COVID-19: Bossing your marketing with integrity
At the time of writing, I’m eight weeks into lockdown. From a hastily assembled desk in my living room, like many thousands of other people up and down the UK, the most common question I’ve been fielding from clients is: how on earth do we market at a time like this?
As often happens in many situations, the first to crow to the media in the initial fortnight were sometimes the most senseless or tone-deaf. We saw a certain pub boss get hammered for initially refusing to pay their staff. We looked on as a sportswear brand suggested it was an ‘essential’ store.
COVID-19 has significantly damaged many businesses, many of which may not recover. This is tragic and will impact individuals’ lives and careers for many years to come. But we cannot for a moment maintain that this is more important than the human cost of the global pandemic.
Right now, what businesses say, how they behave, and how they treat their staff and customers, is vitally important. I’d go so far as to say it is potentially life-saving.
‘Authenticity’ is a buzzword, but wow it’s an important one right now.
My advice to clients throughout all of this has been - what can you contribute? How can you help, with honesty and integrity? What can you do which is safe, uplifting, supportive and true, and then how can we tell that story?
A clothing retailer might have its physical doors closed, but could it teach people how to darn a hole in a beloved jumper? Could a leisure centre put together a series of at-home workouts for its members of all ages to stay motivated? Could an accountancy firm advise the best way for self-employed people to manage their money when many invoices have been stalled?
At its very core, this kind of message is a small but important way for businesses to help people. To offer something, crucially without a catch or cost, which can support those who are fearful for the future.
Maybe people want to be distracted. Maybe they are worried about their loved ones miles away, or their jobs which seem so uncertain right now. Maybe they want to feel connected to the wider world, one they cannot currently access in person.
On a marketing level, it affords us the opportunity to reach out to those who could be prospective customers in future. It is a way to say “look, we know right now is a bad time, and we’re going to help you get through it”.
People will remember what you said and did for a long time to come.
Fundamentally, good PR is about building a positive reputation to elicit a behavioural response. Brand ambassadors = sales and customer loyalty after all.
In these times, it will pay to focus on how you want to be known throughout the pandemic. True, if you are a business that is still trading, or even better a business that sells essentials, it would be bonkers not to embrace the current market conditions.
But if your comms are seen as brazenly profiting from a humanitarian crisis, then how is your audience going to behave in the coming weeks, months and years?
I keep telling myself this is temporary; it is a temporary window of time in our lives that we will look back on but – crucially – it will not be like this forever. But many of the businesses which will go on and thrive will have taken an objective look at their comms today.
If you don't say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
It might sound strange for a PR person to say this, but what I mean is that your marketing strategy should be different right now. It might be that the campaigns you’ve been planning for weeks need to be put on hold, or ramped up; stuff is changing so quickly, what you pitched last week might not be relevant today. Accept that and if you haven’t already reviewed your channels, I’d forgive you for clicking off and checking now. YES NOW.
Or, it might be that you pivot to being entirely about communicating with your existing customer base – those who have already employed your services or bought your products.
Arguably more important is your own internal comms. Our teams are not all under one roof at the moment and we need to make sure they are ok. Your customers will forgive you for prioritising the needs of those on the payroll. And if they don’t, well, do you want them as customers anyway?
What can you contribute?
As this goes to ‘print’, the government looks set to explain how and when the UK restrictions might be gradually eased over the coming weeks and months. I imagine a lot of you are really looking forward to that announcement.
So right now, whether you are an in-house professional or at an agency, my advice is to be incredibly mindful of how you and your clients want to be remembered, post-COVID. Yes, it is on one hand a great time to market, as competitor budgets have often been slashed, meaning the playing field is more accessible for the braver investors.
But fundamentally, the pandemic goes beyond ‘business as usual’, so we need to carefully balance appropriateness with opportunity.
How can your comms truly help people?