Coronavirus: How are brands coping with the coronavirus crisis

Charlie Allen

For many businesses, the coronavirus outbreak has been an unwelcome crash course in crisis communications. For others, it has been an opportunity to boost their relationships with understandably anxious stakeholders across Government, the media and the public.

Data shows that use of social media has rocketed in the past weeks. Counterintuitively, this means that people are paying more attention to brands than ever before. Reputation management is therefore crucially important throughout this period. Let’s look at what brands have been doing – the good, and the not so good…

BrewDog have generated much positive attention in the press and on social media through the company’s decision to re-direct their brewing resources to manufacturing hand sanitiser.

Through a simple social media campaign, the brand has successfully solidified its reputation as a people-first organisation in keeping with the ‘Craft Beer For The People‎’ message which we see in their marketing materials. It’s worth noting that the initial announcement came from its founder, James Watt, giving the announcement a personal touch while firmly anchoring the move within the BrewDog brand. BrewDog, a company with a relatively vexed history of public relations, has launched a clear message that has resonated with the public.  Consumers will remember BrewDog’s hand sanitiser months from now, when they are next choosing a beer in a busy pub.

Likewise, certain supermarkets have been able to use the increased media focus on their sector to boost their brands’ reputation among all stakeholders. Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsbury’s, has earned plaudits for his clear, personal communications to the public about the Sainsbury’s response to the to the outbreak and its implications for supply and opening hours. Like BrewDog, Sainsbury’s has recognised the importance of a personal touch in a time of mass anxiety.   They have also understood the value of communicating solidarity with the public, exemplified by the organisation’s decision to offer exclusive shopping hours for NHS workers.

In a news cycle that is so fast and, frankly, so bleak, even the smallest of gestures (like Pret a Manger’s decision to offer free hot drinks to NHS workers) is received with huge warmth and gratitude among the public.

Like BrewDog, Pret a Manger has suffered its own reputational damage in the past few years, in part because of the company’s perceived slowness in dealing with the allergens crisis which begun with the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016. During this outbreak, we have seen no such sluggishness in tackling a crisis head on. The most recent message from Pret a Manger came from its Chief Operating Officer, Pano Cristou. The message is signed off ‘with love’, again showing the importance of communications resonating with a brand’s key values. Despite being a nationwide chain, Pret has maintained and developed its reputation as a charitable, personable and compassionate company through this crisis.

The brands that have struggled so far have demonstrated a lack of clarity or compassion, or both. While the outbreak is clearly an evolving and complex situation, the public welcomes decisive moves. For example, Waterstones kept their shops open until last week despite clearly voiced concerns from staff and customers alike about the safety of employees. It took a viral tweet from the account of a local Waterstones outlet as well as numerous comments from nationally recognised authors before the decision was eventually taken to close down their shops completely. The message, although unintended, was that Waterstones puts profit above people. In this period, the public will not find this acceptable. In the end, Waterstones have suffered the double hit of lost short-term profit and a damaged reputation. Wetherspoon’s is another example of this. It took the concerns of nearly a hundred MPs and a nationwide social media backlash before the chain announced that they would indeed be paying their staff throughout this period.

This is, of course, a balancing act. Companies must continue to operate as best they can – our economy relies on businesses protecting their revenue throughout this period. Not all companies can manufacture hand sanitiser or offer unique trading hours for public sector workers. However, it is true that the brands who emerge from this temporary crisis with the best reputation will be those who balance compassion and care throughout this period, with a strong communications strategy underpinning those values. It might not be business as usual, but reputation management has never been more important.

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