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Pandemic pandemonium: Embracing challenges and opportunities

17/03/2020
— Siobhan Rennie 

Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic last week, the magnitude of the crisis continues to have flow-on effects not only to our way of life – but to the future of many businesses and brands.

While much of the world struggles to comprehend the virus, here in APAC we have, to some extent, been grappling with COVID-19 impacted operations and communications for several weeks now.

In Asia, many companies basing manufacturing operations or using contract manufacturers in mainland China are grappling with the fallout of factories closing.

This is seeing shipments slip daily. From small Australian manufacturers like the Instagram sensation Mermade Hair to the tech giants Apple, Huawei and Samsung – companies around the world are susceptible to supply chain issues that are impacting their ability to fulfil product demand.

But it isn’t just manufacturers feeling the impact of the pandemic. Service providers in travel, higher education and the arts will feel the effects for perhaps months to come. Meanwhile the share market volatility is wreaking havoc, seeing IPOs and
capital raises on hold – and this will impact cash-strapped, growth and R&D focused businesses the most.

But what does this mean in a communications context? In a world which seems overcome with panic, consumers are looking for leadership, we know they are definitely looking for products, and they are looking for innovative ways to ease the
challenges that COVID-19 has thrown at us.

Here’s three ways brands and businesses should think about navigating the current environment.

1. Show your humanity: In these times of confusion, consumers aren’t just looking for leadership – they’re looking for humanity. We’ve seen initiatives such as dedicated time for elderly shoppers and partnerships with Meals on Wheels launched by the major supermarket chains. Overseas, luxury brand LVMH has switched from making perfume to producing hand sanitiser, in order to supply French hospitals and help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Ali Baba has used its network to transport the first batch of 2m masks and other medical supplies to help combat the spread of the virus across Europe.

The concept of business having purpose is the key here. While a relatively overused term, purpose is about ‘the why’. What do you care about, as a business, that goes beyond products or services and profit? How can you show your customers and your employees that you care about the things that are important to them? Is there something you can develop, implement, or say
that will make a difference and you believe is right for your business to take a stance on in the current climate – regardless of the bottom line?

2. Find the silver lining: One company’s crisis, is another’s opportunity. It’s the companies who can innovate and adapt quickly by finding ways to make life easier in this strange new world, who are striking a chord with the community and protecting the top-line. In the past month we’ve seen forward-thinking businesses actively pivoting their strategies and campaigns towards a more localised and agile program, like Seattle’s iconic Canlis which has closed its fine-dining restaurant, and instead opened: a breakfast bagel shed, a burger drive-thru for lunch, and a family meal dinner delivery service.

Food delivery services like Uber Eats and Deliveroo are taking active measures to ensure they are still able to deliver food in a safe and secure way, offering no contact delivery options to Australian consumers and financial assistance programs to delivery drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are subjected to quarantine. Telco challenger Spirit Telecom is rolling out new work from home internet and security bundles, but the difference being it’s tailored to the needs of their SMB customer base who have never before had to roll out this infrastructure at such scale or speed.

What’s critical for communicators here is striking the right tone. It’s not just about profiteering in a difficult environment, but finding solutions that speak directly to the needs of your customers.

3. Be prepared for the worst-case scenario: The reality of COVID-19 is that it will create a true crisis – especially those who are on the front-line dealing with the public, the elderly and the vulnerable. Organisations need to take a critical look at their crisis and issues preparedness to face both this threat and future situations. This doesn’t just involve internal and external communications plans to manage impacts on brand and business reputation, or the direct impacts on your consumers and other key stakeholders. It also involves ensuring the back of house is in order, by auditing and testing issues preparedness, reviewing business contingency plans and implementing additional media and social monitoring, to identify issues at their earliest
genesis. Brands that are ready to pre-empt and communicate with clarity in the midst of a crisis will be the most resilient.

With many businesses now moving to fully remote working, ongoing strong, clear and transparent internal communication is just as important as external, in these cases, as well as having all the necessary risk mitigations and plans in place.

Whilst it is impossible to fully scope the impact of COVID-19 at this point in time, businesses that address the issues head on through contingency planning, while at the same time focusing their communications on localised, agile opportunities that tap into new opportunities, will be far more likely to create reputational resilience and better able to weather any storm (not just this pandemic).

And above all, putting people before profit is how you create brand love and longevity, particularly in times of adversity.

Siobhan Rennie is Head of Corporate at WE Communications Australia