How PR and marketing can help startups sail through the Covid crisis

The year 2020 has been totally unexpected with billions forced to stay home for weeks. The Covid 19 pandemic has not only impacted millions of lives, but also been able to trigger a global recession. Over the last few months, we have seen countries shutting borders, and social distancing becoming a norm. Companies across the world have been facing the heat, as business volumes have dipped. The war is a long drawn one and businesses across the globe are trying to reinvent themselves or rehash their strategies, with the objective of ensuring business continuity and minimising losses.

In India, the story is no different. The Covid 19 pandemic has changed the way customers behave and is forcing businesses to rethink their strategy. SMEs and startups are amongst the worst impacted. They have numerous challenges to take care of- from reviving the business (that was shut or slowed due to the lockdown) and ensuring that they have runway for the next 9-12 months in case the growth of the economy is slow. Over the last couple of months, they have no  taken drastic measures to stay afloat. Budgets across verticals have been cut, projects shelved and management forced to take huge pay cuts. Layoffs in startups and emerging businesses have made headlines with innumerable careers impacted and painted startups in red. 

Now, with the economy getting into the unlock mode, startup Founders are busy focusing on strategies to revive customer demand and get their business growth back on track. All functions across majority of startups are trying to be lean and efficient at the same time. Across a range of industries, the Marketing budgets have been slashed and funds are being used to generate business. Startups across industries are considering holding on to spends around brand awareness and big marketing/ advertising campaigns, and focusing only on digital.

PR is a spend that may also be under consideration in such uncertain times, when every penny counts. However, it is recommended that startups do not shy away from doing PR during these critical times.

Why so?

This is because it has been observed time and again that PR can help brands during the times of crisis. The story is no different in today’s era. A well thought-through PR strategy can help startups carve a differentiated positioning, that can increase brand awareness and recall as well as positively impact brand equity. 

Here are some PR and marketing tips for startups during these unprecedented times.

Communicate in a responsible manner

In such critical times, it is important for the startups to behave in a responsible and compassionate manner. The messaging across all communication channels should be of concern and communicate that ‘we are all in this together’. The employees in your startup should check on the customers and reiterate that the company stands by them. It is important for leadership to talk to the employees from time to time to ensure they do not have any sense of insecurity and can concentrate well on their work. 

The golden rule is that brands need to be cautious and not try to reap benefit from the situation or from people’s misfortune. 

Be honest and transparent

It is possible that your startup has laid off a large number of employees, like many others out there. It is important to not hide this information, and instead talk about how your company is giving pay hikes to its top performers or doing media announcements around the product/ fund raise. Honestly, in such times, the least people can expect from a company is to be honest. If you think that the layoffs news will never come out in the open because asked your exiting employees to stay mum, you are probably dreaming. In the world of social media, a tweet/a LinkedIn post or a simple Whatsapp message can also go viral and/or reach a lot of people including media. 

It is best to be honest and not be defensive in such critical times. Customers as well as prospective employees and other stakeholders will appreciate the fact that the company was honest and transparent about its struggles. Startups like Airbnb and Uber are classic examples of how companies can be transparent even in their tough times, and spin off the story to their advantage. 

Leverage social media and blogs

In the times of Corona when people are locked inside their homes, they are spending a lot more time on the social media and on their mobile phones. A lot of them are struggling to cope with uncertainty, fear and the feeling of being lonely. This is a good opportunity for brands to continuously stay connected with their customers. It may not be the best time to launch a product (unless it is very relevant to the current scenario) or push out a blog on the company’s fund raise, but startups can work around content that is relevant for the customers, coping with the crisis. 

Content around the world scenario in these times and how the startup can help its audience will work very well. For example, a startup in the healthcare space should create and push out content around how to stay safe and healthy. In case the company is in the online education space, it can be good to push out content on how online education or the new way of education is much more impactful and efficient. The products of the startup can be subtly included in the blog or any other content.

Creative content will work well

Content is the key. The Marketing team of the startup should create content for social media or for media stories that communicate that they ‘care’. For example, just sharing updates on how the team is holding up together in such crazy times can go a long way in communicating that the brand and its Founders really care for their employees. You can leverage some of your employees’ networks and encourage them to share posts on how even working in lockdown is fun at your startup. Such initiatives can help create a positive brand image and will also enable the brand to hire great talent in the times to come.

Be Human 

The tone of voice is the key in such uncertain times. Irrespective of your business, it is recommended to maintain a tone of safety and empathy. No need to boast about one’s own business or successes, unless it could be of any relevance, whatsoever for the customer. A force-fit will be detrimental. Instead, the messaging should be human and more relevant to the audience.

Adapt your announcements

The announcements that need to be made should be adapted to be more in sync with the top issues and needs as created by the coronavirus pandemic. Announcements need to be sympathetic, compassionate, in tune with what is needed to fight Covid 19, or about products that can solve the problems of the customers. 

Nike’s “Play inside, play for the world” ads and Coca Cola’s “Staying apart is the best way to stay united” billboards are good examples of adapted announcements.

Another example could be if the startup can help customers with easy and quick access of products (that is difficult in the Covid era) or a loan interest waiver for a specific time period, to help them financially. Such initiatives will be well appreciated across stakeholders.

Give it back to society

It is good to give it back to the community in these times. It is advisable that the company associates with an NGO/ cause and works towards betterment of lives for a set of individuals, in the times of corona. For example, if a startup is going out of its way and manufacturing of masks and other safety material, it is a good PR story.

While such stories can do well with the media, it is important for you to pick and choose the key ones for media/ external outreach. This is because pushing all kinds of information around ‘helping the society’ can make the startup ‘desperate for some fame’. Also, it is not advisable to try and connect to the misery of someone and use it to the brand’s advantage.

Showcase strong leadership

This is a good time for the leadership should come forward and talk about the challenges in current times and the plans ahead. It is possible that these are plans that may evolve with the times, but the message that the company’s Founders have a plan in place and are on top of the situation can send a very positive message to the partners, investors, customers as well as employees. It is okay to talk about failures or certain challenges as people will relate to them. The Founder can send a letter to all his customers talking about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on his business and how the company is coping up. You can also choose to post a letter by the Founder/s on their social media profiles that can be viewed by all. Being real is the key! 

The PR and marketing strategies need to be reset so as to make impact. The plans need to be reworked, messaging realigned and announcements adapted to ensure they make the required impact. Content will play a key role. It is important that the Founders take this crisis as an opportunity and take steps to make the most of it. They should make the most of this situation and connect to their customers in new and unchartered ways, with the aim to position the startup as a ‘brand with a purpose’. This is the time to be compassionate and humane, as the world starts the process of rebuilding itself.

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 heads PR and Communication at BharatPe. She has 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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