There’s no playbook for navigating a global pandemic. For those of us working in communications, we’re constantly examining our clients’ plans through a new lens as the circumstances around the pandemic change daily.
We inhabit a strange new world, with the economy on lockdown, our streets empty and millions furloughed, but we must hold fast: this is just temporary.
Our lives will begin to return to a new kind of normal soon. But it won’t be the way it was, not for a long time.
During this challenging period, it’s vital to keep communicating. The last thing a business wants is to allow a communications vacuum to develop when they need to retain people’s trust and maintain reputation.
But it’s also important to think about how you communicate during lockdown and afterwards.
Our main piece of advice is to talk to your audience with empathy.
People over profit
A fascinating study by global communications firm Edelman surveyed more than 12,000 people across Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the UK and US and looked into how they wanted brands to speak to them during the pandemic.
This revealed that 77 per cent of people wanted brands only to speak about products in ways that showed they were aware of the crisis and the impact it was having on their lives.
At the same time, 71 percent agreed that if they perceived that a brand was putting profit over people, they would lose trust in that brand forever.
The study found that 90 per cent of people wanted brands to do everything they could to protect the wellbeing and financial security of their employees and suppliers, even if it meant substantial financial losses until the pandemic ends.
As we emerge from this enforced but necessary hibernation, companies, organisations and brands will begin to communicate more frequently and announce news. Looking at other European countries which are beginning to ease restrictions on daily life, it’s likely the UK will see restrictions ease gradually. What this means is that while some sectors of the economy will return to normal, others will still be suffering.
What’s crucial now and during the coming months is to ensure our communications aren’t tone deaf. We need to adapt our messaging during a crisis like this or we risk damaging our reputation.
It’s the businesses which behave with honesty and integrity during this crisis which stand the best chance of weathering the storm. Those that fail to empathise and support their employees and customers through these unprecedented times will be found out – if they haven’t already.
Let’s take a look at some of the lessons we can draw out of the PR disasters that have erupted over the past few months as coronavirus took hold and brought this country, and indeed the world, to its knees.
Treat your people well
Amazon is one of the companies where business is booming during the coronavirus crisis and it’s providing a valuable service, with customers able to order essential goods (and probably quite a few non-essentials to cheer them up). Amazon has benefited from this financially, but its reputation took a knock when this story emerged in the USA about Amazon workers fearing for their health and staging walkouts. Or remember what happened when Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin told employees at the nationwide pub chain they were unable to pay them and should go and work at Tesco to earn some money? Oh dear. Have read of this story in The Independent which reported the gaffe.
Put yourself in their shoes
Without publicists guiding their hands and left to their own devices in lockdown, some celebrities have been taking to social media to speak their mind, unfortunately. The papers have been full to bursting with the rich and famous lamenting their tortuous existence in lockdown – in their giant multi million pound homes. Have a look at this story in the Daily Telegraph to see some of the worst misdemeanours. The lesson here is clear – take a reality check and remember that many people are truly suffering.
Look after your reputation
Asking the Government for money to furlough staff has not gone down well in some quarters. Take what happened when Victoria Beckham furloughed her employees at her fashion company, with some arguing the Beckhams should be dipping into their own pockets to pay their staff. Here’s a story in the Daily Telegraph which sheds some light on it. Richard Branson isn’t faring very well in these turbulent times either. As one of the richest people on the planet he’s been criticised for asking for a Government loan to prop up Virgin Atlantic – especially since he personally hasn’t paid tax for years because he lives on the British Virgin Islands. Have a read of this bruising story in the Independent.
The interesting point about a pandemic is that it also results in opportunity for some. There are companies which are actually profiting from coronavirus. For businesses which are weathering this storm successfully, it’s crucial that they think very carefully about how they communicate this news and consider what they can do with this new-found success to help others.
No one likes an opportunist. And as we battle through the pandemic and businesses start to emerge into a post lockdown world, we need to think of others, show empathy and look after our reputations to stand the best chance of success, because when this crisis is over, people will remember.