As the COVID-19 virus (AKA novel coronavirus) has spread around the world, both organizations and individuals have had to make adaptations large and small. And with virus stories dominating the news cycle, if your company is affected directly or indirectly by the virus, the eyes of the world are on your response. That means that any mistakes you make could easily be amplified, but so can positive behavior.
So the big question for PR and marketing professionals is: How can companies, brands, and organizations respond positively to the COVID-19 crisis?
Formulate a comprehensive crisis communications plan
The credibility and reputation of organizations depend on identifying risks and making informed decisions, with the impact on the public at the forefront of the decision making process. The ideal time to do this is before the crisis begins. Predicting and preparing for potential crises can dramatically ease the pain of dealing with them – or even prevent them from escalating in the first place.
To do so, companies should identify risk factors in an organization. For example, what activity might cause social harm or result in reputational damage? How can a company protect its customers, employees, and other stakeholders? And how can it communicate in ways that make them feel that sense of safety?
Clearly all crises are unique to the individual or company experiencing them, and there is no single solution that meets the needs of all companies.
“Some organizations are very resilient and capable of weathering most issues before they become crises, while others are very sensitive,” Vero COO Pattanee Jeeriphab says. “Each company defines ‘crisis’ differently, but we consider them to be in a crisis once an issue becomes big enough that their business cannot operate normally or the issue reaches the public consciousness.”
Despite the particularities, there are four key elements to enacting any crisis management plan:
- Put a dedicated team in place to manage the crisis. Companies should create a preparation deck with roles in place for each person who would take part in the crisis war room. For some companies facing potential complexity and severity of the crisis, it might even be a good idea to do simulation training.
- Determine the facts. It’s important to talk to people involved and understand exactly what happened, so that you can share accurate information with stakeholders, counter any misleading rumors, and seek an appropriate solution.
- Share the company’s story. Take control of the narrative by explaining clearly and transparently how the crisis happened and what you are doing – and plan to do – to solve it and prevent it from recurring.
- Go to the root of the problem and fix it. Actions speak louder than words in this case. It’s important to make whatever changes are necessary to end the crisis and prevent future ones, even if that means suspending some operations, taking losses, or altering fundamental aspects of your business model.
Put safety and transparency first
In a public health crisis, one thing will hurt your business more than any other: appearing unconcerned about the safety of either your customers or your employees. Income and profits are important, but safety for oneself and others is paramount.
And when it comes to the risk of infection, transparency is key. Organizations should be clear about the risks posed to their stakeholders, as well as ways to mitigate them.
Regular updates of credible information grant a brand voice legitimacy and authority, both of which come in handy when rumors and misinformation begin spreading as fast as the virus itself. And if a viral infection occurs, it’s far better to be take strong and transparent measures than ones that may be deemed insufficient.
For instance, ride-sharing service Grab closed both its Singapore and Bangkok offices for 5 days after a Singapore-based employee who had recently visited Bangkok tested positive.
While there’s no going back and preventing the COVID-19 outbreak, companies have a role to play in preventing it from spreading further. One way that the illness has changed marketing involves the kinds of events that companies hold.
“In Thailand, we’re currently advising our clients not to organize press or public events,” Pattanee Jeeriphab says. “It’s better to reduce exposure, and try alternatives like online events rather than in-person ones.”
Find ways to provide social solutions.
There is opportunity in every crisis, and a public crisis creates a chance to show value as a corporate citizen. While some would exploit the crisis by jacking up prices or trying to cheat quarantines, companies and businesspersons who are willing to sacrifice short-term profits in order to help people in a time of crisis will gain positive reputations that benefit them in the long-term.
Businesses in China have been involved in fighting the crisis for a while now, but similar pro-social practices could become essential in Southeast Asia if the crisis continues. For example, some insurance companies have begun offering free coverage for those who are diagnosed. And for those employees who exhibit symptoms or have been to high-risk areas, employers can allow them to self-quarantine for up to two weeks by granting leave or the ability to work at home.
In Thailand, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group is donating food and face masks to hospital staff and individuals suspected of being infected with the virus, and they’re even building a factory to produce more masks. Of course, a large-scale effort like this requires a global network like CP’s, but it’s an example of the type of activity that creates a lot of good will among the general public.
In Singapore, Grab’s GrabCare program provides transportation and discounts to medical professionals traveling from hospitals housing COVID-19 victims, which otherwise might be difficult to obtain.
On a smaller scale, ABC Bakery in Vietnam began buying excess dragon fruit and using it to add flavor and color to its baked goods after founder Kao Sieu Luc heard farmers bemoaning their unsold fruit due to the closure of Vietnam’s border with China. To further support the farmers, Luc shared his dragon fruit banh mi recipe and welcomed other bakers to use it. The result has been a dragon fruit bread boom and a lot of positive buzz for ABC Bakery.
Prepare for the post-crisis
Even if the virus stays with us, in a business sense the COVID-19 crisis won’t last forever. Those companies who want to remain standing – and perhaps even come out stronger – must pay serious attention to their actions and the messages they send.
“Crises can reveal a business’s character and have a major impact on its reputation long after the crisis is over,” Pattanee Jeeriphab says. “Those who have been caught off guard by COVID-19 should catch up now and learn from their mistakes.”