A global pandemic has rarely appeared in a crisis management planning manual, except possibly as the crisis we all fear, but will never happen. And then, it did.
As the virus moved from country to country, the impact on businesses slowly dawned on those of us in further away destinations. New terms rapidly entered our vocabulary – social distancing, R numbers, furlough, zoom, lockdown – and the operational upheaval and communications challenges began.
So what PR lessons has Covid taught us?
#1. Tone, tone, tone – read the room, communicate problems and actions to garner support
#2. Employees are front-line ambassadors for a business – keep them informed and empowered
#3. Leaders are born in a crisis
#1. Tone, tone, tone – read the room, communicate your problems and actions to garner support
Amid the fears for human health and the need for a radical lockdown, there’s no doubt that all businesses feared the financial and employment consequences of the pandemic.
While supermarket workers, farmers and food producers joined the ranks of key workers and saw public support for their work surge, other brands like BrewDog and Kurt Geiger also sought to support their staff and communities.
Chief executive salaries were put on hold to help the workforce. Discounts were offered to NHS workers. BrewDog, like many others, swapped its production lines to supply hand sanitiser. It initiated virtual bars to help people stay connected. Deliveroo established socially distanced deliveries to help small restaurants. Morrisons donated £10 million to food banks. Costa guaranteed full wages for all staff for at least eight weeks.
They all showed empathy, a human desire to help in an overwhelming situation, and in doing so, earned respect, gratitude and a significant boost in reputation.
Meanwhile, Waterstone’s, Sports Direct and Wetherspoons saw their public reputation dented dramatically as they expressed their legitimate worries about financial survival in ways that enraged staff, customers and unions. Positioning their businesses as “essential”, they were reluctant to close, allegedly not keen to supply hygiene or protective equipment and Wetherspoons were unwilling to pay staff, implying that profit came before all else.
Even after these businesses closed and Wetherspoons agreed to pay staff, public perception did not improve. Memories are long. Understanding the mood of customers, clients and suppliers helps to communicate and reassure with the right tone.
#2. Employees are front-line ambassadors for a business – keep them informed and empowered.
Scared, unhappy staff who feel ignored or cut off from management decisions don’t represent their companies well. Customer service levels decline. Staff and customers take to social media to vent their frustration and worries. The media picks up on the social posts and the situation escalates.
Staff should feel valued and informed. They may not like all the decisions made, but they do need to understand them and how they are affected. As the situation changes, those conversations have to be repeated to ensure that your ambassadors retain your trust.
Showing staff that they are important is a major contribution to long-term positive reputation.
#3. Leaders are born during a crisis
A crisis can happen at any time and business reaction can make or break a reputation. Clarity of purpose, open lines of communication with staff and stakeholders, and a timely understanding of the needs and concerns of customers are all key to leading a business through a crisis.
The manager who can grasp all the nuances of an emerging situation, combine pitch perfect communications with the operational management of a business in difficult circumstances, emerges as a leader, not just within their business, but often within their sector and the business community at large. Reputations are made on such a stage.
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