There’s no playbook for this… according to the CEO of this PR firm

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I get it. You’ve worked so hard to build that marketing strategy of yours. But when there is a sudden and ongoing crisis – you’re going to have to shelve it for a while. 

The worldwide spread of COVID-19 has thrown the regular news and content cycle into a tailspin. People aren’t acting like they usually do, and their conversations aren’t the same either. Brand engagement numbers are down across the board, with people predominantly turning to platforms like Twitter for information and news updates.

Flashback to a month ago: On March 11, 20 million people in the U.S. were talking about the coronavirus on Twitter, compared to the 2 million who were discussing the cancellation of the NBA schedule, and the 4 million who mentioned Donald Trump, as reported by Vox. Fast forward to today, where COVID-19 is overwhelmingly at the forefront of everyone’s minds. According to Brandwatch, the sentiment around these daily conversations is also mostly negative, with disgust being the most common emotion. 

It’s simply not the best time to be promoting your brand. No, it really isn’t, so stop it. People are more concerned about safety right now, and are critical of tone-deaf messaging. Many companies (now) understand this and have acted accordingly.

For example, Hershey recently pulled an influencer marketing campaign, featuring Bob Williams and Diggy Moreland, hugging and handing out Hershey bars to strangers, because they feared backlash for not exemplifying social distancing. Their ads no longer feature people, just chocolate. 

KFC also pulled a “Finger-Lickin’ Good” ad over concerns that it might appear unhygienic, and Axe pulled a commercial where a man’s armpit stench disperses a crowd and causes oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling, for fear of seeming insensitive. Good call on that last one, folks.

It seems as if there’s a shared sense of hesitation amongst marketers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s forcing teams to rewrite their policies and processes.The fact is, no one is rightfully prepared for marketing during spontaneous global crises. Your usual processes and modes of operation are not suitable for the public, when said public is in a panic. Your procedures, your brand guidelines, your content calendar — they don’t mean much right now. Rightfully so.

This doesn’t necessarily mean brands have to remain dormant like a hibernating bear. Many have actually bolstered loyalty and goodwill during this time. The key lesson here is to add value to the conversation and to not ‘market’ to them.

Instead of promoting their products, high-fashion brand Moncler publicly donated almost $11 million to build a new hospital in Milan. Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren donated $10 million to various COVID-19 related charities and contributed to the production of 250,000 facemasks and 25,000 hospital gowns. Kraft Heinz Co. also donated $12 million to American grocery stores to help out with cash and food shortages.

Anheuser-Busch used their supply chain to help with the production of hand sanitizer, and Canadian hockey brand Bauer did something similar, but with protective face shields for medical workers. Miller Lite also took to social media to create a “#VirtualTipJar” for bartenders who are out of work. 

While these examples serve as proof that brands can successfully contribute during a crisis (regardless of true intentions), they don’t offer much in terms of a strategy. But maybe it’s because there really isn’t a long-term strategy, in the traditional sense.

Instead, you have to be flexible. I spoke with Barbara Biggar, founder and CEO of PR firm Biggar Ideas, about how brands can be more agile right now.

“In times of crisis, flexibility is key,” she says. “The plans you may have put in place, you throw out the window, because the environment can sometimes change minute by minute, certainly hour by hour and day by day.”

It may feel like you’re treading water, but marketing on the fly is an essential skill that all industry professionals need to demonstrate right now. You’re still relying on your communication skills to get the job done, but the only difference is the information is changing at a faster rate, and your turnaround time may be a lot shorter. Our Content Coordinator did just this, pausing our regular content calendar and overseeing the creation of an interim series of COVID-19 content, including roundups of accountability, articles, and even parodies of disingenuous, overly-earnest CEOs.

Just because there isn’t a well-defined strategy in place,  don’t forget that you still have rules of etiquette, formatting, vocabulary, etc. to abide by, so you’re not entirely out on a whim. One thing Biggar says is you need to pay extra attention to is your tone. 

“Tone is so critical during a crisis or a pandemic because you need to acknowledge that people are suffering, that people are living in a time that has significantly changed. How does your messaging fit into that?” Biggar asks. 

It’s a great question to ask yourself – how does your messaging fit into what’s currently going on in the world and everyone’s personal lives? Does it actually contribute to the conversation? Biggar uses Tim Horton’s latest ad campaign to exemplify this.

“They are acknowledging in their commercials that we are living in a different world right now and how they want to continue being part of it by providing different services,” says Biggar.

While figuring out the correct tone for your messaging is crucial, it’s only one part of your crisis messaging. When it comes to figuring out the rest, Biggar chooses to employ a formula called “CAP”: Compassion, Action, Perspective.

“[CAP] tells you that you have to demonstrate compassion and acknowledge what’s going on. You need to outline your action and what you can do to help during these extreme circumstances. Then, then put it into perspective. Ask yourself, ‘Why is it important that we stay open?'” 

From Biggar’s insights and the examples we reviewed, we can start to form not quite a strategy, but a set of strategic guidelines to follow:

  1. Listen to the people – what are they talking about? Can you gauge the tone of the situation? Don’t be afraid to join the conversation.  
  2. Be flexible and prepared to adjust your content, branding, & messaging quickly, as information and sentiment changes often.
  3. Ensure the tone of your messaging addresses the current environment.
  4. Employ a CAP method: act appropriately, show compassion, and be aware of your perspective.
  5. Ask yourself, what do you have to offer the world during a crisis? Remember what is essential communication and what is not.

On another note, don’t fret too much: the world will soon find a new normal, and you’ll be able to come back to your OG marketing strategy with a newfound sense of perspective.  

However, while we wait, adjust your communications appropriately, and remain vigilant. Follow the strategic guidelines laid out above. Brands – this is your time to shine. This is your chance to get creative and really show the world what your messaging is capable of.

See? You don’t have to stay silent, but you do have to be meaningful. 

Stay safe, folks.

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