How has PR and communications responded to Covid-19?

“The biggest challenge since the war” proclaimed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, addressing almost 28 million British citizens in what is now one of the most watched pieces of communication on television in the country’s history.

Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19)’s global disruption and monopolisation of the world’s media, news, and content, has provided a unique career milestone for every public relations and communications professional.

After twelve weeks following the UK’s lockdown announcement on March 23rd, as countries begin to emerge from lockdown life, and the world of ‘new normal’ starts to take shape, here, we take a look at the past few extraordinary months and what it has meant for our profession.

Not your typical crisis
What is interesting about Covid-19, is that it is not your typical crisis. Since the last world war, very few events have impacted the entire global population, at the same time.

With Covid-19, it’s not an internal crisis which a business has to defend or apologise for. Nonetheless, brands must handle the unique circumstances and respond in an appropriate way to meet the needs of the business and expectations of its stakeholders - most notably, its customers and, in some cases, the wider general public.

The many uncertainties surrounding the virus and the ever-changing response by governments around the world to its immediate and potential ongoing threat make it difficult, if not impossible, to put a rigid communications strategy in place. But what it does highlight is the importance of having a plan and procedure ready to spring into action in response to unforeseen events occurring.

It’s not about having set answers ready to go, but having a robust strategy and effective processes in place to enable swift decisions to be made as the rapidly changing events evolve.

And, while it is difficult to plan for the unexpected, given the world has already tackled HIV/AIDS, swine flu, SARS, and Ebola outbreaks, and with the first UK Covid-19 cases reported at the end of January, brands who have effectively met the challenge have achieved a positive response from consumers.

Start with the basics
Broadly, communications can be defined as either being proactive or reactive. At the basic, reactive level, when a crisis hits, customers expect brands to update them in relation to any operational changes, how they will be affected as a customer, and how they can continue accessing the brand’s products and services.

During the early stages of Covid-19, a note on the website, social media post, and perhaps even a press advert may have provided some degree of comfort, but these are just fulfilment of hygiene factors. Consumers expect to hear from a brand when a crisis is in full swing, so on its own, a statement issued across various channels is a good place to start, but not enough to cut through. Consumers want to be informed of the facts, but to feel more secure they want good news, examples demonstrating why they should feel good, not just promises of ‘working hard to do everything we can.’

Supermarket chains have done this particularly well. Customers have fallen in-line and have accepted changes to their shopping habits, which have been forced upon them. Defined changes were clearly communicated, which managed the expectations of customers regarding the new rules for shopping, and consequently, customers were happy to oblige.

Similarly, internal stakeholders such as staff want clear direction as to their employment. Back-of-house, staff have been looked after, with all major supermarket chains pledging various financial bonuses to store staff. Communicating such initiatives brings a sense of reassurance to consumers that the key workers looking after us, were also being looked after.

Get more involved (where appropriate)
Of course, any change in the market presents an opportunity and Covid-19 is no exception. The basics are important and whilst a matter-of-fact statement from a brand may be informative, today’s social media-obsessed consumers have an expectation of brands to say more than how they’ve adapted their operations. And with more time on their hands than ever, consumers are more focused on what brands are telling them. Therein lies the opportunity.

Public opinion has always had an exceptionally powerful influence and social media now provides a platform for instant feedback. What was once brands (and their PR agencies) telling consumers what to think and feel about them has quickly changed from one to two-way communication. Put a foot wrong and brands can swiftly find themselves trending online with #boycott next to their name. But get it right and brands can reap the rewards.

Once it is decided to be part of the conversation, it is important to remember to be genuine and sincere with communications. A commercial business needs to continue retaining and attracting custom and consumers appear to have been understanding about the continued need for commerce throughout the virus battle. Though, it still stands that people are losing their lives to the disease. So, a delicate balance needs to be achieved and to avoid the risk of being seen as opportunistic.

Now may not be the time for an overt sales or lead acquisition campaign. Brands closely aligned with a healthcare crisis, such as medicine, cleansing, and PPE production should err on the side of caution with their communications. Messages that demonstrate support during the crisis will work in brand’s favour. Altruism needs to be meaningful and genuine or discerning consumers will see straight through it. Temporarily changing a social media icon is all well and good, but to carry real favour with the public, brands need to walk the walk.

Content is king
So, what to talk about? According to a recent survey by Atomik Research for PR Week, of those who agreed brands should comment on Covid-19, nearly 70% said brands should talk about how they are helping the NHS, and around two-thirds said they should encourage audiences to support the NHS and repeat public health messages.

Supporting the NHS has proven popular with consumers, evidenced by ten Thursday evening’s worth of Clap for Carers. Many brands have taken lead from this. Of course, messages will be based on what the business is willing to offer. Prior to the lockdown, cosmetics retailer Lush used its shop windows to communicate handwashing guidelines as advised by the NHS and invited consumers to use their in-store sinks to keep their hands clean and prevent the spread of the virus.

Whether it’s free drinks and discounts for NHS staff (Pret a Manger), free access to its gardens (National Trust), or opening early for key workers, the vulnerable and the elderly (various supermarkets, banks), small gestures and words of thanks can be enough to go above the basic response and show the brand cares. Supermarket Sainsbury’s dedicated messages of thanks to staff on TV adverts illustrates this well.

Beauty brand Dove made a bold move with its ‘Courage is Beautiful’ campaign in the US, paying homage to frontline health staff by promoting their tired, PPE worn out faces as beautiful. In a different creative direction, confectioner Cadbury’s focused on the reconnections and new relationships forged between loved ones and strangers as a result of lockdown, earning the brand kudos for lack of self-promotion of its products.

And the brands who haven’t been so popular? Those with previous reputation issues have fared not so well. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was called out for his relief fund, designed to support gig workers and seasonal employees facing hardship owing to Covid-19. Due to the fund’s structure the world’s biggest ecommerce site was required to allow for individual donations from the public and although it didn’t ask for any, consumers were quick to point out the $25 million kickstart from the trillion dollar company was hardly a gesture.

Closer to home, retailer Sports Direct faced an embarrassing climbdown after being adamant its UK stores would remain open, despite non-essential stores closing, on its thinking that selling sports equipment was essential. Following a barrage of backlash from the public, owner Mike Ashley swiftly closed stores and issued a grovelling apology.

It seems the moral of the story is if you’re well-known for not being whiter than white, perhaps it’s better to keep a low profile during a crisis.

Final thought
In her address to the nation, her majesty Queen Elizabeth II said: “While we have faced challenges before, this one different.” Every challenge, however direct or indirect to a business or a brand, will have implications that will need to be managed to make the most of an opportunity, or minimise damage. The lasting impact of Covid-19 on the world is anyone’s guess, however it has highlighted the need to prepare as fully as possible as there is always opportunity to create a conversation.