Brands and agencies should stand with Ukraine – silence is violence

Brands must take a stand on the Ukraine conflict

History is happening right now. And while the classic public relations guidance is to wait, Aaron Kwittken, founder of KWT Global, says brands should do the opposite at this moment.

Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, companies in the US and around the world more deliberately and openly mobilized their resources to take a stand against systemic racism and injustice. The mobilization took many forms. Pledges, commitments, posts, condemnations and call-outs. We heard from brands and corporate leaders like never before. It was a moment in time that actually became a movement for our time. And it was about time.

Even though these brands knew taking a public stance was the right thing to do, they did so with eyes wide open knowing too that they risk alienating audiences that may disagree with their position. True brand purpose requires leaders to take a stand and lean on their values that anchor their decisions, words and actions.

As I write this, more than hundreds of Ukrainians have died and hundreds of thousands are seeking safe refuge from Russia’s ‘unprovoked and unjustified’ attack on Ukraine. Tragically, many more Ukrainians will die or become displaced.

This war, like most, started with words. And words really matter when they come from despotic leaders using state-run media to propagate misinformation. To its credit, the US Department of State tried its best to counter Russia’s disinformation campaign through a Fact v Fiction document they created last month. Yet documents like these are only as good as their distribution and use by credible and influential people and organizations.

Whenever there’s a major catastrophic event, agencies are quick to advise clients to pause their social media, ad campaigns, promotions and PR for fear of being perceived as insensitive and tone deaf. Fair. And many will post solidarity statements (please) or point followers to ways in which they can help. Also fair.

Brands are rightfully trying to protect their staff on the ground in Ukraine while others are postponing or canceling events in the region. Besides Sir Richard Branson and Vimeo, I have not seen any major chief execs or brands speak up and out against the attack in a meaningful way.

What if brands applied the same calculus and effort toward situations like the attack on Ukraine as they do with ESG? Is it time for brands to take a stand on geo-political issues in the same way they do on with the environment? What about global brands that operate in Russia? Are they willing to risk capital in exchange for humanity and values? Could agencies, brands and comms-tech companies have voluntarily helped to combat the disinformation coming from the Russian government last month or earlier? Should the Ad Council rethink and broaden its remit? Is this all a step too far for our industry?

In this time and all times like these, I can’t help but hear Elie Wiesel’s wise words in my head: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I think it’s time for us all to stand up and step up.

While you ‘have a think’ about all of this, as my UK colleagues like to say, if you want to deliver aid to families in need in Ukraine, Americares and The International Rescue Committee can help.

Aaron Kwittken, founder and chairman, KWT Global.