Covid-19 Comms

EV Insight… Keeping comms strong in a time of crisis, and beyond

By Tara Tomes

Well, there’s certainly no doubt that the past week has been different… unsettling, challenging and anxiety-inducing. We are living in, what has become the buzzword of Covid-19, “unprecedented” times and we have no choice but to adapt.

Every business and business owner – big and small – is feeling the same level of pressure… Will we keep our clients and customers? Can I pay the team? Will my business survive this? TeamEV has spent the past week helping reassure our clients and, where we can, answer some of those questions. Our focus has been on some of the key industries that we work in, namely retail and hospitality; two industries that shouted the loudest at the beginning and, thankfully, had some reassurance from Rishi Sunak’s emergency measures last week. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for the next announcement to focus on the self-employed and freelancers too. 

Now, as some of the dust settles and the team continues with strategic comms and campaigns for clients, my role as “the boss” is looking at our own business. I won’t lie, it’s both worrying and overwhelming, especially when so much of it is out of my own hands. Last week saw us lose our biggest client with no reassurance about whether we’ll get them back once this is all over and, already this week, we’ve seen two others – understandably – pause their PR. Whilst I say “understandably” because they are restaurants hugely impacted by the pandemic, it’s also really important for businesses not to act too quickly and pause their marketing and comms activity.

A time of crisis is crucial for both the short and long term of a brand, but it can also provide new opportunities, even when it’s difficult to find them. 

But I would say that… I run a PR agency trying to survive, right? Well, read on and hopefully what I have to say gives you the perfect reason to keep your freelancers and agencies on board during the Covid-19 crisis. 

Communication is key

In any kind of crisis, communication is key. It was the first thing I learnt back as a young PR professional when doing crisis comms training. Back then we were looking at managing media relations during major incidents and terrorist attacks, but the point still stands. In times of uncertainty, people are looking for reassurance and answers… and your business can provide that. 

There are three key areas that you should be looking at with your comms: 

>>> Reputation and brand management : keeping your business and brand front-of-mind with customers. A recent webinar by the team at Kantar, about brand management during the Covid-19 crisis, reiterated the importance of salience and stated that strong brands recover nine times faster in times like these, and are much better insulated from the full impact. This means that it’s important to be salient not just in the short term, but to ensure your longer-term existence. 

>>> Crisis comms : very much linked to reputation, but having experts there ready to be both proactive and reactive when it comes to any negative commentary around the current crisis, linked to your brand or industry. This is about being prepared and ready to respond to questions or queries from customers, suppliers, prospects, and the wider community. 

>>> Strategic campaign planning : whilst the Covid-19 pandemic is scary, let’s remember that it isn’t forever and if the Government is to be believed (and I’m feeling pretty confident about it right now) they will do what they can to support businesses through the next few months. With this in mind, it’s so crucial that you’re seeing beyond the uncertainty and into the huge opportunity that lies ahead when “normal service resumes”. Albeit likely a “new normal” the last thing you want is to be on the backfoot without any kind of plan, so use this time for strategy and planning, pulling together your six, 12 and maybe even three-year plans. 

A new normal 

I think it’s naïve to assume that everything will return to how it once was in a few months’ time. The length of time is unknown itself and the affect that it will have on society also remains a mystery. Yes, people will experience loss and heightened mental health issues, but will these coming months be a chance to re-connect with people, albeit digitally; to have a better work/life balance, forcing ourselves into a proper routine; to cook more and appreciate exercise… is this a chance to ‘reset’ ourselves? 

One of things that instantly strikes me is how this has already forced us to be a more digital-first nation; everyone is embracing video calls to contact friends and cloud technology to enable working from home… something we’ve done in pockets of society before but not as a whole. Spending more time at home takes away some of the everyday pressures and allows us to connect with what’s happening online; some social media sites are reporting double the traffic in just one week. Imagine! 

This, for me, presents a huge opportunity to develop your business in a way that lends itself to more digitally-focused customers. It’s not just about Millennials and Gen-Z; if nothing else it seems less likely that digital marketing will alienate such a huge percentage of people, which is what we’ve assumed before. Let’s adapt our brands and communications to suit new behaviours in some markets, and reinforced behaviours in existing ones. For example, our client Centrick released its virtual viewings last week to ensure that its lettings and sales business continues during this time. Would this have previously been seen as a nice-to-have feature? Whereas now it’s the only way to view a property for the time being… after a few months, this kind of virtual experience will become so familiar to us all. 

Let’s learn from China

With the first case of Covid-19 reported in China back in December 2019, they are some months ahead of Europe and are now, hopefully, coming out the other side. Albeit extremely battered and bruised as a nation. 

However, clever marketing folk have used the past few months to look at what’s happened to industries in China, and what’s already being seen during the recovery. This is something we can really learn from and might just help with some of the ‘doom and gloom’. 

The first thing to note is that China was already a digital-first economy so had a more robust mobile infrastructure, but consumer spending on and offline is still just as valuable. During the peak of their crisis, of course spending decreased and completely stopped in areas like hospitality, travel, fitness, beauty and luxury goods. It also increased in obvious areas like medicine, cleaning products and online entertainment. However, even before the full recovery period, they saw spending and the intention to spend instantly increase again in most areas, with the exception of luxury goods and online entertainment; these two areas saw spending decrease. Interesting times for designer brands where 25% of people in China said they’d continue their reduction in spending in this area post-pandemic. 

What they did see was that personal care remained largely unaffected, so skincare brands – rather than make-up brands – have an opportunity to capitalise on this market immediately. 

The instant spending – and intention to spend – in the other main areas means that consumer confidence wasn’t knocked by what happened; people wanted to get straight back out there to enjoy meals with friends, invest in their healthcare regime with nutritional products, book holidays, and buy “stuff”. Literally, 82% of people said they would instantly return to out-of-home dining and book travel. This reiterates my point about not halting your marketing now; your customers will return, and you need to retain your share of voice so that they come straight back to you when this is all over.  

In the meantime, however, certain businesses can capitalise on a more captive audience and increase their penetration whilst we’re in the ‘lockdown’ phase. Research by Kantar shows that in China, during their main Covid-19 period, saw online health consultations up 34%; an opportunity for healthcare professionals but also, post-pandemic, medical beauty clinics. Businesses in the EdTech sphere, like our client Oxbridge, also have an opportunity as there was a 33% increase in online education course enrolment, as well as 29% more embracing more telecommuting software like Microsoft Teams. Pay-for entertainment was up by 26%, which really surprised me as I assumed that increased choice might mean that people were less likely to pay for online experiences, but it wasn’t the case and we’re already seeing theatres charge nominal amounts for their virtual sessions, which means that people can support them continuing to have a revenue stream even during closure. 

There are some great learnings from China, which I think can really shape not just what we do now but as things start to improve too. 

Keeping content relevant 

As always, content is key and learning from China provides a great insight into what consumers expected and wanted in more general terms. It’s difficult, as we’re still in the early stages of it, to understand the true sentiment out there in the UK and mainland Europe, so I think having some stats around another nation – albeit culturally different – can help us anticipate where we might stand in the coming weeks. 

Content-wise, it falls simply into six key areas: 

>>> A relevant tone of voice : whilst we want escapism from the ‘doom and gloom’, I would strongly advise against brands ignoring the pandemic altogether. Adapt your tone of voice to reassure people and be empathetic to what’s happening out there. Make sure you remain on top of current sentiment so that you can adapt what you’re saying if things change 

>>> Enable future planning : don’t lose sight of the fact that this is a temporary situation and you need to be ready to hit the ground running when the situation improves, otherwise you’ll lose valuable brand sentiment, share of voice, and customer engagement. Likewise, you need to help your customers have this foresight too; help them plan for a future beyond lockdown

>>> Promote the essentials : understand what your customers want and need, and try to offer things that add value to their lifestyle

>>> Provide ideas and inspiration : people want to be mentally stimulated so make your comms creative and engaging 

>>> Help with mental wellbeing : do things and create content that will allow your customers to maintain a steady state of mind. What role can you play in improving their overall mental health and wellbeing? 

>>> Upskill your customers : learning becomes a big focus for people when they’re at home for a prolonged period of time, so what can you do to help people learn new skills and be more creative? 

Most importantly, do not exploit customers… don’t capitalise on them being scared or vulnerable, and don’t forget all of the rules of GDPR. I, for one, am bored of my inbox being full of businesses I don’t know telling me that they’ve sent their staff to work from home as part of their ‘Coronavirus Responsibility measures’… I just don’t care.

At times like these, success can be challenging but, in some ways, can be even easier to achieve as behaviours start to lend themselves to fewer customer expectations. Going back to China, just 2% of people said they expected and wanted advertising to stop… two percent. That, in itself, shows that people expect you to still speak to them, but just in a more thoughtful way. We are more human-centric during a crisis so:

>>> Adapt your comms to address people’s needs and how you can add value to their lives

>>> Talk more about people; both in your business and how you can support the community

>>> Accelerate your digital presence and products so that you’re in the spaces that your customers are… don’t get left behind! 

I was reading an article on PRWeek.com and Mark Perkins from W Communications said that “this could be our finest hour” and you know what… he’s absolutely right! 

Tara Tomes