Brand Reputation during the Covid-19 Crisis
At some point in time, I’m sure you have grimaced whilst watching a Public Relations train wreck unfolding in front of you. Whether it be splashed across front page newspapers or exploding on your phone or tablet, thanks to social media. Think about the 2017 Momentum decision not to pay the life insurance policy of a member gunned down in a hijacking, because of his undisclosed high blood sugar levels. Or Ford South Africa’s disastrous handling of the Ford Kuga recall. And Bell Pottinger’s unravelling, post being expelled from the PR Trade Body, after their unthinkable involvement in the Gupta’s secret campaign to stir up racial tension in South Africa.
The unenviable task of dealing with these type of crisis communications is usually reserved for a seasoned Public Relations professional or Crisis Management expert. But what if you don’t have the luxury of this type of staff member on your payroll, when something like the Covid-19 crisis hits your company head on? How do you maintain your brand reputation in the face of the global pandemic, the likes of which our generation has never encountered before? This crisis differs since it is not of your own making, but it has all the risk factors to blow up into a firestorm if your organisation chooses not to manage it as though it were. Avoiding any potential brand damage during this period should be a focus, but your primary objective should be to do the right thing. What follows from those actions will undoubtably keep your organisation out of the negative headlines.
The first thing to remember is that, much like in life, you are only responsible for your own company’s actions. And having a handle on them from the outset, is something that you as a company owner are both legally and ethically required to do. Every action that you take during this crisis period should be thoroughly thought out. Now is not the time to fly by the seat of your pants. Here are three areas that you could focus on to protect your brand reputation.
Your primary responsibility during this particular crisis is that of your employees and their well-being. The backbone of your organisation and frontline of your reputation rests with your staff and protecting them is of paramount importance.
Ensuring that your staff are educated is the first step. There are many official resources available on both national and local government websites.
Take proactive steps to ensure that your staff understand and have access to information, preferably in their mother tongue, that can help them make the correct decisions in the face of the unknown times we are entering. We are only as safe as our weakest link, so we need to step up and ensure your teams understand and are aware of all the risks.
The second step is protecting your staff’s personal safety and will be largely determined if you are deemed an essential service, and therefore are still trading during the lockdown that South Africa is facing. If you are trading, then providing your staff with Personal Protective Equipment, hand sanitisers or barriers between humans is vital. Even if they are not customer facing. Preventing human to human transmission of the virus is the entire objective of the lockdown. Don’t be caught short in this area and follow whatever national or municipal regulations that might be mandated. Makro is selling full hygiene suits at R40 per unit (as at the 14thApril 2020) and there are many local suppliers who are importing gloves and masks (Bonnie Bio and larger pharmacy chains).
And if your organisation has shut down for the lockdown period (and especially since it has now been extended) you might want to give your staff some soap and hand sanitisers for their protection at home and whilst heading out to get groceries. Perhaps your organisation might even consider providing food security to the more vulnerable members of your workforce. The WHO and the South African Department of Health have now advised that the public wear fabric masks whilst out in public – so providing your staff with 2 washable and reusable masks would be prudent as well as fairly cost effective. Many community groups on Facebook have posts from home industry type businesses, who are now sewing and distributing fabric face masks at affordable prices. They are fairly easy to come by with a little online searching if you only require a few. And there are larger organisations such as our client Pop-Ups who have repurposed their factory to start producing fabric masks, which will be sold in bulk to organisations who require them.
Employee Job Security
The third step in employee safety lies with income and job security. The government has undertaken an enormous project with its relief options, the likes of which we have never seen before. The options available for each organisation varies but all details are available here. The precedent has been set by our government with their own 30% salary cuts, that those with means need to sacrifice for the greater good of our society. Encourage your staff by doing your utmost to keep their jobs long term, even if it means personal sacrifice. You will find that most people respond to this authentic behaviour with loyalty that you will have never experienced before.
Follow the lead of FNB, RMB, WesBank, ABSA, Old Mutual and Woolworths who have taken extraordinary decisions when it comes to the remuneration of the executives within the organisation. Leading with empathy and acting in a courageous fashion has never been more imperative. Everyone is in survival mode and as the age old adage goes...fortune favours the brave. And if the company has to make staffing cuts, follow the law of the land to the letter and keep your communications with affected staff clear and timely. You don’t want people to find out about their job loses via any channel other than directly first from your organisation.
The second area of focus should be on communication. To the trifactor of staff, customers and your supply chain, external service providers and partners. The tone of your company voice during this period should focus on being authentic, transparent, accountable and proactive. We are all humans beings and are scared about what the future holds for everyone.
Consider making a personal call to the senior members of your team whilst we are in lockdown, and encourage them to reach out in the same fashion to their team members. Find out how they are personally coping. Allow President Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina Campaign to actively permeate into your organisational culture during this time. Encourage the managers within your organisation to approach their staff in a highly personal and caring manner. Additionally a weekly update from the business to the staff to keep them up to date about the organisation and what your efforts have been to remain in business, will go a long way to keeping people’s spirits lifted. If you have a workforce who are not on email, then consider the services of a business such as Channel Mobile, a client of The Marketing Centre who specialise in mass SMS or WhatsApp communication.
Your supply chain and service providers are part of your company’s ecosystem and thereby an extension of your brand. Reach out to them early and regularly to find out how they are coping in the current situation. Ensure that any payment delays or restructures are thoroughly discussed with any supplier. Set the correct expectations early and clearly. The manner and tone in which you deal with them is how your brand will be viewed in the long term by these partners. Remember that you are at the end of the day, dealing with other business owners who are humans like yourself and are trying to get through the same crisis as you.
The first lesson of this crisis that has engulfed the world, is that we should let the scientific and the epidemiology experts lead us in the specifics of medical guidance. Our customer communications should leave all “advice” about the virus from a medical perspective alone. Your customer communication ought to be proactive, helpful and relevant to your organisation only. In addition the South African government has issued a gazette requiring all .co.za websites to have a link on their home page, which directs to www.sacoronavirus.co.za. It would be best to comply with this requirement and this should not be too time or resource intensive to create.
If you have online listings then ensure that they are all updated in detail. Some branches open and others not? Ensure that customer expectations are met. If the public holidays in the lockdown period mean that your “essential services” business is not open for those specific days – make it known on social channels as well as on your website. Keep any online information about your organisation accurate and ensure that there is a channel of communication open for the public to communicate with you in case of questions.
Monitor and respond to these customer concerns or questions quickly. You should ideally have some form of social listening tool at your disposal if your customer base is broad. Here is a useful website with a list of tools to deal with online reputation management should you need it. Don’t allow any room for misunderstandings from customers who may have a lot of time on their hands and pent up frustrations, which are easily vented.
If anything untoward happens with a negative customer experience starting to snowball out of control, first take responsibility and then follow these 13 golden rulesof PR crisis management communication put together by Forbes.
3. BUSINESS CONTINUITY
In the extended lockdown period for South Africa, business leaders should not take this time to be complacent. If you don’t already have a Crisis Management Plan in place, think about putting together a Rapid Response Team of trusted advisors and managers who can spend this time with you (virtually) to identify threats, blind spots or opportunities. And be prepared to act in an agile and responsive manner for business continuity. This requires a mindset and a willingness to take risks to turn disruption into advantage.
Capture Immediate Business Opportunities
Striking while the iron is hot is all about seeing opportunity where others see roadblocks. Consider what your business’s core competencies are and what problems your business is equipped to solve. Do you have uniquely skilled personnel or resources, or possibly specialised equipment that others cannot mobilise. Try and be creative about how you can approach a completely different target audience or industry with your assets. Apart from allowing the cash flow to continue, the added bonus with this technique is that you might just find a USP for your business that you’ve never considered before. A revenue stream that post Covid-19 might just set you off on another unexpected positive trajectory.
Even if you don’t have the luxury of differentiation there are basic options that you can embrace. Move sales to online if this makes sense, collaborate with other synergistic businesses (competitors even) to ensure that your customers are seen as the priority. Take a leaf from the specialist online retailers in South Africa (such as Netflorist, YuppieChef and Wild Peacock) who have all collaborated with various supply chains or direct with farmers, to bring online grocery shopping and delivery to our doors.
Maintaining Service Levels And Playing Nicely
South African grocery e-tailer Ucook have stopped taking orders from new customers on week 3 of lockdown, to ensure that existing customers are serviced at the levels they have come to expect. And to make sure that their staff are kept safe and not working to extremes. Ucook sent a mailer to their customer base to inform them that they are arranging private transport for their warehouse staff, monitoring their temperatures twice a day, providing PPE, increasing sanitising and changing the layout of the packaging facility where the groceries are prepared. Being honest about the limitations your business is under and communicating why you are making the business decisions that you are, will stand you in immensely good stead. It ingrains a sense of loyalty from your customer base that is hard to compete with. Again authenticity and honesty in communications needs to be at the fore.
Another area that allows you to win over your customers love is being proactive in refunding them or stopping charging them immediately, when you know they are paying for something that you cannot deliver. Virgin Active South Africa sent out communications to their entire database prior to lockdown starting, notifying them that they would not be debited at all whilst the lockdown was in effect. In addition they provided free online workouts through their Virgin Active App and on their website for those who wish to continue exercising at home. Don’t get a bad reputation for stinging customers with charges or cancellation fees. Now is the time to be as flexible as you can, since we are facing a situation that everyone is powerless to change. Play nice and allow a little good karma into your life.
Giving and Authenticity
As a business owner you could ask yourself “what’s in my hand?”. What resources or skills does your company have that they can use to serve society at large? Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is starting to play a more influential role in customer purchasing decisions as “identity led customer loyalty” increases. According to the 2019 UK CX Trends report by InMoment, 42% of those polled said that the social, political or environmental causes supported by an organisation were playing a stronger role in their purchasing decisions.
And a survey by Censuswide reports that 89% of respondents in the UK and US would switch to another similarly priced and equitable quality brand, if they were associated with a good cause. But now is not the time to take up a cause that isn’t authentic. If there is a natural merging of a social need with a solution that your organisation offers, or if there are existing CSR programmes in place you can expand on, these efforts will be seen as authentic and increase the goodwill of the organisation. Any giving or donation should be altruistic, with no strings or guidelines attached to it. If you don’t have anything like this in place, then now would be the time to rather explore playing a role in easing people’s sense of isolation and increasing their hope with messages of solidarity on digital platforms. It would be best not to be tempted to focus on your company brand in these specific messages. Our nation and world only emerges from this stronger if our collected efforts are authentic and selfless.
Planning for Recovery
It’s always impossible to plan for every scenario that might come our way in life. But preparing for our unexpected new world will allow you to act in a swifter and more decisive fashion when we exit this pandemic. According to this Harvard Business Review article, only 9% of companies emerge stronger after a downturn because “These companies reduce costs selectively by focusing more on operational efficiency than their rivals do, even as they invest relatively comprehensively in the future by spending on marketing, R&D, and new assets. Their multipronged strategy is the best antidote to a recession”.