Home isolation, remote work and widespread anxieties associated with the pandemic are all hallmarks of a serious crisis. Overnight, companies and brands have been forced to act flexibly by adopting new ways of working and adapting their communication strategies to new realities. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we are all involved in some sort of crisis communication these days.
As the pandemic is upsetting existing patterns, it is also making us tap into our communication potential. Here is a great opportunity to learn to communicate with the customer instantly and put the finger on customers’ emotions and needs. With a varying degree of success, brands are experimenting with tools to make their messages more suitable to the circumstances and use them to supplant existing strategies. The need to be close to customers, understand their personal situation, new vulnerabilities and needs has never been as pressing and as challenging as it is today. Nothing is certain other than the fact that you need to build your brand value communication strategy from the ground up and stay in touch with the customer during this plight. At a time when interpersonal relationships have been almost exclusively reduced to virtual space barring us from face-to-face meetings and joint activities, digital communication is rediscovering its primary role, which is to ensure we stick together and stay close despite social distancing. Brands realize the relevance of a principle discovered years ago, which is now more significant than ever: “if you aren’t online, you don’t exist”. While before the pandemic, online presence was simply important, its criticality today exceeds all else.
Some, such as Naomi Fry in the New Yorker, describe the birth of a new culture that is based on Zoom and other video conferencing programs that have become commonplace. Work, school and yoga practice enters our personal world through a virtual door that has been left ajar. In the new reality, we accept things that were once unthinkable: wearing tracksuits to board meetings or bathrobes to other corporate get-togethers, negotiating sales transactions from behind a kitchen table and conducting job interviews from a bed. Children running around and cats jumping in front of computer screens are all part of this new virtual culture.
The rise of the hashtag
The big challenge for brand and company communication is to bring their message to specific target groups. Their job is particularly challenging at a time when everyone is pushing to get their own essential content across. The resulting information noise is deafening and, for sanity’s sake, people are compelled to be selective in choosing which messages to read from the barrage of content coming their way. The media landscape created by Covid-19 is dominated by online operators, in particular the information platforms and television news services that provide us with an endless stream of reports on every conceivable aspect of the current crisis. Can anything be done to ensure your company’s content gets noticed in this flood of almost indistinguishable publications? One method with a proven universal appeal is to use hashtags to aggregate and group content and ultimately reach one’s target. There is hardly a person in the world who has not come across the hashtag #stayhome over the last few weeks. The reach of this slogan is enormous as every one of us sees it many times a day. The hashtag itself allows it to spread rapidly. Tagging builds coverage with the use of minimal resources while allowing companies to stand up for certain values. Almost all operators around the world, be it mobile networks, theaters, museums, universities, schools, clothing companies, ministries or government agencies, have joined #stayhome communication campaigns. For some brands, #stayhome fits perfectly into their existing communication strategies. These include Netfix, Facebook and IKEA for which creating messages that are consistent with what the pandemic demands presents no particular challenge. An interesting counter-intuitive case is that of Thai Airways which awards extra airmiles for staying home to their loyalty program members (sic!) whom they track using a special phone app.
New communication priorities
These days, the top priority is not to simply keep company communications consistent with one’s corporate DNA.
Instead, the key is to be willing to help others, operate pro bono and show empathy to one’s customers, some of whom have found themselves in particularly tight spots. Many companies have responded instantly to the outbreak by repurposing production to join the fight against the health threats. These include the makers of pharmaceutical products, cosmetics and clothing, IT companies and restaurants. The restaurant industry, which was one of the first sectors to fall victim to the pandemic, makes an interesting case. Many restaurants are trying to survive by delivering their foods or turning their operations into grocery stores. Many are offering special deals to the most needy. All these activities require intensive communication on social media. Many caterers are doing it perfectly. Good examples of ideally fitting a brand’s DNA into the cause of helping the community during the pandemic come from the makers of cleaning detergents such as Henkel, which donated its products to hospitals, as well as breweries and the manufacturers of luxury cosmetics, which switched their production lines to producing sanitizer.
Fake news and rumors
Note one other aspect of crisis-age communication. The pandemic has triggered an avalanche of fake news, unchecked information, mere rumors and deliberate misinformation. The situation can be dangerous for individuals and companies alike. A case in point is the rumor (to which President Trump has contributed greatly) that injecting disinfectant (e.g. bleach) can effectively treat COVID-19 infections. This provoked a spate of customer inquiries to the producers of household chemicals and pharmaceuticals. They forced Reckitt Beckinser to issue a statement on the harmfulness of using bleach for such purposes. This case alone demonstrates just how easily and how far the most absurd information can travel. It also shows that many companies are being compelled to engage in the kind of crisis communication that would be very uncommon in the so-called normal times. Not without reason, at a Munich conference in February, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke about fake news spreading faster than the virus labeling it “infodemic”: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”.
Pandemic in homes
Remote work and virtual relationships with the loved ones whom we cannot see face to face have become the new normal. Many believe that tech companies stand to benefit from this unprecedented situation. The demand for messengers is soaring. How many electronics consumers had heard of Zoom before the pandemic broke out? Today, the company is well known to just about every person who works from home and has to teleconference. The brand’s overnight rise to popularity has sent its shares sky high. However, there is a flip side to this story. Zoom has faced scathing criticism over personal data protection. Interestingly, while the company ran a communication campaign to promote its service, it fell under attack and was forced to make assurances regarding the security of its product.
The great consumption of culture
Needless to say, remote work is not all that the people who stay at home do all day as they also enjoy virtual entertainment. Streaming platforms have mushroomed on social media, often becoming life savers for the culture and entertainment industries. Netflix responded swiftly to the pandemic by launching a special browser plug-in that allows multiple people to watch and comment on movies together. For many publishers and artists, streaming services offer a great opportunity to promote their work with the general public. Online meetings with writers and musicians allow viewers to learn more about artists and get closer to them while improving the bottom line. It is a chance for many smaller publishers to reach a wider audience. The brands that succeed in cleverly utilizing social media transmissions end up boosting their image.
The pandemic is undoubtedly an extraordinary situation. It forces many brands and companies to act flexibly. It also puts the communication skills of experts to a test. No prior experience compares to communicating in the times of the coronavirus. Everything we are now learning about communication is set to remain relevant for years to come. It is therefore worth one’s while to invest in the experience of using new tools and new communication methods at this special time.
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