Paul Nixey and Kylie McMullan: COVID-19 changed how brands (should) communicate

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      There’s a well-worn axiom in public relations:

      Never let a crisis go to waste.

      It’s important to learn from challenging PR situations—and to adjust the approach and resources—in order to plan for the next crisis. No matter the size of your organization or the industry, being prepared to respond is your best defence.

      This is doubly true during COVID-19, the impacts of which tested leaders and communicators alike. The pandemic forced us to circle back and recommit to the core philosophies of communications. The best practices we knew, lived, and breathed became increasingly important and crystallized as we scrambled to communicate an unprecedented situation in real time as the world was constantly shifting under our feet.

      As our economy gradually restarts, organizations, companies, and governments would be wise to remember these lessons:

      1. Internal communications—often ignored, more important than ever.

      Internal communications doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. For too long, internal comms—that is, messaging, communicating, and listening within an organization—was an afterthought in many companies, playing second-fiddle to external comms.

      As organizations scrambled to pivot teams to remote working and needed to communicate critical changes in real time, the importance of having strong processes and systems in place became clear. Put it this way: If external communications is the film, internal communications is the book. Too often, internal comms products are simply adapted from public-facing statements, and this is a mistake.

      Internal communications is usually the substance of a communications plan; your employees are your brand ambassadors, critical stakeholders, customers (and often shareholders!).

      2. Be authentic. Be human.

      During the early days of the pandemic, we all noticed a trend as we began to work from home: our teams had zero patience for corporate-speak, jargon, or empty platitudes. People were looking for leaders and government officials who could provide honest, authentic responses—and that sentiment isn’t going away.

      Whether on social media, in your customer care responses, in your dealings with customers and other stakeholders, make sure everyone has their “human hat” on. We recently wrote about the Cinnamon Toast Crunch fiasco and how the company failed to respond to a customer complaint in a human way, which only escalated the situation, leaving their customers feeling soggy.

      3. Say it. And then say it again.

      In times of high stress and change, your stakeholders, customers, and the media want to hear from you, and probably more than you think they do. Provide frequent updates through the communications channels where your audiences want to hear from you. Create Q&As of the most important information. Make it visually interesting. Don’t assume people know what actions you’ve taken; not everyone is as close to your brand as you. Say it until it sticks.

      4. It’s a brave new world. Listen and adapt.

      Never has it been more important to take continual temperature checks among your stakeholders (and often literal temperature checks among your employees and customers) and to adapt your communications plans accordingly. Setting up your content calendar and letting your social media auto-post is not going to work (it rarely does, but that’s for another column). In a fluctuating environment, take the time to listen, test, learn, and optimize. And then do it all again.

      During COVID-19, companies like Air Canada were called to task over paid social media influencer campaigns that would have probably worked well (go travel! See the world!) if not for the federal government emphatically urging Canadians to come home and stay home. Each member of your team should be empowered to raise their hand, ring the alarm, and shout from the rooftops if they see a crisis looming or that your communications plans are missing the mark. Don’t assume everyone on your team thinks like you—and if they do, it’s probably time to diversify your team.

      5. Be helpful.

      Think about it. During COVID-19, consumers rewarded brands that were perceived to be trustworthy and helpful. Locally, when London Drugs pivoted quickly to make space on their shelves for local companies to sell their wares, and—adorably—when the GIrl Guides found themselves with a warehouse full of cookies that COVID-19 made unsellable door-to-door, London Drugs and other local companies stepped up and used their vast supply chains and retail expertise to move those cookies (and if you’re anything like us, you probably bought a box or six during lockdown).

      This sense of corporate social responsibility makes us all feel good. It’s also good for business.

      While the vaccinations are providing some semblance of light at the end of the tunnel on COVID-19, there’s no reason to forget the lessons of communicating in uncharted waters—and to commit to communicate better and more authentically going forward.

      Now pass the cookies.