Our third Pivoting in a Pandemic webinar panel comprising Nick Chiarelli (Head of Trends, Unlimited Group), Caroline Coventry (Director, Nelson Bostock Unlimited), Phil Bloomfield, Corporate and Consumer Communications at dnata Travel Group) and David Cook (Director of Corporate Communication at Canon EMEA) discussed the approaches that brands should be using to maintain their brand reputations during the Covid-19 outbreak. It took place on 27th April 2020.
Brand reputation in times of crisis: stick to the basics and put people first
As brands seek to navigate lockdown, some are in better business shape than others – those in grocery retail, for example, are faring much better than those in, say, the travel and hospitality space. But, whatever their commercial and financial circumstances, all brands are having to think very carefully about the way that they communicate, both internally and externally, during these challenging times.
There is a ton of research being released now that talks of how brands should respond. Some suggests that brands should cut back their advertising totally, while others say you should spend more than normal – this has famously been P&G’s strategy in crises past and present (link). Much of the evidence suggests that consumers don’t expect brands to stay silent. They are looking for brands to offer support and practical help:
Depending on who you are, the sector you are in and the challenges your consumers are facing, there is a clear hierarchy of messaging priorities. First and foremost should be any crisis management, next should come business as usual, focusing on the basics and looking to help consumers and then, if appropriate, brands can potentially begin to think about growth – either in terms of enhancing their brand reputation, or exploring newly emerging opportunities.
“Doing the basics well and doing the right thing when nobody is watching. You are not going to go far wrong if you stick to that”
– David Cook
Loosely put, those basics include ensuring that at all times you put people first; that you deal only in facts and avoid speculation; that you base your strategy around guidance from the expert government and health authorities, and; that ‘you show up’ and proactively communicate across both internal and external audiences. Consistency is also key even when dealing with tens of thousands of employees across dozens of countries.
The role of businesses is obviously very different by industries and brands, but all can and should focus on offering genuine utility – grocery companies, tech companies, entertainment brands all offer things that are genuinely needed and/or helpful right now. In these cases, there is a clear and justifiable reason for these brands to be communicating with their audiences. A good example here is Unity Technologies who have been offering coding sessions for free, or some of the online learning or entertainment providers who have been offering free logins.
There are, of course exceptions. This issue of crisis management is shown very clearly in the travel sector which is dealing with major issues like repatriation, refunding and rebooking. The fact that many are not in a position to refund customers according to the law means that the sector and the companies in it are taking a massive reputational hit right now and facing a real dilemma: on the one hand they need to remain visible so that they are front of mind when the economy rebounds, but on the other hand by raising their head above the parapet, they risk censure because any tone of future optimism jars with the current issues they are firefighting.
But can there be opportunity in crisis? While consumers don’t expect brands to stay silent, their antennae are super-sensitive to any potential missteps. They are listening out for any signs of exploitation or opportunism. And, worse, there is a clear feeling that what happens in lockdown may not stay in lockdown – in other words, that, while correctly reading the room right now will bring benefits, failing to do so could have severe long-term consequences:
“At times like these brands must be mindful of any communication, external or internal. No matter how well intentioned, enthusiasm for new business initiatives and brand enhancement efforts, can easily be misinterpreted. Brands must not be perceived as being opportunistic in exploiting what is a global health crisis.”
– David Cook
Of course, there are opportunities but there is a real difference between “opportunities to help consumers” and “opportunities to help yourselves”. Short-term gain must not come at the expense of your brand and if things go horribly wrong, your longer-term reputation as a company is at risk.
“There are brands that are treating this as an opportunity, but it comes across in a kind of ambulance chasing sort of way. Right now, we need to redefine what winning means”
– Phil Bloomfield
The over-riding feeling is of a very challenging comms landscape – a perfect storm of an unprecedented health challenge, difficult trading conditions, fast-changing consumer needs and massive uncertainty about the short-, medium- and long-term futures. Adaptability is the key – comms teams must also be prepared to evolve their responses – things change.
“With this current crisis it’s not possible to have a traditional plan or play book in place. You need to remain flexible and take your lead from government and health authorities.”
– David Cook
An evolving role for comms
The notion of stakeholder capitalism, the idea that brands are accountable to all, has become very powerful over recent years. Some have criticised the PR & Comms role as doing little more than providing a front through which businesses can be seen to be operating responsibly. But, arguably the current crisis may come to be regarded as a pivotal moment in the way that these functions serve businesses:
“Covid has highlighted the need for brands to demonstrate their effort to stakeholder in vivid colour. This is potentially a chance for businesses to move to a model that better serves all stakeholders where PR & comms actually helps to implement these initiatives across all parts of the businesses rather than just amplify them to the outside world.”
– Caroline Coventry
There are clear executional “rules” right now but are they being over-used?
As well as reviewing their overarching comms strategies brands are urgently having to address issues around messaging execution right now? What is the right amount of messaging to avoid overload? How do you strike the right tone of voice? How are channel choices affected by the unusual situation? What is the best balance between internal and external comms?
Over recent days a supercut (compilation) video has been heavily viewed and discussed among the marketing community (link). Titled “Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same”, it suggests an over-reliance on certain codes or conventions of communication, such as:
In the same way that clichés only become clichés by virtue of repetition, these codes provide the reassurance that concerns are shared and that corporations are responding. Moreover, such approaches have been tried and tested over past crisis situations going back to WW2 (link). We’re neither advocating that they be used, nor that they be avoided outright. To be effective at this time, advertising must strike a blend of fitting in with the prevailing mood (and that may mean adopting some of these well-worn tactics), but also staying true to your brand’s essence and vision.
“What we should be asking whether what we’re saying offers some form of utility or reassurance right now. Authenticity has become a bit of a cliché on comms over recent years, but it is still the most important thing right now along with simplicity and acknowledging our vulnerabilities.”
– Phil Bloomfield
Leveraging the credibility of senior leaders
We’ve seen a variety of different approaches being tried by companies when it comes to using the charisma, fame in some cases, and gravitas of their senior leadership. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this but what is agreed is that leaders have a vital role, certainly internally within businesses to provide reassurance. This doesn’t automatically mean the CEO/MD but should be spread across the whole senior leadership team, leveraging the expertise needed to answer various comms challenges rather than automatically defaulting back to the most senior title in the room.
“Without your employees you don’t have a business, so internal comms needs to be prioritised at this time. Senior leadership in a company need to step up and take a lead in providing the reassurance that people need.”
– David Cook
The primary need here is to provide reassurance. To achieve this, leaders must be made visible and available to staff (and sometimes the wider world too) and empowered with the right information and tools. It is not necessarily about having all the right answers – after all so much of the now and next is shrouded in uncertainty. Simply being seen and being supportive can go a long way.
“We’re all human and we’re all affected by coronavirus and that has made it easier for seniors to present themselves to colleagues in a much more visible, accessible, informal and human way. That’s something that customers are quite keen to see too”
– Caroline Coventry
Too early to see the way ahead
With the current situation being so dire, it is only natural that thoughts are already turning to afterwards within businesses. While there is a lot of conversation around “business as usual”, “getting back to normal” but also warnings of a radically different “new normal”, it is too early to say quite what will come next or, therefore, how we should prepare for it. Under these circumstances the best strategy is to undertake scenario planning in order to identify a range of possible futures and to put mitigation strategies in place for each.
Whatever the future looks like, and of course we’re all hopeful it will be full of positives, businesses will still need to ensure that they have their customers best interests at heart and that they can continue to communicate effectively with them:
“It’s going to be a very gradual process, but I do think we’ll see a lot of improvements in how we as brand managers and comms professionals are seen and heard within the organisation and for our ability to effect change.”
– Caroline Coventry
For a deep dive into how scale-ups in particular are managing their reputation in this turbulent market, check out our next webinar here.
This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group, and originally appeared on the Unlimited Group news page. This is the third instalment of our ‘Pivoting in Crisis’ webinar series. Explore the highlights from our first event on workplace behavioural change, and our second event on technology and Covid-19. Or click here to see the recent work we’ve been doing to support our clients’ reputations throughout the crisis.