“We are all aware of the power of the internet and as people who work in this sector, it is down to us to use our creativity and innovate to do good,” stated Anne-Claire Chenu, Director of Tech Sales – Northern Europe at Xandr, setting out a challenge for the digital publishing sector that many publishing brands are already trying to answer. Anisha Doshi, Inclusion Strategic Project Advisor for Business in the Community, shared a similar sentiment with us, going further to say that “publishers need to look both inwards and outwards: ethical, diverse and quality publishing is about evaluating both how your brand operates as an organisation, and the mark it leaves on society as a result of the work it produces.”
And there’s a solid business case for making these changes too – aside from the moral imperative. According to a report from the World Economic Forum last October, around 65% of consumers would prefer companies to ‘build back better,’ with 60% saying that they were buying more ethically than prior to the pandemic. Research released by the World Media Group this week shows that 84% of the advertisers, agencies and media owners surveyed believe brands should align with social issues and messaging, and 71% of advertisers believe that credible, authentic storytelling related to ESG issues provides a competitive advantage. Corporate social responsibility is rapidly stepping up as a key pillar of brand strategy.
As Ed Latham, Pukka Life Lead at Pukka Herbs, explained, “as companies and as brands we have huge power and huge responsibility to do what’s right by future generations. This is not the time to show that we care, this is the time to act.”
Brands are waking up to consumer attitudes towards corporate behaviour and will be looking for publishing environments that match these values. So how should digital publishers be responding? We reached out to our AOP Awards judges to understand how publishers can create positive social impact and create spaces that empower advertisers to do the same.
“Authenticity is everything,” explained Luke Nicholls, Content Director at Faversham House. “At their worst, ‘social good’ initiatives are just publishers and agencies paying lip service to critical societal issues without actually driving any lasting, meaningful impact.”
One of the greatest challenges for any brand is to ensure that their values are authentic. With social media at their fingertips, it’s very easy to call someone out on virtue signalling, and it can be hugely damaging for brands. ‘Virtue signalling’ as a term has its own flaws, but it’s essential that advertisers and publishers make sure that the values they’re promoting are embedded throughout their organisation too.
“Brands should share some personal connection to the change they want to make,” suggested Sachini Imbuldeniya, Creative Director for Bridge Studio at News UK. “Toothpaste companies declaring that Black Lives Matter on Twitter smacks of bandwagon jumping and doesn’t much add to the discourse.”
Likewise, Rob Sheppard, Director of Commercial Products from JPI Media, stressed the importance of ensuring your values are authentic: “Focus on the things that matter to your customers. For us as a local news publisher, that is a relentless focus on the places we serve and a desire to get the best for them. Our advertisers benefit from the trust our audience place in us and we have to earn that trust every day.”
However, that doesn’t mean that you have to have solved all your challenges perfectly either. We’re all flawed, but the important aspect is to be making clear and deliberate efforts to improve within your own organisation. “Share what you are proud of, what you’ve achieved, what’s not perfect and what hasn’t gone to plan,” shared Pukka’s Ed Latham. “No one connects emotionally with a story sanitised of struggle. Be you.”
Once you’ve established that the values you are sharing are representative of your brand and integral to your organisation, brands need to make sure that they’re making concrete actions in that area.
“Brands don’t have to be saint-like before they can spark a conversation,” mused Sachini Imbuldeniya. “But without at least taking steps to do something about positive social change a brand’s message can easily be dismissed.”
Anne-Claire Chenu from Xandr suggests giving clear examples helps to showcase your own efforts and to inspire others: “At Xandr, we have an incredible Corporate Social Responsibility team who focus on creating pathways for future generations of diverse talent, leveraging our technology resources for good and spearheading positive change across our markets” she added to explain how the organisation has been aligning action, purpose, and business.
Similarly, Will Kirkpatrick, Head of Sustainability and Social Impact at O2 – one of the founding members of the Conscious Advertising Network - explained that you have to be prepared to take risks by living your values. “If you can stay true to your values, you can build a powerful narrative for your brand that shows you want to play a bigger, more relevant role in the world,” he continued.
Publishers can also create change on a local level as well. “We make a difference when we put the communities we serve at the heart of what we do. This doesn’t mean only focussing on what is going well, it means demanding better for them,” JPI Media’s Rob Sheppard shared, citing the vaccine rollout success in Yorkshire and The Star campaigning for laptop provision for young people in South Yorkshire.
As well as driving positive change, the more concrete actions you have to back up your values, the harder it is for people to dismiss it as a marketing stunt or ‘jumping on a band wagon.’
“Diversity should and needs to be at every part of a campaign and media strategy,” emphasised Christopher Kenna, CEO & Founder at Brand Advance. “Only when we all start to have this mindset will we begin to see real long-lasting social change.”
No single person can bring all possible views to the table, because we’ve all only lived one life. Sachini Imbuldeniya referenced the backlash caused by Pepsi’s mistaken attempt to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement into its Kendall Jenner advert. We can’t know what happened during that process, but it’s reasonable to suggest that if there had been more diversity of experience at the table things probably would have been handled differently.
This is particularly relevant in the wake of the Society of Editor’s heavily criticised statement that there was no racism in the UK media. Ensuring better visibility for minority or marginalised communities is key in the fight against racism, and the digital publishing industry plays a huge part in driving this change.
“Progressive publishers share a variety of voices, perspectives and opinions within the guardrails of truth and respect,” stressed Ed Latham. “They create safe spaces where people feel represented and seen.”
There are a few reasons why this is so critical. Faversham House’s Luke Nicholls highlighted that “tracking and measuring social impact in a transparent and robust way” is essential to ensuring your strategies are effective. It also allows you to implement changes and improvements to your strategies to ensure that you’re maximising the impact of your resources.
Transparency is also key to being able to hold both yourself and other organisations accountable for meeting the goals of your social good initiatives. As Anne-Claire Chenu of Xandr iterated, “in an industry where ROI is used to prove success, we should hold our CSR strategies to the same accountability and be able to show our clients and prospects how we go about making the change we say we do.”
Amy Williams, Founder of Good-Loop and a judge for the AOP Awards, recently suggested that “kindness will always trump capitalism.” We want to celebrate this kindness throughout the digital publishing industry and, in doing so, raise the standard for Corporate Social Responsibility across the industry. The 2021 AOP Awards will feature a category for the Best Publisher-Led Social Good Initiative designed to achieve just this.
To help you with writing your entries, we’ve compiled five top tips from our judges to help you understand what it is that they’ll be looking for in a winning entry:
Do you think you could be our 2021 winner? Find out more about how to enter the AOP Awards HERE.