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Does the Israel-Palestine conflict spell the end of brands involving themselves in geopolitical issues?

By Fergus Lynch, Account Director, Reputation & Issues

The recent events in Israel and Palestine have prompted outrage and deep sadness across the world. So, I’m here to ask what many of us in PR are thinking: what does this mean for brands?

Before you roll your eyes so hard that you sever your optic nerve and shatter your eye sockets, please be assured that the shocking events in the Middle East mean absolutely nothing for brands. I think this terrible conflict really shows us why brands have just got to stop involving themselves in conversations in which they don’t belong.

Sasha Makel wrote in PR Week recently that there had been complete silence from brands in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians. Makel focuses on the Football Association, which lit up the Wembley Arch in the colours of the Tricolore following the 2015 Paris attacks, yellow and blue in support of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, and (in Makel’s words) ‘was quick to virtue signal over LGBT rights and Black Lives Matter’. However, Makel notes that the FA failed to do the same, in the colours of the Israeli flag during England’s recent game against Australia.

Makel concludes that the only difference is that the victims in Hamas’s attack are Jewish. The FA said in a statement that ‘senior members of the Jewish community’ requested it not allow Israeli or Palestinian flags in the stadium. Though this, of course, doesn’t explain the decision not to light up the arch.

Perhaps the FA was concerned that Israel’s response may breach international law, and so was uncomfortable at displaying the Israeli flag and appearing to endorse such an approach. The England match against Australia did feature a moment’s silence to remember the victims, a promotion for the emergency Red Cross appeal and both teams wore black armbands. But with the Wembley arch remaining unlit, the FA was accused of hypocrisy by failing to offer solidarity to the victims of Hamas’s attack.

This raises a wider question: what do we expect from brands and organisations on issues like this? Perhaps the FA and Wembley hold a place of national significance as the guardian and home of English football respectively, and so do have to take a public position on issues like this. But broadly, I don’t need to know that the maker of my breakfast cereal or fried chicken stands in solidarity with anyone. You might want to know that a company whose products you buy takes care to reduce its carbon footprint, acts sustainably and treats its employees decently, but that should really be the end of it.

Personally, I don’t need a retailer that sells me toilet roll to tell me that it condemns an appalling terrorist attack in which innocent people died. For most brands that sentiment can remain unspoken. Those that do take a stand, on extremely complex issues that don’t directly affect them, leave themselves exposed to accusations of hypocrisy from external stakeholders, media, and even their own staff and partners.

According to the FT, several Deloitte employees publicly called out the accountancy giant after it shared a LinkedIn message from the leadership team of its Israeli office pledging support for those “on the home front and on the front lines”. And an Israeli branch of MacDonald’s, which offered free meals to soldiers, has been publicly criticised by its Middle Eastern counterparts, which have offered aid to Gaza.

The point of this blog is not to criticise brands for being good corporate citizens or for acting on serious issues like climate change, which directly affect them and their customers. And it’s not to call out brands for so-called “virtue signalling” – if a cosmetics brand wants to shout about how it’s moved away from palm oil, or the action it’s taking to support a marginalised group of customers, then it absolutely should.

As someone who spends a large part of their day advising clients whether they should respond to requests for comment from journalists, my view is that brands need to think very carefully about whether they should be inserting themselves into this kind of conversation. It’s very unlikely that they have anything of value to contribute, other than an expression of solidarity which may ultimately backfire.

Makel finishes her piece by quoting Anti-Defamation League chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt, who described the response from corporate America as ‘disappointing at best, disastrous at worst’. I understand the strength of feeling in Greenblatt’s reaction, but my hope is that we’re entering a new era of corporates focusing more on the issues where they can have some impact, and not on huge geopolitical crises to which they have no real relevance.

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