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20 March 2020 / Opinion

How to approach brand communications in unprecedented times

Laura Smith / PR Client Services Director

A huge part of honing your craft in PR is having an understanding of crisis communications. Every agency, in-house professional, and consultant will have their own method of approaching a crisis, dependent on the brand they’re working with. But key elements of that process will remain the same - preparation being key. But what do we do in times of crisis that are completely unprecedented? We are currently living through a global event, the scale of which has potentially never been experienced before, definitely not in the modern world we live in now.

No PR or marketing professional has made a plan for how to deal with this exact situation, so everyone is trying their best to react in the correct way for their brand, and also engage with people on a human level. This is no longer about driving referral traffic which leads to a specific ROI, this is truly about supporting each other, and being there for customers in a way that may well be unchartered territory for a lot of brands.

So, what does this mean in practice? Stopping all communications activity definitely isn’t the correct approach, but this also shouldn’t be seen as an ‘opportunity’ - every brand should be thinking about how they can help and support their consumers at this time, and this could be in a myriad of ways, but it can’t be seen as just a sales opportunity - this is long-term now, and every marketing team needs to be thinking about their approach to this over what is likely to be a number of months, and the fall-out lasting for potentially years.

There isn’t a one size fits all approach

For our clients, we are assessing every single piece of activity individually. There is no single way to look at a potential comment or campaign at the moment, and you need to review everything that you’re currently working on, or have planned and make a call on if it’s the right thing to do. For example, last week, we were starting to plan a piece of content for one of our clients about UK festivals - even without the confirmation of cancellations, we made the call to suggest alternatives as early as possible to give us enough time to replace it with a suitable idea. Everyone needs to accept that even the best-laid plans might change in the coming weeks or months - agree sign off processes now to make that easier, and involve as many people as are needed in any initial conversations.

Keep up to date

With so much news emerging every hour of every day, it can be hard to keep up with the latest news without driving yourself mad, or causing anxiety. I’ve found that reviewing the news in the morning, checking in with Twitter at lunch, and then reading the updates from the PM briefing at 5pm, is enough right now. It means I know what’s going on to advise clients, but I’m not swimming in too much news throughout the day. Make sure you’re checking reputable channels, too - there is so much fake news around, and you don’t want to advise your client based on something that isn’t true. What’s more - if you’re agency-side, chat with your clients, how are they finding the situation? Is there anything that’s particularly worrying them? This will also give you an insight into the type of news they will be keen to see. This still stands if you’re in-house - speak to your colleagues, understand their concerns so you can help them in the best way possible.

Be helpful, understanding and empathetic

Consider your usual tone of voice and content plans - are they appropriate for the current situation? If you’re not sure, listen. Spend time looking at what people are talking about on social media platforms - are they making jokes? Are they looking for an escape? Or, are they seeking advice, or educational content? You know your audience better than anyone, so now’s the time to listen to what they’re saying and make a call on how to move forward based on that.

You also need to consider that people’s lives are changing, and whether or not your brand fits into those changes, their behaviour and interactions with your brand are going to change, and more than likely, this will be for a long time. How can you support people who are working from home, self-isolating, or have their children at home with them while they’re trying to work? And here’s the million-pound question - should it be you that supports them? If not, don’t be afraid to back off for now, and think of a different way to keep your brand out there. And if there isn’t a way to do that, dial back activity until the time is right, and spend the time now planning and making sure your comeback activity is better than ever.

Speak to experts

We’re in an ever-changing environment right now,for example,Twitter is prohibiting all promoted content that refers to COVID-19 and Facebook banned ads for medical face masks to prevent exploitation. If you think that your content is relevant and should be promoted to more people, speak to your teams about the best course of action. Even if your content isn’t linked, still review it, get as many eyes on it as possible - you should be leaning on your wider internal teams, as well as agencies for support across any channel.

Make sure you know how your agency can help - they will want to support you as much they can during this time. And if you don’t currently work with an agency - find that support on Twitter - I’m sharing updates on successes we’re seeing in our team on Twitter every day, and many others are sharing their experiences and advice.

Can you do something positive?

This will not work for every brand, but think about if you can offer something for free, or do something within your community. McDonald’s and Pret are both offering free drinks for NHS workers, and I’ve seen plenty of brands tweeting about offering services to support both businesses and individuals.

Now, this isn’t right for everyone, and shouldn’t be seen as a ‘PR stunt’ or ‘brand building opportunity’, even though, ultimately, it could potentially have a positive impact on your brand. Think of it as a way to give back and support your customers through such a difficult time.

If you’re a business that’s struggling to know what to do for the best at the moment, we are offering some really practical advice on our blog and feel free to drop me a Tweet if you have any questions or just want to chat - we truly are all in this together.