It is said that you can always learn from the best. In this article, Ellen Gunning discusses some PR hits and misses seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.The COVID-19 pandemic hit hard and fast. Countries and companies alike struggled to cope and communications suddenly became front and centre. Very few had designed crisis PR plans that included a worldwide pandemic. So how have they done so far?
Look at New Zealand for example, and the way in which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern closed the country in March after the number of COVID-19 cases passed 100. She laser- focused on her primary audience – her citizens. She judged all decisions against this measure – would it be in their best interest despite added questions of travel and economy? In Ireland, the decision to put doctors from the Health Service Executive front and centre for daily media briefings was very clever. The public generally distrusts politicians so the decision to put Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan in charge, an excellent communicator, proved to be very well-informed. This successful PR strategy used trusted influencers to communicate about public health and safety took the spotlight off politicians and put it firmly on medical experts who could advise and respond knowledgably to any media queries.
In South Korea, the government introduced rather onerous tracking systems that could identify where people ate and whether or not they had been exposed to the virus. These measures had the support of citizens following the deathly MERS virus that South Korea mishandled in 2015. Similar to New Zealand and Ireland, the PR focus is on the audience, but in this case it is about lessons learned. They put time into showing, effectively, that the key to learning from a crisis like MERS is that it cannot be forgotten as soon as it ends. Rather, the lessons must identify changes which are implemented and monitored to prevent a recurrence.
Companies also found themselves facing a variety of challenges when it came to communication. The best companies stopped advertising, and began helping customers to prove their loyalty, showing they DID care about customers and were NOT focused just on sales. They are building on the loyalty that they have won over the years and putting effort into ensuring that they continue to earn it.
We've seen loyalty by mobile phone companies offering free unlimited data for those struggling with working from home. We've also seen food companies who have created yoga classes and mental health programmes for people struggling with confinement. Smaller companies have also tried to play their part by donating PPE equipment or fundraising for frontline staff. The PR messaging is clear – you are not just people that we sell to. You are a part of our ‘community.’ We are all in this together.
These same corporate leaders have also learned and recognised boundaries that go along with these troubled times. People at home need ‘time out’ during the day to either fix WiFi or take care of children. Employee communications have also become central to businesses who were quick to realise that working at home is not so easy. Many recognised the value of ‘water-cooler’ chat, and many introduced book clubs or bingo sessions in order to simulate their need for daily human interaction.
However, not everyone has risen to the challenge.
We've seen companies like chemist shops price gouging by charging exorbitant prices on products like sanitiser because there is a demand, including increases of almost 850%. Printers similarly increased prices by 500% after they suddenly found people needing signs for distancing measures. While consumers who need these products will pay now, they will remember the corporate focus these companies had when other resources are again made available.
We have seen national leaders seem lost; politicians failing to adhere to their own policy or not complying with face mask advice; and the public greeting corporate leaders with disdain after their attempts to apply for government assistance. It does not inspire confidence.
So, what lies in store in the future?
Businesses who price gouged, politicians who failed to lead, corporates who did not care or empathise will face the wrath of consumers and constituents who have been abandoned.
Businesses, politicians and corporates who cared, treated people as part of their community, and tried to address their anxieties and issues will be rewarded.
Is it hopeless now for those who got it wrong?
I believe not. There is a great capacity to forgive if the culprit is willing to publicly admit their mistake and show steps of amendment. But it must be done skilfully in one of two ways– by retaining the services of a professional practitioner whose training and experience will be invaluable to your business, or by upskilling employees on a PR training platform so that they can learn quickly and start to put a professional shape on your communications strategy. Whichever route companies choose, they should do it NOW!