Communications Today and Tomorrow – how PR priorities change during the pandemic

Published 28th May 2020

An article by Natalia Bucelnikova, Founder Member of GWPR Russia and Managing Partner, Buman Media

The current crisis affects us all in ways that we never imagined. From the very first weeks, business faced problems undescribed in any economic textbook. There is not a single crisis manager on earth who can say exactly what to do, where to go, and at what rate. Business is in absolutely unchartered waters.  It needs fast and clear direction, but it is unclear how to best reorganize processes. Undoubtedly, contacts with employees, partners and customers must not be forfeited if the business plans to stay in the market and get out of the crisis as a winner.

Shutting down all marketing and PR-communications is like stopping the blast furnace in the steel mill.  Restarting requires significant time, effort and risk. With consistent stakeholder communication organizations improve their relationship by becoming closer to their customer and partners, building trust and demonstrating the company cares.

Why can’t you keep silent?

Remember back in the late 2000s the saying, “If you’re not on the Internet, you don’t exist”? This expression can well be paraphrased in relation to communications – if you do not communicate with your clients, partners, employees, then you do not exist. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the pandemic many brands pretended that nothing was going on around them or have abolished marketing and PR budgets and stopped communicating completely through the press and social media.  Customers, however, have shown they are interested in actions of the brands they respect.  The absence or inadequate communication destroys hard earned trust gained over the years. As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do many things differently.”  Once we are past the quarantine, catching up will be multiple times harder.  Now is the moment when brands can prove that they put people and customers first.  

Every communication has its time.

Today, we are facing a hurricane called the pandemic. While we all have experienced shock and panic, things appear to be calming down. While PR and marketing plans created at the beginning of the year may be irrelevant, by restructuring of communications quickly will make it relevant again. The situation changes every day – statistics, government orders, transformation of businesses, unforeseen consequences and the public mood. Communication must consider the situation of your audience and stakeholders to ensure you do not cause irritation or disapproval. Important trends of the past several years including “new sincerity”, transparency, addressing the audience through the prism of their needs and pains are magnified in current environment.  “Pandemic communications” should embrace these trends and can be divided into three periods, each with its own unique priorities.

  1. Now (period of isolation, quarantine, uncertainty)

Right now, under quarantine conditions, people’s activity is concentrated on the Internet.  Regularly monitor respected research companies’ public sentiment surveys. Leverage internal databases to get insight for further communication and show your clients that you are worried about them.  During this phased, it is best to avoid “selling” in direct form. Instead focus on:

  • Supporting employees and their families, customers, suppliers, local communities, and medical professionals.  This can be provided remotely through online expertise, adding temporary partnership programs, or direct financial or product assistance.  Global players should demonstrate their initiatives locally, by addressing local consumers and partners. With customer’s focus on internal problems, global initiatives may not be relevant for them today. Employees should become familiar with the company’s actions, before they hear about it in the media.  Employees at all levels, from the secretary and warehouse assistant to department heads, should feel included in the company’s life. It gives a feeling of support and works positively for the company’s HR-brand.
  • Informing people with useful information by use of “social listening.”  Create initiatives from clients and partners, not marketers. Conduct surveys, respond to their results. If these indicate people feel lonely in isolation, show them that you are there.  If you learn they tired and fearful, offer the support of a professional.  
  • Diversify content and do not try to adapt all your messages to the coronavirus.  People already had enough negative news, and appreciate positive thinking – dreams of the future, and when again “everything will be fine”. Examples include summer holidays, returning to a favorite restaurant, or rollerblading in the park. Create a vibe and get involved in it. 
  • Team up with the companies and brands you like and share the same message. It’s time for collaborations that allow you to grow your audience. Isolation has opened many doors for us – top managers, celebrities, consumers, consultants – all in the same boat and becoming more open and accessible than ever.
  • Start your own direct communication channels – like a personal or corporate blog.  Direct dialogue is one of the most important communication tools today, working to strengthen the loyalty of existing customers and attract new ones. Attract new relationships by discussing challenges and share your personal experiences in addressing them.  Let people know how you are coping with new conditions, what is working and what is not. Embrace open dialogue. 

2. The moment of exiting quarantine (joy, euphoria, freedom)

Soon a new stage will arrive. Recognize that the transition period is short and special. Begin now to gradually lead to the moment of exit and match the new moods and needs of people. For a short time – maybe 2-4 weeks – there will be a rebound of consumer sentiment towards “life before quarantine”. China has shown, when people miss general freedoms and offline consumption, they will rush to “catch up”. Be prepared for this shift in priorities now. Imagine how your customers will react to this change.  Consider surveys identifying post-quarantine dreams. Define your messages in advance to ensure you are the first, most relevant, most noticeable messages. 

The top priority for this period is emotion. Modest integrated online and offline emotional “live” communications will be most appropriate.  Act with appeals similar to “stay home” messages, but also encourage people to rejoice in offline life, with appropriate precautions. By following the rules, we can enjoy the outdoors with our friends, without risking a return to quarantine.  By showing responsibility and awareness, brands can lead by example.

As regions will exit quarantine at different times, target recognizing we will not renew activities everywhere at once.  Deploy resources and message with pinpoint accuracy. 

3. New reality (mindfulness, economy, prudence)

Once the euphoria of quarantine exit passes, people may find their income has decreased, and they need to budget with care.  They may also discover social distancing will be tightly imprinted in their consciousness. It will not be possible to simply return communications strategies to a pre-pandemic model.  Combine pre-crisis trends with newly acquired patterns.

  • Conscious consumption in Russia has increased in the past 5 years driven by falling disposable income.  In Europe and America sustainability drove a similar shift. With the global economic conditions, conscious consumption trends may accelerate  at least for the next 1-2 years.   In communications, support people in striving for consciousness and avoiding excesses. The intention to simply “sell” something will be perceived adversely. Empathy and support will again become the basis for communication. 
  • The principle of social distancing. Quarantine exit will not allow a complete return to the level of social contacts of the pre-pandemic. Brands must remain responsible and keep people informed about the importance of keeping distance including minimizing public events for the next 6-12 months. Review planned offline activities and potentially scale them differently or convert them to online. Constantly monitor new strategies, as the pandemic has boosted the development of online technologies and interesting startups.   Be the first to start using something new.  
  • If you have provided some products or services for free, make the transition back as gradual as possible. Do not turn off suddenly customer benefits available during the quarantine period.
  • Analyze your customer and partner successes during the pandemic. Look for what brought the most positive feedback and good results such as live broadcasts, videos, surveys, AR technologies, or user generated content. Continue transforming and adapting to new conditions.

This global crisis will fundamentally change the way we think, behave and consume. The consumer will change, brands will change, and communications must change. There will be no return to the “past life”. We live in a changed world.   People will expect brands to reach a new level and solve new tasks related to the public interest. Companies that do so will certainly reinforce their leadership and trust and will immeasurably strengthen their communication with their consumers and stakeholders.