Diverse group of people holding each other and looking at a blue global map with a heart on Ukraine.

Indignation and grief. A sense of wanting to do something, to respond in some way. To see healing. Perhaps you, like me, have felt the fog of these emotions as you have watched the situation unfold in Ukraine. To say what is happening there is a humanitarian crisis feels trite. Of course it is.

We’ve all watched in disbelief as cities have been decimated, thousands killed, and millions displaced. I’ve seen the world respond in outrage, gripped with the same emotion that I feel, demanding action. But for all the talk of sanctions and government response, there is another conversation happening.

There is a battle playing out in the public sphere over what companies should do in response to the invasion of Ukraine. As a communications professional, I can’t help but feel that there is a sea change happening. Businesses have dealt with vocal constituencies in the past, but this is different.

Business roles and expectations

So far, hundreds of companies have chosen to close, suspend, limit, or alter operations and ongoing investments in Russia. Some companies chose this path proactively, but many are being pressured by consumers, including large international brands like McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks, among others. 

The public outcry against the war has been so great that it only took a few days for #BoycottMcDonalds to become a trending topic on Twitter. McDonald's responded on March 8 by temporarily closing 850 locations in Russia while continuing to pay its 62,000 employees there. “Our values mean we cannot ignore the needless human suffering unfolding in Ukraine,” McDonald’s President and CEO Chris Kempckinski said in an open letter to employees. Many equipment manufacturers and B2B businesses across all segments are also suspending business or shuttering operations in Russia and Belarus.

Many other companies are facing similar decisions with pressure coming from many directions. According to a Morning Consult poll, 75% of Americans said they support companies cutting business ties with Russia. And more than 95% of respondents said that inaction was not a viable response.

So, what should we do as communicators?

In a previous blog post, we covered the need for organizations to develop a brand purpose. This is where the organization needs to “walk the talk.” If your values and purpose don’t guide your business response now, it will be hard for customers — or employees — to take you seriously.

Everything pales in comparison to the human cost of the Russia-Ukraine situation. But the American public is forcing businesses to consider a potential brand cost for their inaction, too.

Realize that this has the potential to put you on crisis footing. This can’t be viewed simply as “a crisis over there.” With academic institutions and major news outlets chronicling the ongoing response of American corporations, the impact to brand and business is real. Even a cursory Google search unearths numerous lists packaged under headlines, like, "These companies continue to do business in Russia.” Adjust your frame of mind to understand the stakes involved in this climate. Then, consider the impact of not doing anything and put together a plan.

Next, think about the actions that need to be taken:

  1. Start with people. It would be easy to jump to the business decisions that need to be made. Instead, assess the impact on people first. Specifically, your people. If you have employees in the affected region, determine how they are being impacted by the situation and what the company needs to do to take care of them. They are your first points of contact, and your communication should focus on the impact to them and their families, not their work.
  2. Think about the affected communities. If you’re an employer in the region, determine your responsibilities to the surrounding community as well. Remember that you should be guided by your company's brand purpose and values. So the question you’re answering now is, “What have we committed to doing/being in the communities where we do business?” Then follow through.
  3. Address your business exposure. For most organizations, this means evaluating the necessary changes to their current business in Russia and Belarus. However, not all companies are coming to the same conclusion. Some companies have shuttered operations completely, without supporting local employees there. Others, like McDonald’s, are continuing to pay employees while their locations remain closed. Still other companies have limited their future investment while continuing to sell basic necessities.

Regardless of where you land, your brand values and purpose have to guide your decision. These are tests that a company must pass for their brand to be credible. All of your stakeholders are watching — your employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and shareholders.

How to handle the messaging

  1. Lead with care and empathy. Regardless of the audience being addressed and the particulars that need to be detailed, remember this is first and foremost a human cost, not a business one. Lives are being lost, homes destroyed, and people displaced. This must be the leading concern in your communication.
  2. Articulate decisions that have been made. Clarity is key here. Your audience needs to know what decisions have been made so they can understand how it impacts them and take the appropriate action. This may mean communicating not only the decision, but also time horizons, when a decision might be reevaluated, the anticipated impact, and more.
  3. Describe the steps you have taken. It’s important for your audiences to understand the due diligence that has been applied to any decision. If you’re shuttering operations, this materially impacts employees. They should understand the decision-making process. If you are canceling contracts or suspending orders, customers and suppliers should understand, at least in broad terms, how you reached your decision. Here again, care and empathy are important to help audiences deal with the impact of your decision.

Connect to your values. These are moments that test the credibility of your values and sense of purpose. All of your audiences want to know, “Do you/we really believe in ______?” You can’t rely on an implied connection. As you communicate with your key audiences, you’ll need to help them make the connection between your beliefs and your actions. Away from your day job, if you’re looking for ways to donate, there are many options to help out.