Public relations and COVID-19: Focus on building trust

Guest Column: Varghese M. Thomas, the Global Head & Vice President – Corporate Communications, TVS Motor Company spells out how PR can play a pivotal role during the pandemic

e4m by Varghese M. Thomas
Updated: May 22, 2020 12:11 PM

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown one of the biggest challenges at the Public Relations community. Consider the following: There is widespread panic often triggered by misinformation; as the reported cases rise, hospitals do not have capacity to deal with the crisis sending alarm bells ringing; the stress of social distancing and lockdowns are affecting focus and performance; employees are being sent on furlough, many are being retrenched; the questions around sick pay are going answered; customers are in the dark; and there is deep uncertainty around manufacturing, travel, supply chains and public services. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), The COVID-19 crisis is expected to wipe out 6.7% of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020 – equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. Every business and service has been affected, along with its customers. This is the perfect storm into which PR can step in and bring about calm using some crisis and risk communication best practices mixed with some intuitive solutions. The special Edelman report called Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic found that 78% of respondents felt businesses had a responsibility to ensure their employees are protected from the virus in the workplace and to not spread the virus into the community.

PR can play a pivotal role in a crisis of this magnitude.  One study of 300 communications executives and senior leaders in early March saw 62% respondents saying that the communication function has been a “very important” factor and 19% saying it was “important” in their organization’s response to COVID-19. While this is predictable, the survey also found 44% of respondents saying their crisis communication plan did not cover an infectious disease outbreak.  Again, this is predictable: No one could have foreseen a health threat on a global scale that forced a complete shutdown of entire countries, stopped all cross-border travel and brought the wheels of global commerce to a grinding halt. What the survey findings show is that there are gaps in the PR practitioner’s emergency response playbook. To address the situation most PR teams will have to use experience and gut feel to strategize, plan and execute action.

In situations like these, organizations would have swiftly created a COVID-19 Emergency Response Team and a COVID-19 war room that tracks guidelines and the requirements imposed by the local government/ administration so that business functions can be aligned with these requirements. The emergency response team will also analyze the daily impact on business, alert HR and operations for new ways of working and keeps customers/ stakeholders updated. The PR function will be a core component of this team. Its role should be to keep the communication focused, timely and trustworthy.

PR practitioners must stop all other communication such as pitches, brand-building and organizational chest-thumping, before jumping into COVID-19 related communication. As many as 54% of the respondents in the Edelman report said that they would not pay attention to new products unless they were designed to help with pandemic-related life challenges. This does not mean initiatives should be frozen. Business should continue, as far as possible, as usual. However, the focus of all communication should shift entirely to the well-being of employees, customers, partners and public safety. The underlying rule of all communication should be to avoid profiting from the pandemic.

Trustworthy communication can be created in a number of other ways. While the health situation around the world will change on a daily basis increasing uncertainty, PR professionals should adopt the following processes:

Provide factual, trustworthy information: Social media has turned into an un-navigable ocean of rumors, misinformation and specious advice. It has also turned everyone overnight into a COVID-19 expert. The PR team should stay current using only trustworthy sources of information – WHO advisories, government orders, local administration ordinances and notifications from public health officials. Keep a common list of trusted resources for reference, updates, technical guidance, health advisories and resources (based on enterprise and employee locations). Above all, ensure that the team does not fall into the trap of becoming COVID-19 experts. When they treat every piece of information with caution and the diligence of researchers, they will save lives..

Communicate with transparency: Employees, stakeholders, customers and partners will want to be kept informed. Tell employees of the measures being taken to safeguard their health and well-being. Ensure that their families are kept informed as well. Tell customers about the steps being taken to ensure their business or orders are not impacted.  The key is to remain honest, explain what you know, admit what you don’t know and always reveal the sources of information. As many as 84% respondents in the Edelman report wanted their organization to be a reliable source that keeps people informed about the virus and the progress being made in the fight against it.

Maintain empathy: COVID-19 is a global human catastrophe. It is unpredictable. The uncertainty induces social, psychological and behavioral changes in practically everyone. There is stigma attached to being infected. Families suffer along with the infected person. Maintain empathy. Provide information that helps in decision making. The findings of the Edelman report show that 83% wanted brands to issue public statements expressing empathy and support for those most affected by the pandemic.

Maintain clarity: State your concerns and commitments, demand cooperation, communicate new solutions and policy updates as quickly as possible to those impacted. Continuously update stakeholders on measures being taken to protect employees and business. Focus on the technologies being used to safeguard futures. Focus on solutions. The Edelman report said that 84% wanted their brands to help people cope with pandemic-related challenges. Bring a tone of authority, focused management and leadership to all communication. If possible create video messages from leaders. Make these videos available to target audiences/ groups along with cues and channels for feedback and questions.

Keep employees and customers inspired: These are difficult times. Resources are strained (even getting groceries is an uphill task). Tell stories about how individuals in the enterprise have overcome odds without compromising their health. Tell stories about how the organization is contributing to the well-being of the societies it serves. Focus on innovative ideas that enable people to overcome odds, maintain business continuity and improve public awareness. Use the company blog, email, Instant Messaging groups and social media to spread inspiring stories. Make it easy for people to share the story. Staying indoors can be tough. Encourage employees and their families to play games, read more books, and get more sleep. This is not the normal remit of PR, but these are not normal times.

The COVID-19 pandemic requires PR professionals to bring experience, intuition and gut feel into play. There are very few rules to go by. No playbooks to refer to. If anything, this is a good time to rewrite many of the PR practices that have become outdated. As the pandemic changes the world, so should the practice of Public Relations.

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