Uncertainty is what makes dealing with a crisis so difficult.
Crises are seldom isolated incidents, but more often a series of events that escalate, sometimes to the extent that they threaten a business’ existence.
Never has this been truer.
It’s hard to think of a sector of the economy that won’t be affected by the Covid-19 crisis except, perhaps, the manufacturers of toilet paper, hand sanitisers, medical gloves and facemasks.
Following the President’s announcement on Sunday, by now, responsible businesses will have plans to limit or prevent the spread of the virus. They will have communicated these policies to employees and informed clients, customers and suppliers about what they are doing and the extent to which these measures will or won’t affect them.
Job done? Not quite.
Faced with such massive uncertainty constant, ongoing communication is essential and even then, it may not be enough.
It’s been said that South Africa is at its best in a time of crisis. Despite a distinctly chequered recent track record, so far, the South African government has done a pretty good job.
Since the President’s speech declaring a state of national disaster, government communication has by-and-large been consistent, clear and calm, treading a careful line between not downplaying the seriousness of the crisis, while not creating panic.
Despite this, some people have doggedly insisted on sticking to their normal routines even though this potentially puts them and others at risk. At the other extreme, hoarders have been clearing supermarket shelves.
Does this mean government communication has failed? Not at all. It simply underlines the fact that these are very uncertain times and when there’s uncertainty people feel vulnerable and act unpredictably. Although fist fights in aisle 10 or police having to intervene when someone refuses to self-isolate make headlines, the majority of us sensibly heed the advice we’ve been given.
So, having done the initial communication, here are some things businesses should be thinking about now.
Brief your champions:
Reassuring external audiences is important but ignore your employees at your peril. They’ll be asked what you’re doing to protect them and the business; at home, in their communities, by your suppliers and your customers or clients.
No matter how good your external communication is, it’ll fall on its face if your employees are telling a different story.
Also remember they have bills to pay and families to support and will know this is a difficult time for most businesses. Regular, honest updates about what’s being done to sustain the company and how they can help will make them feel less vulnerable and more in control.
Consider at least a weekly update from the CEO or senior management.
Think beyond the crisis:
The way you behave now will be remembered long after hand sanitiser is readily available again.
Depending on how the crisis evolves, businesses may need to renegotiate contracts with suppliers and contractors. Be respectful and sensitive when you do. You may need to work with them again in future.
Also consider that how you communicate with them may get into the public domain. Your missteps will be there for all to see.
Given the uncertainty Covid-19 is causing and its impact on the economy, businesses will be desperate to boost revenue and grow sales. Be careful that short-term opportunism doesn’t do long-term brand damage – such as hiking prices on hygiene products or trying to take advantage of people’s vulnerability by marketing them personal loans.
Although it potentially won’t do as much brand damage, don’t get Covid-19 FOMO and irritate people.
Since the President’s speech, inboxes around the country have been crammed with information about what companies are doing to combat the virus. Much of this information is irrelevant. I don’t need to know what a bank, where I’m not a customer, is doing to protect its employees.
Don’t become the story:
It’s always flattering to be asked your opinion and with Covid-19 dominating the news, media is constantly looking for new angles. It’s a potentially dangerous combination. By becoming the de-facto spokesperson for a sector or industry your company or brand can become associated with the virus.
While the media will be an important channel to keep your customers informed, you don’t need to provide blow-by-blow updates.
Instead consider useful, practical consumer information, such as what your policy is on changing bookings or refunds and updates on cancelled or suspended services. Not only will this inform and empower consumers, but it should also reduce the pressure on your call centre and customer-service portals.
Pull inappropriate marketing:
Catchy campaigns and jingles that may have found favour with consumers some months ago may now be cringeworthy or just make you a laughing stock.
An example is an ad for a car manufacturer which includes a take on the hit song My Sharona. Since the Coronavirus outbreak the original has been spoofed so often that arguably anyone hearing it on the ad will be humming ‘my Corona’ rather than the name of a popular sedan.
Re-look all your advertising, marketing, PR and social media plans to make sure they’re appropriate in the current environment. Although the pressure will be on to generate sales and orders, ill-considered marketing may not only expose you to ridicule but could cost you business.
Be relevant and constructive:
Apparently it was Albert Einstein who said: “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.”
Pick n Pay is deservedly getting plenty of good publicity as a result of a sensible, thoughtful and above-all caring decision to open its stores an hour early to accommodate pensioners, who still need to shop, but whose immune systems are potentially less able to deal with a Covid-19 infection.
We tell clients that seeking publicity is the worst reason for doing social responsibility but being socially responsible often results in good PR. Pick n Pay’s initiative is a case in point.
Have a plan:
Just because the next few weeks and months may be uncertain, doesn’t mean that making things up as you go along is a good way to run your marketing communications.
Think about what the immediate priorities are, what medium-term interventions you may need to put in place and longer-term how you might emerge from the crisis in a better position than your competitors.
It doesn’t need to be cast in stone and can be updated or amended as circumstances dictate, but you’ll be better off with than without it.
Finally, remember that not everybody will respond to your messaging in the way you intended. As long as these are the exceptions it doesn’t mean your communications plan has failed.