Here’s a moral dilemma for you.

What do you do when you make a perfectly sensible business decision only to find it is met with howls of outrage? Do you back down for a quiet life – after all, perception is everything and your brand is invaluable – or do you stick with what you believe is right?

I’ve been mulling this over for the last few days, prompted by a news story I read this week and reminded of a situation just like this that I found myself in some years ago.

Here in the UK, one of our largest pharmacy businesses has found itself in the headlines after it dispensed a medicines in plastic bags instead of paper for a number of people. At a time when single-use plastic is a very hot topic, this incensed some customers enough to go to the national newspapers, which duly reported that they are “livid” and “baffled” by this environmentally damaging and “irresponsible” action.

We’ve all been moved by pictures and footage of wildlife harmed or killed by plastic detritus. Images of vast stretches of oceans full of plastic waste has brought home to us the longevity of these products and the sheer scale of our consumption. Many of us are making day-to-day changes to at least reduce the number of plastic bottles, wrappers, cartons and bags we use just fleetingly and then discard.

Many big businesses are also stepping up. More than a hundred companies have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, to help eliminate single-use plastic – including the pharmacy in question, which usually dispenses its drugs in paper bags held closed with address labels. So why did they go back on their intention like this?

THERE’S ALWAYS MORE THAN ONE CONSIDERATION

Further investigation reveals that plastic bags were used for a couple of very good reasons.

The medication dispensed in the new plastic bags had been assembled and packed in a central hub and sent out to the shops for local collection. The packaging had to be durable enough to withstand transit, completely sealed so that no drugs were lost, and private enough that patient confidentiality was protected.

Patients’ health – and in some cases, their survival – depends on getting the right drugs, in the right amounts. This company prioritised that above their commitment to environmentally friendly packaging, just for the medicines sent out from central assembly.

And the very act of centralising some of the repeat dispensing (which, by its nature, can be predicted and standardised to some degree) is also based on a value-driven decision. 

The UK is trying to raise awareness and education about using pharmacists for frontline help and advice, not just to dispense medication. This could make a big difference to the increasing pressure facing our networks of GP surgeries and A&E hospital departments. By centralising some of the predictable dispensing, the company in the news is trying to free up more time for in-store pharmacists to provide medical help and support.

So, there’s the business thinking behind the story. But what will people remember? Patient values, or the many headlines?

And what damage does media coverage with words like “under fire”, “berated”, “angry”, and “criticism” do to a brand? 

FROM ‘GREAT DECISION’ TO ‘CRISIS COMMUNICATION’

Reading these news stories, I remember a similar dilemma of my own.

Back in the very early ‘90s, I edited an employee magazine for one of the biggest companies in the UK. In those days, environmental concerns about forest sustainability were growing, and we decided to switch to recycled paper stocks to print the magazine.

Not only was this better for the environment, it was cheaper – so I saved a fair chunk of my annual publication budget. And, in a joyful hat-trick of benefits, the recycled paper had a sheen on it and made the magazine look glossy. Environmentally friendly, and it looked fancier for less money. All good business decisions!

We published the new edition amid something of a fanfare, explaining what was changing and how we were doing our bit for the environment by using recycled paper, and for budget pressures by using cheaper paper stock.

But among my magazine’s readership of thousands, a few were highly vocal about the change – and not in a good way. All they saw was a new glossy cover, and were convinced we were wasting money and resources at a time when everyone was being asked to make savings. We had to go a little way into ‘crisis communication’ mode to win them over.

DO YOU USE YOUR HEART OR HEAD TO PROTECT YOUR BRAND?

I’m going to be completely honest here. I know we managed to contain those complaints relatively easily, because we didn’t have an intranet or Twitter or any social media in those days. We could much better control our brand image. And I have to ask myself the question – if that debate were raging now, in a growing snowball of angry misunderstanding fuelled by immediate and viral platforms…would we stand firm with the principles that mattered most? Or would we have to choose between our values and the brand damage being wreaked by others?

I don’t know. I know what I’d like to think I’d do – but I’m pragmatic enough to know that often anger has a much louder voice than logic has. I don’t underestimate the sheer force of negativity in today’s connected world, nor the devastation this can wreak on a reputation and business performance.

And with that in mind, will the current crop of news stories damage the brand of the pharmacy using plastic bags for some of its dispensing? I would guess not – it’s a huge and long-established company, a family-friendly brand. And while those things are not guarantees any more, they are bulwarks against occasional storm tides.

And in the end, I think this is what should matter most to you – that you build a brand (a reputation, an experience, a relationship) strong enough that when a media storm comes along, you are in the best possible shape to manage it.

Remember, the biggest component of that brand is you.

Also remember we are regularly adding free resources to this site to help you build your brand. Take a look around, and let us know what else you would find useful. And if you’d like us to send our blogs and teach-ins directly to your inbox, all you have to do is follow this blog.

Until next time – have a great week!

Lucy & Emma | The Communication Coaches

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