Branding 101: Crisis Communication & COVID-19
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Branding 101: Crisis Communication & COVID-19

Assembling this piece takes me back. 


Let me paint you a rough sketch for context. 


It was around 2004, and I was attending one of my many marketing-based classes —and being desperate for credits at that. 


The specific class I was attending was Crisis Communication Management, with our very astute and thorough Malaysian professor. I distinctly remember thinking how crisis communication would play a viable role in our everyday lives. The first picture that emerged was of course of failures and errors that would naturally occur in any business, and the role of crisis communication would be to limit the damage of those errors, as well as providing assurances to the aggrieved party(ies) that improvements will be made. 


And of course there would be the occasional seismic catastrophe such as a particular major product malfunction that had gone viral. Or the 2008 global financial crisis of course.


But throughout my three and a half decades of existence, no event has had nearly the same global impact that has caused so much devastation, as the novel-coronavirus has proved to be.  


Its impact is universal and complete. 


But now my modern self is thinking back at those university lectures and thinking “how would those questions be answered today? How do companies and brands perform crisis communication management during these unprecedented times?”. 


The answers to that are provided by a quick Google search. The summation below is taken from a few leading publications such as Social Insider as well as Alex Josephson and Eimear Lambe of Twitter. 


Know your brand.


This is not about looking at what others are doing and copying. It’s about understanding the unique role your brand plays in people’s lives, how that has changed, and how your brand can help or be useful during this crisis. It’s also about looking for opportunities to lead by example, and do the right thing, where it makes sense for your business.  


Keep up to date with what’s happening.


Things are changing fast, what might have felt like a good message yesterday might not be the right thing today. Keep a close eye on the news and conversation, and be sure to consider the context before replying or broadcasting. And note, sometimes it’s better not to say anything at all. 


When using Twitter, you’ll notice we have a prompt in place which directs people searching for Coronavirus content to accurate information from the relevant local bodies (e.g. CDC ). This is running in 64 countries and in 20 languages. We are also pushing the most important content to the top of our search results and in your home timelines. 


Acknowledge the issue: brands talk about COVID-19 on social media.


Brands started communicating about coronavirus and social distancing early on, starting with, but not limited to news brands. Acknowledging there is an issue at large is a sign of transparency, and this is typically well-received by the audience. This is a well-known fact among social media specialists. We used the Socialinsider app to see how much are brands interested in communicating on the matter. 


We selected the posts whose messages contained any terms and hashtags such as “coronavirus”, “COVID”, “Covid – 19”, “pandemic”, “quarantine”, “corona medicine”, “wuhan coronavirus” and other spelling and wording variations. Another distinguishing message has to do with social distancing, so we also included posts containing terms and hashtags about “social distancing”, “flatten the curve”, “stay at home”, “social distancing now” and other spelling and wording variations.


Be thoughtful about tone of voice.


Just like people, brands should evolve their tone depending on the context. Right now might not be the best time to be snarky or sarcastic, while empathy, understanding and even certain types of humour may go a long way. One of the most shared COVID-19 related Tweets, speaks well to the importance of tone, as Kumail Nanjiani reminds people to think of others who may be more vulnerable to this virus. How do you get this right? The best way is by listening to what people, and your customers, are saying — and reflecting that in your copy and tone appropriately. 


Most common hashtags in social media crisis communication. 


Whenever there’s any need for spreading the word and creating a movement, hashtags are the most common weapon.  Most brands share messages about the virus, social distancing, health, desired habits through specific hashtags. 


On Instagram, you can notice straight away a tight connection between #covid and #stayathome, as hashtags often used together. While numerically, the top hashtags used alongside #covid are #coronavirus, #covid19, #corona, and even #quarantine, as a sign of a dissociation between the virus and the social repercussion, the engagement shows where the real interest of the audience lies. Therefore, the hashtag with the most engagement out of all the other hashtags used next to #covid is #stayathome, which once again proves that social distancing is the main concern on Instagram. Looking at the hashtags surrounding social distancing on Instagram, the previous theory is confirmed: posts related to staying at home, flattening the curve, and keeping your distance are the most relevant and engaging.


What might people need right now? 


  • Accurate & Reliable Information.

    If you have useful and reliable information that might help people navigate the uncertainty, or keep people calm, you should share it. For example, retail / e-commerce brands can keep the public updated on stock to help mitigate panic buying. If you have important information that affects your company, or your employees (e.g. around transmission of the virus), you may want to consider sharing that publicly. 


  • Customer Service & Support.

    Inevitably, some brands are immediately more impacted by COVID-19, due to the nature of their business. Travel (Airline/Cruises/Hospitality/Tourism) and Finance Institutions are seeing the strongest associations with COVID-19 so far. If COVID-19 is directly affecting your business and your customers, use Twitter to interact 1:1 with your customers and support them, and to broadcast any initiatives you’re launching that widely address the issue. It’s important to listen and understand the concerns your customers have and to address them, as best you can. Demonstrating you’re doing your best in uncertain times, can go a long way. If you’re not directly affected, but have something meaningful to offer (that’s true to your brand), consider sharing. For example, health/wellbeing tips, meditation/calming content. 


  • Distraction & Levity. 

    In times like this, when the news-cycle can be overwhelming, a bit of light distraction and entertainment can go a long way. The reality is that the average Twitter timeline is a mix of news, information and interests. In fact, since January 1st, COVID-19 related Tweets only represent 1% of total Tweets that have been sent on Twitter.


  • Community & Positivity.

    As humans, we’re programmed to seek out connection. While social distancing measures offer protection and security, they come with significant impact on individuals, communities and the world at large. We’ve also seen non-COVID-19 related positive stories capture people’s attention, because good things continue to happen, despite the context right now. Brands should continue to connect with and celebrate these moments, as and when appropriate. This could apply to events, trends and occasions from #IWD2020 to sports, TV premieres and culture.