Posted on: 18.04.2023

Reflect it, reject it or change it: How to communicate when the world’s on fire.

There’s a ubiquitous GIF on social media at the minute. For those too old (or too young) to engage with GIFs, it’s a cartoon dog sitting on a chair in the middle of a burning room. ‘This is fine’, the dog says. A powerless figure, paralysed with panic in the face of a world crumbling around them.

That dog has been popping up in all sorts of places recently.

The dumpster fire that is Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, for example, where a shortsighted approach to monetising verification helped wipe seven figures off the stock of a major pharmaceutical company. Or the equally shortsighted approach to the UK economy taken by the recently axed PM Liz Truss and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, who nearly collapsed the pension system and left a financial black hole worth billions.

Then there’s the World Cup in Qatar, where it turns out you can cover up all sorts of human rights abuses with enough petrochemical cash. We’re trapped in an endless loop, a neverending Matt Hanocock getting stung by a scorpion moment. 

World. On. Fire.

For those of us in the communications business – the people who tell stories on behalf of brands and organisations – this… isn’t good. How can we compete with a news agenda that sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster script turned down for being too far fetched? We only need a zombie outbreak to pull off the full set of movie cliches for 2022. Maybe that was what the scorpion sting was about. A zombie Matt Hancock would have more integrity, to be fair.

Our audience is that dog. On that chair. In that fire. And their attention span is naturally a little limited, what with all the smoke and the impending global, catastrophic social breakdown.

But there are messages getting through. Brands have found ways to communicate that consumers still resonate with, even when they’re trying to shut out the panic-inducing noise. And for the purposes of a neatly formatted listicle blog, they fall into three categories:

Reflect it.

You see that chaos? Embrace it. Love it. Dial up the madness. Do weird stuff. For a while we called this ‘Postmodernism’, a sort of wild detachment from any kind of structure, strategy or narrative. But some other ‘isms’ have probably come along since then.

By jumping feet first into the fire, brands can make themselves part of the conversation – or the subject of it. Don’t compete with the incredible stories that form our media landscape. Become one of them.

Exhibit A: The Daily Star and their Liz Truss lettuce live cam. The blonde-wigged salad stalwart outlasted our fatefully incompetent PM, bringing in tens of thousands of viewers to the brand’s YouTube channel and website. The stunt reflected the public mood perfectly, and the stream even managed to break the news of Truss’ resignation before BBC iPlayer!

Reflecting back the madness is working pretty well for RyanAir, too. Their uniquely confrontational approach to customer service on social is certainly a ballsy move, but one that accurately mirrors the total lack of fucks left to give amongst the general population.

Reject it.

Escapism is a time-honoured tactic, but one that couldn’t be more appropriate at the moment. Whether it’s providing consumers with services that encourage mental headspace, or products that offer a glimpse of a better, calmer life, there’s a lot to be gained from helping people grab a moment to breathe.

You can see it in the big TV franchises of the past few years. We’re flying around on dragons, falling into alternate dimensions or flopping about with laser swords in space. Even the historical stuff cuts off before the current maelstrom of catastrophe.

It’s also the root of the red hot nineties trend. For those of us who remember it the first time, dressing like our older siblings on their way to Alley Catz disco in Nuneaton will just never quite click. But people are buying Weird Fish like it’s going out of fashion (which… it did), and not just online! Maybe if you wear a Sweater Shop jumper and say ‘Tony, Tony, Tony’ before clicking your Timberlands together you’ll be magically transported back to Cool Britannia. You never know!

Change it.

But what if it’s a hard no on embracing the meltdown, and whistling whilst the world implodes isn’t your kind of tune? You could always try and fight that current, like a plucky salmon leaping up the rapids of modernity. You could try and actually… change things!?

There’s definitely a danger here, which isn’t a surprise when passions run high and morality is in focus. Witness the controversy surrounding BrewDog’s ‘anti-sponsorship of the World Cup in Qatar, for example. Or the litany of brands who misjudged the public mood surrounding the Queen’s death.

It’s all about the A word. Authenticity. Handing that dog a fire extinguisher, rather than just patting them on the head and selling them some makeup to cover up the third degree burns. Last year’s shining beacon of brand activism is clearly Patagonia, who’s founder has surrendered the business to a trust acting on behalf of the planet itself. All the stock. All the profits. Not just planting a few trees or donating 1% of profits.

You choose.

As someone communicating on behalf of a brand or organisation, it’s your choice. Reflect it, reject it or change it. And best of luck to you, because we won’t be commuting anything on a dead planet.

This… is… fine…

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