “We can’t let ourselves forget that the climate crisis is still a threat to all of us.”

These are ‘visionary’ announcements – big ticket stories than tie in closely with a company’s purpose and their values. Companies with powerful identities may well be feeling that after months of holding their tongues, they can no longer hold back on talking about the issues that matter to them.

The urge towards other issues than the one we’ve all been talking about for the last three months can be seen in the media itself. Both the Daily Telegraph and The Independent feature ‘non-Coronavirus news’ sections. You can read about De Gaulle’s vandalised statues and the tortoise that fathered hundreds that has now retired – all without mention of the dreaded C-word(s).

Perhaps this urge towards something new – and importantly, something positive -relates to another big focus for recent corporate announcements: reopenings, particularly for ‘non-essential’ retailers such as Primark and Marks & Spencer.

While reporting suggests that this will boost the economy and represents a sign of recovery, public and employee confidence in the safety and wisdom of reopenings remains mixed. And job cuts remain by far the largest issue of COVID-related news, with Centrica setting out plans to cut 5,000 jobs; and Johnson Mathey announcing 2,500 cuts.

There is a definite appetite to project an idea that we are through the worst of the pandemic, but a scan of the top issues begs the question of whether society is ready: further job losses at Heathrow, extended pay cuts at Etihad and further bailouts elsewhere bring us back to a difficult reality.

Corporate communicators continue to find themselves in an unenviable position. With new cases of COVID beginning to break daily records in the US and Germany, a second spike could lead to a return to lockdown at any point. So, they must balance the urge to say something new and good with an awareness that the agenda could shift back to square one at any point.

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