• Daisy Powell-Chandler

Strategy tools to help you navigate a crisis

Reputation is formed by your own behaviour, the manner in which your behaviour is communicated, and the context in which that behaviour takes place. A crisis such as COVID-19 changes all three of these things and creates significant reputational risk.

The crisis itself may have major and direct impacts on the way your business functions, but it will also change the behaviour of your teams. If you are all now working from home, that may reduce scrutiny, or slow down the approval process or some activities may even halt or fall through the cracks. Risks are posed not only by lax behaviour but also by business-as-usual functioning that is no longer appropriate.

Communications channels are disrupted – internal communications are adapting swiftly as teams shift to remote working and the media is understandably focused on corona-related news. But, on the flipside, stuck at home and deprived of social context, consumers may well be more inclined to read email communication from brands and engage on social media. While there are benefits to this corralling of your audience, there are risks inherent in moving into channels that you might be less familiar with, and it will be a very crowded space.

And context, oh context is everything! A glance at my inbox last week demonstrated a big split between companies that had already realised this fact, and those that were still sending me pre-scheduled content that seemed jarring and inappropriate. Most of the lagging group I have ignored but some earned a hearty ‘unsubscribe’. Some surprisingly excellent communication has given a human face to services that I wouldn’t have given two hoots about before now (a local laundry service nearly made me cry, in a good way) and some of the big corporates have been deft and sensible.

Most of us believe that the way a person or organisation reacts in a crisis is indicative of their ‘true colours’ – so any risks are also amplified: the audience over-emphasise what you do now and are also more stressed and emotionally charged than usual.

Enough of the risks - how should your organisation navigate these tricky waters and safeguard reputation against all the odds? The good news is that rules are pretty similar to the usual – but it can be hard to remember that as the world changes rapidly around us and we all vibrate on a higher emotional frequency. If ever there was a time to root yourself in strategy, rather than tactics, it is now:

  • Be purpose-driven. If you and your team are clear about what it is that you do then it will be far easier to determine how you react to COVID19. Joe Wicks, for example, helps people ‘Get fitter, stronger, healthier and happier’. His reaction to the crisis? Live-streaming PE classes every morning to keep kids healthy and adults sane. This is on-brand and lovely. He would be making content anyway but now he is entrenching his status as a household name.

  • It isn’t all about free stuff. Marks & Spencer famously bedded themselves in as a steadfast and trusted part of UK society by manufacturing ration-friendly clothing during the Second World War. You don’t have to be free to be helpful. Maybe you already offer a product that is now suddenly more important – an ergonomic cushion that makes kitchen chairs as comfy as office chairs; a home-school activity set; healthy microwave meals. Or a product that can now help a different audience – like fruit boxes that used to deliver to offices but now can help families and NHS workers? Or maybe you have expertise or advice: how about energy-saving tips that families can implement together? Or puzzles that will give bored and frustrated housemates something to talk to each other about after conversation has run dry. Sometimes just being a system that is easy to interact with and doesn’t tax an already over-wrought brain is the gift that your clients need.

  • Be human. We hear a lot about ‘authenticity’ these days and that is correct. Consumers have a good nose for BS. But the easiest way to be authentic, and the best way to build a connection with your audiences, it to remember that you are human and channel that into your strategy and communications. The most powerful contact I have had from companies in the past week is from those that articulate most clearly how our lives are changing and they role that they can play in that (props to Sky, for example, or this ad from the finance industry). This is easy to say but hard to achieve – we are so used to slipping on a different persona when we write a press release or policy, and too often that is when problems creep in. Don’t assume that everyone is having the same experience as you, but we do all have some basic similarities.

  • Reassess channels of communication. A lot has changed since you did your segmentation. All those consumers who used to listen to the radio on their commute? Nope. What about the daily newspaper? Nope. Even web and TV channel usage is likely to adapt. Don’t keep ploughing time and money into your existing comms plan without thought.

  • Take a breath. Some decisions need to be made swiftly: how to implement recent changes to law, for example. But taking a few breaths, accepting what can wait for a day or two, or even a couple of weeks until things become clearer will prevent many a reputation disaster. For example, Richard Branson and Virgin have been widely criticised for asking the 8,500 employees at Virgin Atlantic to take eight weeks’ unpaid leave. Had they waited a few days, the government would have announced the new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme; as it is, the damage is already done. This is an art, rather than a science – the International Olympics Committee, never known for being an agile organisation, might be taking delay a bit too far. There is a lot to be gained from using a technique often deployed by patients suffering from anxiety: acknowledge the issue, pause, explore, and now act. Take time to work through these stages and communicate with your teams that the work is in progress but that you want to make sure you have complete information before you act.

And one tactical reminder:

  • Don’t contradict the experts unless you have acknowledged expertise or evidence to add. In general, it is a bad look to be found contradicting the official view unless you have specific facts to add. If you have expertise to offer, or you can share (GDPR-compliant) data that adds to the picture then by all means go ahead. But contradicting the official line on a ‘reckon’ or for business reasons is a bad idea right now – for example, this quote from Tim Martin of Wetherspoons is unlikely to age well:


Need a reminder to keep you sane? Download this cheat sheet

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