It is fair to say we are living in extraordinary times.
Not one of us has ever had to face a situation anything like this. COVID-19,
CV-19 or just simple Coronavirus is something none of us has ever had to deal with and let’s hope we never have to again.
As a business, there is no definitive ‘best’ way to proceed. Partly this is because the situation is developing so rapidly that by the time you have formulated a response it may well be out of date - and partly because we are all in this together. Your customers are scared, I imagine you are apprehensive, and there is nothing we can do to remove the problem. All we can do is follow advice and protect ourselves, our loved ones and everyone in our communities.
In the last few days I’m sure, like me, you have been receiving emails from every company you have ever even thought about talking to. Each is keen to tell you how they are approaching the problem of CV-19. On a freelance PR forum, I saw someone described Coronavirus as the new GDPR. Don’t those halcyon days when all we had to moan about was deleting an email seem a long time ago?
But this is not a flippant business. Your customers need assurance and they want to know your company is being proactive in dealing with CV-190.
I said there was no single correct way to approach this problem but a few of the emails I have received have stood out. Firstly, the CEO of Tesco after detailing all the changes they were making took the time to remind readers that their staff were working extra hard and were at greater risk of contracting CV-19. Therefore, he reminded us, it might be nice to say thank you. In times of general anxiety, kind words and deeds can mean a great deal.
The second one was from the Co-op. In this, the CEO covered all the same main points about opening hours, restricted access to help keyworkers, etc., but at the end he took the time to say he had contacted the Government to see what it was doing about children with free school meals. The children in their academies were going to be given a £20 voucher every week of the duration of the crisis to help them get a proper meal.
Cynically, you could say these are companies getting good publicity during a hard time. You can say the same of Greggs, Costa, Starbucks, Ferrari, Louis Vuitton, Brew Dog, and hundreds of other companies who are doing things to help – whether its turning their plants into ventilator manufacturing facilities, making hand sanitizers, or providing key workers with free hot drinks. These are all positive acts that support our communities at a time when that help is needed. I choose to not be cynical because it has no benefit.
I said there is no definitive positive approach during this time but there is certainly a negative way to do it. I am amazed at the businesses who have not stopped or changed their social media advertising or e-mail marketing to reflect the severity of the current situation. In one day, I received an email offering huge discounts on airport parking, a “The Slopes Are Calling and I Must Go!” poster, and even a sponsored ad for a wedding gift list company. As a recent divorcee, this last one is particularly bad. It should also be obvious that, while that email arrived before last night’s announcement, it did arrive when people were already cancelling weddings. One of our client’s is a cake baker and she has lost all of her bookings.
Obviously, these adverts were not sent maliciously but they were distributed thoughtlessly. Inappropriate communications can add to people’s stress levels at a time when that should be avoided at all costs.
These communications will probably have been planned a long time in advance but that is no excuse with today’s technology. A part of any crisis management system must be the stopping of inappropriate messaging. Companies will be judged by how they respond and if all customers see is people taking advantage or messages that display ignorance of what is happening, they will be judged harshly.
It is a scary time but, if we work together, we will get through this. I’ve worked in many crisis situations over the years, although nothing on this scale because no one has! I can tell you, from my experience, the companies that succeed are the ones that maintain a clear message. In the current circumstances, I would suggest that message needs to be:
· Show how you are protecting stakeholders
· Show how you are supporting your customers
· Bring to your customers’ attention any special services – for example Holland Harper LLP has added a webpage to its site to bring all business related COVID-19 news and advice to help its customers. The page can be visited here
These are certainly extraordinary times but, if we work together and we work intelligently, we will get through this.