Communicating in times of crises: COVID-19

October 12, 2020

Skye Lambley, Group Managing Director, Herd MSL

So much has changed in such a short period of time. The challenges brands faced two months ago are vastly different to today or what lies ahead.

No one can be sure what a post-COVID-19 world will look like but we know it will alter how we live, work and communicate. There are lessons we can take from now to help inform tomorrow.

We’ve already seen a number of interesting learnings in how leaders and brands have communicated to their audiences. Here I distil the key recommendations that have emerged.

1. Audience First

It’s critical to understand what your audiences are concerned about, what they need, and how to help or reassure them now and into the future. Consider four main groups: employees, customers, the wider community and the board or shareholders.

Understand that employees may be worried about losing their jobs and what that would mean for their families. It’s essential they hear the voice of their leader and know that their employer is with them.

Customers are likely thinking about impacts on service, availability, accessibility or cost. They are wondering how the company is handling refunds, if they’re providing relief and what they can expect in the weeks to come.

Given the sheer scale of this crisis, organisations also need to work hard to ensure their actions lend support to their local communities. Use this time to enrich local relationships. Providing resources such as cleaning supplies or food for vulnerable communities and those in quarantine can enhance the organisation’s credibility.

As for shareholders and the board, the epidemic has created intense volatility in our financial markets. With earnings season just around the corner, publicly-listed companies have a special responsibility to communicate the impact of the virus on their operations. Companies need to ensure transparency around short-term challenges, and communicate what they’re doing about the problem now – and future possibilities for when it evolves. They should also consider using the crisis as an opportunity to reinforce the corporation’s long-term vision.

2. Lead with empathy

You’ve adopted your-audience specific lenses and ascertained what each group needs. Now you must adopt an empathetic approach to your communications with each. How you communicate and when you reach out matters as much as what you say.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has become a symbol for leading with empathy, and her communications during the COVID-19 crisis have also been among the strongest. She has been clear, articulate, used simple visuals and taken decisive action.

Ardern has displayed her human, empathetic side; after putting her toddler to bed, she hosted a Facebook Live Q&A focused on coronavirus from her couch, inviting the audience into her home. She held a press conference just for children with Dr Siouxsie Wiles and scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, who specialise in science communication for kids, to help translate the messages to a different audience. She’s also created a ‘Conversations on COVID-19’ series, and recently interviewed psychologist, Nigel Latta, on tips and tricks to help New Zealanders in this difficult period.

Take note of Ardern’s approach – operate with empathy, communicate simply and swiftly to each audience, and be proactive, transparent and visible.

3. Time for action

Employees, customers, communities and shareholders will decide if brands have acted meaningfully but you ultimately need to possess a willingness to act, an ability to execute, and authenticity in delivery.

There is room for creativity but stay true to the brand. Perhaps start by revisiting the company purpose and developing a list of initiatives that make sense for the business at this time.

Some automotive companies have switched to manufacturing much-needed ventilators. Alcohol and perfume makers are similarly now producing hand sanitiser; while other organisations have forged partnerships to make a difference – Virgin Australia teaming up with OzHarvest to redistribute food from its out-of-use aircraft and empty lounges to hungry Australians.

There’s even been partnerships within the same industry between those who would ordinarily be business rivals, such as supermarkets, banks, and telcos.

4. Be a beacon of positivity among choppy seas

We don’t know how long this will last, or how much change is yet in store.

When the urgency subsides, brands will need to investigate what COVID-19 changes for them, and what they can learn from it. They may need to re-think and re-design strategies, branding, workforce, supply chains, operations, finance and liquidity.

But for now, firm and clear leadership will stand organisations in good stead for when we do emerge in our post-COVID-19 world. After all, people remember how you made them feel in their dark days – and are quick to make long-lasting judgements about the competence and ethics of business leaders during times of crisis.

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Herd MSL

Herd MSL is an ANZ public relations and integrated communications agency that provides strategic counsel and creative thinking. We champion our clients’ interests through fearless and insightful campaigns that engage multiple perspectives and holistic thinking to build influence and deliver impact.

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