Brand communications in the times of Coronavirus pandemic

These are testing times. The world is struggling to cope with fear and the negative effect of the novel Corona virus that has impacted over 200,000 individuals in close to 170 countries. There are numerous challenges to address as Covid-19 spreads its wings across the world. 

The story is no different in India. For the past couple of weeks, we have witnessed an incremental increase in the number of Coronavirus cases. The State and the Central governments are working overtime and putting strict measures in place to contain the spread. States are under lockdown and people are restricted to their homes. However, the tally is increasing while the country tries to restrict the spread to Stage 2.

In such times, the global markets have been hit by uncertainty. Stock markets across the world are crashing. Luxury brands have already written off FY21 as a loss-making year. There have been numerous reports of global recession that have been doing the rounds. There are reports around layoffs, scale downs and investors backing out, that are already making headlines.

Corporates and businesses in India have big challenges ahead of them, as they bid adieu to FY20 on a low. These include running their business in these times, ensuring their employees are safe as well as planning for the uncertain times ahead. To add to this, they need to manage their partners and stakeholders, in case the business is expected to have a huge negative impact, like travel, aviation, dining, entertainment, amongst others.

How a company handles its stakeholder communication around coronavirus communications can have a significant impact on the public’s perception of your company

This situation is fast evolving and hence, the need of the hour is to be quick, nimble and communicate in a transparent manner. 

In such critical times, it is important for the leadership to rise to the occasion and communicate with their employees and other stakeholders. It is imperative to ensure that the communication is effective, quick and clear. Crisis communication should be designed around the following- honesty. transparency, accountability, and consistency. Also, is important to communicate via mediums that resonate best with the company’s workforce. 

Leadership voice is important

In these times it is important to not hide behind the curtains and just send an email from an HR email id. The leadership voice is what will be assuring for the employees. They would not want to receive an email from a mail id, but hear from someone in the senior management (preferably the CEO) that they can believe in. The medium can be an email, a short note or a video nugget.

The leader needs to ensure that he/she is communicating only about the issue at hand and how the company is dealing with it. He/she can have specific message for the target audience- customer/ partner/ employee. The leader should stay away from giving any medical advice.

In such situations, the rumor mills work overtime and fake news are easier to spread. Organisations need to be cognizant of this and only quote credible government sources in their communication to employees and other stakeholders.

Employee communication Phase 1- Reassurance to the employees 

In such sensitive times, it is paramount for the companies to think about the health of their employees as a first step. Employees are the biggest asset and hence, the health and safety of the employees should be one of the top issues on the agenda of any company working on the crisis plan in the current times.

If you are a proactive company that announced a work from home for its employees, keeping in mind their health, your brand can definitely gain on its positive image, irrespective of the size of your business. On the other hand, a company that does not have a clear stance on work from home and expects its employees to still travel to work in the times when majority of the companies do not, will lose out on a committed and engaged workforce and can also face the wrath of the external world.

Employee communication Phase 1- Communicate the importance of precautions

A responsible organisation should send a series of communication to their employees apprising them about the ways they can exercise precaution and stay away from the pandemic. It is recommended that the organisation communicates the importance of social distancing to its employees.

Also, key takeaways from important announcements like the PM’s address to the nation can be sent to the employees. These communication will help keep the employees informed and also reiterate that the company cares about its employees and their well-being.

 Employee communication  Phase 2- Talk about challenges ahead

Once the dust settles in a bit, it is recommended that the CEO sends a communication to the employees talking about the risks and challenges that lie ahead. It is fair to communicate that the business will face tough times (if the company anticipates that) that can have an impact in the form of layoffs or salary cuts. While the message should be packaged well to not sound insensitive in such times, it is advisable to be transparent so one is prepared for the worst.

Keeping employees informed at all times will help them understand the difficult decisions you may have to take, in the best interest of the organisation. Be clear, concise and sympathetic. 

Employee communication  Phase 3- Accepting and extending support

In case the inevitable happens and an employee of the company is infected with the virus, it is advisable that the company proactively sends out a communication to all its employees and is transparent about the developments. They should maintain confidentiality of the employee details.

Also, it is important to extend all possible support to the said employee in such times. This will go a long way in communicating to the employees that their company stands by them, in times of need.

Tweaking the supply chain

It is important for businesses to evaluate the challenges to their supply chain, in the existing scenario. The companies should take time to understand in detail how the key pillars of their supply chain will be impacted and also share corrective measures that they plan to undertake in the short term, so as to ensure that the problem is addressed.

Take the example of a company that procures its products from China. They might be facing delays in order deliveries since early 2020. It is important for them to communicate the same to their customers. Also, they should have an alternative plan with them when they write out this communication. This is recommended as it sends a clear message that the brand is on top of things and putting its best foot forward to address the issues.

In case it is a FMCG company that is witnessing exponential increase in demand, it needs to work on the supply chain and deploy alternatives so as to cater the spike in demands. A classic example of this are companies dealing in hand wash, hand sanitisers, masks etc. They could not foresee the huge demand coming their way and are currently stocked out in most supermarkets. In such a scenario, a proactive communication reiterating that the company is doing its best will be a good idea.

Communicate with customers

In such unpredictable times, customers will also want to hear from you. It is important to send a communication to the customers on the scenario and how it is expected to impact the company’s business. 

It is recommended that the company gives a view of the short-term risks and impact clearly to its customers. It should also outline the steps being undertaken to manage the crisis, both at the company and the community level. The company may not have all the answers, but it is advisable to share facts in real time and not wait to have all the answers. This will help build trust.

A follow up communication should be sent out, as the situation evolves.

Safeguard your partners

In case the companies have partners that may get exposed in case of coronavirus epidemic, like delivery boys, they need to work backwards to ensure that these individuals are well protected along with the goods they deliver.

A number of food delivery companies like Zomato and Big Basket have launched ‘zero touch delivery’ to ensure that their customers’ fears are taken care of. This is a welcome step and reassuring for the customers.

Also, companies like Urban Company have proactively assured all their service partners that their health is the top priority for the company . It has rolled out Covid-19 health insurance and income protection cover for 30,000 service professionals active on its platform in India. This is a brilliant move as the company is seen as one that really values its partners.

Use social media

In today’s digital world, it is recommended to use the social media accounts of the company as well as the CEO to communicate on the developments (as the situation unfolds) and what the company is doing to address the issues. Tailor the messages in line with your audience and use a mix of channels including LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, company’s website, TikTok and Instagram.

A number of startup founders have been doing this very effectively using their LinkedIn and Twitter handles. Companies are also streaming live sessions across specific channels. Continued communication can make all the difference (even if it is 2-3 posts in a week). The advantages of this include instant connect, opportunity to get feedback (while it is strongly recommended not to respond to abusive or derogatory comments), and reassurance for all stakeholders that the General is leading from the front.

Community impact

This is the time when companies and CEOs should try and influence a larger audience. They are industry voices and this is their opportunity to make a larger impact. 

An example of this is a set of measures that have been shared by select entrepreneurs with the Prime Minister. The entrepreneurs took the lead, created a holistic list of recommendations and sent it out to the PM. Also, they have shared these on their social channels to reach out to maximum people, who could in turn become the voice to reach to the PM. This initiative positions them as responsible leaders and the ones who really care for the society and its well-being.

As a corporate citizen, companies should support others in the supply chain, industry, community, and local government. Companies should contribute in whichever way they can- be it health care, communications, food, or technology. 

Conclusion

It is important for the companies to understand that in such unpredictable times, it cannot be business-as-usual. They need to be flexible, evolve and reinvent the way they work. They may need to live with a few tough quarters. However, in such times, it is important to keep all their stakeholders close to them. 

These tough times shall pass but I am sure they will bring out a lot of transformational changes in the way we work, the way people choose their employers and also in the way companies opt for and patronise their partners.


The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha is a seasoned brand communications professional with over 15 years of experience in working across global/digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains.

In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 30 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands. She has been associated with brands like Pine Labs, MobiKwik, VLCC and Power2SME and spearheaded their PR/brand/communication campaigns.

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