Communications Coronavirus Marketing

Leadership communications in times of crisis: PR chiefs offer insights


By Stephen Lepitak, -

March 26, 2020 | 7 min read

One of the core competencies of effective leadership is being able to communicate with stakeholders and colleagues when under pressure.

In living memory, no other crisis has placed such demand on world leaders as Covid-19 outbreak has. Politicians are under immense pressure to safeguard their people and economies and how they relay these strategies is also coming under a hot spotlight.

So too, are chief executives and business leaders.

Brands have quickly learned that they too must be careful with what they say and how they communicate during the pandemic. Controversy was stirred a few weeks back when the unfortunately named Corona beer attempted to play on the outbreak in its marketing.

Unilever has become the latest major company to enter the fray to try and shore up the impact the pandemic is having on essentials, following similar efforts from Diageo, Brew Dog and LMVH in producing and distributing hand sanitizer in response to a shortage in supply.

“We are deeply saddened by the terrible impact that coronavirus is wreaking on lives and livelihoods everywhere. The world is facing its greatest trial in decades. We have seen the most incredible response from the Unilever team so far, especially those on the front line of our operations in factories, distribution centers and stores,” commented Alan Jope, Unilever chief executive who has been highly vocal on the importance of brand purpose since stepping into the role last year.

“We hope that our donation of €100m of soap, sanitizer, bleach and food will make a significant contribution towards protecting people’s lives and that by helping to safeguard our workers’ incomes and jobs, we are giving some peace of mind during these uncertain times. Our strong cash flow and balance sheet mean that we can, and should, give this additional support.”

In announcing Diageo’s pledge to produce 8m bottles of sanitizer, chief executive Ivan Menezes issued a statement: “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of fighting this pandemic and we are determined to do what we can to help protect them. This is the quickest and most effective way for us to meet the surging demand for hand sanitizer around the world.”

The tone of their communications is clear: they offer sympathy and empathy while looking proactive in tandem. At a time when consumers want certainty from decision-makers, this is an area in which the PR sector can show it's adept at delivering.

Leaders 'cannot let uncertainty turn into paralysis'

Careen Winters, chairman of Reputation and chief strategy officer at MWWPR, outlines exactly that point with chief executives seen as the leaders in making decisions that are not just right for their businesses, but for their employees too.

She says firms must have effective messaging and contingency plans in a situation that truly has no playbook: "it is imperative that we do not allow uncertainty to become paralysis.”

Winters goes on to advise business leaders to consider their communications priorities and guiding principals in crisis and issues management. The first response to this situation could be a defining moment in their own career, she argues, urging them to use their experience as much as possible and consider stakeholders but prioritize employees first.

“As we think about the role of communications, it is important to remember that today’s job is bigger than messaging," she explains.

"We need to evaluate whether the decisions and policies are the right ones for our companies and our stakeholders.

"We also need to consider how those decisions will impact the company’s reputation today, and over the long term. In some cases, corporate communications leaders are the only ones thinking about audiences holistically, and pointing out mismatches between corporate strategy, priorities, and messaging,” Winters adds.

Offering his views on how communications consultant should advise their clients, Sam Holl, director of brand and reputation at MHP believes that businesses must begin by look at what services should continue, what should be modified and what should be paused when a crisis of the scale of the coronavirus emerges.

“The first step is to ‘assess’ their own landscape – from employee sentiment to social media analysis and journalist conversations.

"Next it’s key to ‘adjust’ and create a new strategy for a new world – review and update everything from key messages to crisis protocols.

"Finally, ‘act’ – this includes prioritizing any communications related to the virus, and giving more importance to internal communications than external. The ‘act’ stage is also about getting ready for the rebuild – one day, hopefully not too far away, the Covid-19 situation will pass and it’s vital that brands are ready to respond."

He concludes: “In a complicated world where everything is constantly changing, we are keeping our advice to clients practical and simple – assess, adjust, act."

“Brands at their best have vision and purpose. They know that meaningful work isn’t to the detriment of commercial success. In fact, they understand the opposite to be true,” declares Pam Scobbie, co-founder and director of Wire.

“Making a real, positive difference to the world isn’t just the morally right thing to do, it’s increasingly compulsory for consumers – expected, not optional. In return, people show their appreciation in spend and engagement.

"Now, we’re in the midst of something that’s strange, scary and in need of plenty of social good to get us back on the straight-and-narrow. It’s time for brands who understand their place in the world to step-up,” she adds stating that those who don’t will be playing “a dangerous game” that could see competitors overtake them through their response.

“Those brands who contribute where they can over the coming weeks, in ways that are true to their business, will be the ones remembered – earning valuable, and potentially lasting, recognition and loyalty.”

Aaron Kwitten, chief executive of KWT Global, says that the current pandemic will also hit the economy as a result of “inept government leadership and non-stop misinformed, over reporting by the media.”

He continues: When the sun shines and the dust settles, the panic from Covid-19 could be more fatal than the disease itself,” before adding that he had witnessed brands to be “very proactive” with direct customer communication, that has sent out messages directly written by the chief executive.

“To date, brands have been very proactive with direct customer communication and the smart ones have drafted chief executives to personally deliver these messages.

"The even smarter ones have re-deployed resources to help those in need. Now brands are turning to communicating business continuity plans with internal audiences, namely employees. In the coming weeks, we will see corporations announce drastic cost-containment measures, including widespread reductions in force.”

More-and-more chief executives are sending out messages daily over email, with some recipients questioning how the company was able to obtain their contact details in the first place over social media it has been observed.

That may be a question for another time: if there is one key thing that all leaders must do, it is to offer an air of calm and control, even when they face the unknown.

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