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But in amongst a global pandemic and the recent international Black Lives Matter protests, getting your brand’s perception right needs to be about more than keeping quiet and sticking to a few stock phrases.
Keeping quiet is never the answer
An unfolding crisis is like a blank block of stone which still has the potential to be sculpted in all sorts of ways. Who do you want to be holding the hammer and chisel: you, the media or even worse, social media? By keeping quiet, you’re firmly placing control in others’ hands.
In the current climate, there are so many more opportunities for brands to fall short. And when a crisis does hit, the worn-out strategies of ignoring the media, your customers or shutting them down with short, cold statements rarely have the de-escalating effect intended. People would rather spin their own stories than not have one at all.
Without any official announcement or help from the brand itself, information is sought elsewhere and assumptions are made, especially when brands don’t respond at all, often resulting in negative and inaccurate reporting of how you dealt with the crisis.
Retailers are particularly at threat, as an ensuing crisis risks hordes of consumers voting with their wallets and refusing to buy from that particular store. Consumers feel a sense of identity and connection with their favourite stores, and when those brands break that trust, it can be hard to win them back.
Even simply sticking with the same marketing strategy you’ve used for years is enough to get your brand in hot water. KFC, for example, faced criticism for using the same slogan they’ve been using for 60 years, simply because it doesn’t work in the current climate. You can’t tell your customers that your product is “finger lickin’ good” in the middle of a pandemic.
Choose compassion over silence
So, what should retailers do? Global-scale crises such as Covid-19 and the far-reaching impacts on survival, health, economy, mental health, and more – not to mention the systemic issue of Black men and women being killed at the hands of police officers – call for real human action.
People expect businesses to exhibit a degree of understanding and compassion during a crisis, an important lesson learned by many during Covid-19. Alternatively, keeping quiet can only lead to one thing: being labelled untrustworthy, ignorant, inconsiderate or out of control.
A silence also offers an opportunity for other brands and followers to provoke, as was demonstrated by Yorkshire Tea’s reaction during the Black Lives Matter events, following the death of George Floyd.
After right-wing vlogger Laura Towler tweeted: “I’m dead chuffed that Yorkshire Tea has not supported BLM”, Yorkshire Tea replied: “Please don’t buy our tea again. We’re taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism.” Competing tea manufacturer, PG Tips, later added their own voice to the conversation, tweeting: “If you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you’re going to have to find two new brands now. #blacklivesmatter #solidaritea.”
While some Twitter users were pleased with the companies’ responses, others felt it was an example of virtue signalling. Black Lives Matter, in particular, is such an emotive, deeply felt issue, brands need to be expecting huge scrutiny whether they say anything or not.
It is right that this is not easy – it shouldn’t be. Nothing about racism, suffering, injustice, or tragedy is easy. And if you are in a position to be part of the solution and to support those who are experiencing hardship, then you should be unsettled enough to engage in their reality, ask questions, seek to understand, and then look within. Only then should you respond.
Beware of tokenism, slacktivism, or jumping on the bandwagon with no real purpose behind your action – customers will be able to smell it a mile away. Avoid copycat social media posts where it’s clear you’re simply falling into line with other brands without any real thought or follow-through.
A far more effective approach to crisis management is to share what you can in a way that aligns as closely as possible with your brand, upholds your reputation, but also remains empathetic to the opinion and potential sufferings of the public.
Any communication that talks about your incredible success during the loss and suffering of the pandemic needs to be approached with a great deal of caution. If you continue to talk about your wins or shiny new product launches without acknowledging the context of the global situation, you risk coming across as insensitive.
People could easily read positive news coverage as taking advantage of the situation, being oblivious to the pain being experienced all around you, or worse, rubbing your good fortune in everyone’s faces.
For an example of what not to do, look no further than Apple. Apple customers are used to the company pumping out news of brand new tech and bragging rights over competitor models. Does this normally offend the Apple customer? No, it excites them.
However, add a global pandemic into the mix (along with its economic hardship), and the shiny, expensive new products are immediately offensive.
The same is true with any supposedly “woke” messaging your clients choose to engage in – you only need to look at the 2017 Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad controversy to see how very wrong this kind of messaging can go.
Admit you don’t have all the answers
Where you are unable to share information, try to speak to your consumers creatively and discreetly. The truth might be that you are overwhelmed by the crisis itself, you may not have time to deal with it head-on, but any response is better than stonewalling.
Instead of fuelling mutual hostilities, a friendly and obliging attitude towards a crisis not only creates positive brand coverage, but it nurtures relationships that will long outlast the global pandemic. Let people know that, despite being a big or small brand, you too are impacted by the pandemic, and this is how you are dealing with it.
Tourism Australia’s “With love from Aus” was recognised globally for helping audiences try to see the positives in the situation. A narrator talks of typical Aussie experiences – avo on toast, kangaroos and amazing scenery, which all continue to thrive in human absence. It hints at the positive impact that lockdown has had on the environment and global warming, as Australia is one of the worst affected by a now not-so-big hole in the ozone layer.
The video captures Aussie tourist spots such as Whitehaven Beach and even shows shots of regrowth in 2020’s earlier bushfire devastation – again, something that is now deemed a thing of the past. The piece adopts a very humble and typical Aussie attitude. Stay positive, we are still strong and most importantly, we are still here! Remember us when travel is back on the cards!
Celebrity chef Curtis Stone helped Coles publicly thank their 120,000+ staff for all of their hard work during the pandemic, via a consumer-facing TV ad featuring everyday Coles staff. Instead of resorting to internal communications, Coles, recognising that workers are consumers themselves, publicly thanked all of their staff while simultaneously (and subconsciously) reminding members of the public to be thankful and patient while Coles works overtime to supply necessities during the pandemic.
While you can’t change the facts, you can maintain some control over how those facts are perceived and shape a story that reflects the integrity, honesty, and humility of your business.
Relationships are everything
It’s best to build a good rapport in these times since a damaged relationship with the media and a loss of customers is hard to repair, especially brands in the luxury sector or those not considered essential.
This rule also goes for maintaining internal relationships. It’s high time that retailers, marketers and PR professionals alike stop seeing their options as either keep quiet or speak and get criticised. When done correctly, speaking up can be the very best thing a brand can do, even if it means being forced to admit that you don’t have all the answers.
Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations, a PR firm for SMEs and not-for-profits. Contact: purepublicrelations.com.au