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Confronting a crisis of clarity

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If there’s one thing brands fear nearly more than a plague itself, it’s receiving questions from the media about a situation beyond their control. In the face of the unpredictable menace that is COVID-19, many companies are choosing to err on the side of caution and remaining tight-lipped. This comes even as some try to do their part to help the frontline.

Understandably, many companies are wary of appearing too positive too soon. Or so grim that their stock prices take a plunge. After weeks of uncertainty, though, COVID-19 has become as much a public health crisis as it is a crisis of clarity. As the situation persists well into the first quarter, remaining quiet or ambiguous about business outlook and challenges is no longer tenable.

At this critical juncture, communications professionals have a significant task in determining exactly what to say or not say.

While business continuity adjustments like consumer advisories and cancellation policies were the priority in the first few weeks, the emphasis now ought to shift towards advising the company’s leadership and spokespersons on the messages to convey and the tone to take. This remains key to shaping the company’s strategic position going forward.

Staying focused on the right message

With a developing external crisis that is still escalating, the pressure continues to build on the corporate communications team to address every question raised. However, such a reactive approach would merely muddy the water further.

It’s important to develop a clear strategic messaging framework that represents the organisation’s fundamental position in relation to the crisis. Ideally, it should contain one headlining message and a set of concise supporting messages (no more than three!). These should be buttressed by concrete proof points on measures being taken, including adjustments in operations and marketing, as well as any relevant corporate responsibility initiatives.

In building out this messaging framework, organisations ought to ask themselves three questions – with regards to context, relevance and differentiation – that will shape their communications:

1. CONTEXT – What are the current and future circumstances, including risks and opportunities, that the organisation is facing as a result of COVID-19?

In the face of uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, it is important to acknowledge the full context of the situation. Communicate the organisation’s grasp of the worst possible risks. This may seem counterintuitive to communications professionals who are often expected to “manage away” difficult questions or minimise damage. In this situation, any attempt to downplay the risks would be misguided. It is bound to open a Pandora’s box of other questions.

The organisation needs to engage fully in the details of the crisis context, monitoring every development, and articulating a clear understanding of worst-case scenarios. By doing so, it stands to manage stakeholders’ expectations, presenting itself as prepared, well-informed, objective and, ultimately, credible.

While visiting Changi Airport to meet with ground staff and workers in the travel industry, for example, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong went on the record to outline COVID-19’s impact on the Singapore economy. He stated that “[a recession] is possible, but definitely our economy will take a hit”.

While there has been much debate about the manner and timing of the Singapore Government’s DORSCON Orange announcement, PM Lee’s full-fledged articulation in this instance underlines the government’s clear-eyed view of the situation and preparedness for the worst. Doing so on the sidelines of a visit with Changi Airport’s crews who are “keeping Singapore open for business” enabled him to combine that sobering truth with the human touch. He managed to strike a fine balance between the rational voice and an appeal to the heart.

Likewise, brands’ willingness to speak the hard truths in uncertain times, along with concrete actions that convey empathy, helps preserve consumers and investors’ confidence.

Indeed, rebuilding trust requires brands and their executive leadership to show a deep understanding of the complexities of COVID-19. They need to show an assured grasp of business continuity plans, and a well-informed projection of developments to come based on a realistic timeline. All demand a clear expression of genuine expertise and experience, rather than a hard-headed avoidance of COVID-19’s negative impact.

2. RELEVANCE – In what ways is the organisation operating amidst the COVID-19 situation, both in the immediate circumstances and moving forward?

In a crisis like COVID-19, it is important for organisations to ensure that the messages they are communicating are relevant to the situation, time and place.

Any messaging on the organisation’s conduct and response to the situation has to consider stakeholders’ immediate concerns. These could include the safety of staff and customers in affected areas, as well as larger concerns on business impact.

The test of relevance helps organisations avoid missteps that can sometimes happen when marketing and commercial decisions are made as per normal under such extraordinary circumstances.

Recently, Scoot came under fire after its Valentine’s Day campaign was cleared for take-off amidst travel warnings and quarantine notices. Instead of inspiring couples to take romantic getaways, they drew flak from those already disgruntled about their ruined holiday plans.

It is also useful in a crisis situation to communicate messages that underscore an organisation’s fundamental strengths. These remind stakeholders of its resilience and ability to weather the storms.

Of course, due sensitivity is required to avoid drawing the limelight unnecessarily. However, a statement of quiet strength can go a long way in positioning the organisation for the path ahead.

Singapore’s National University Health System aptly demonstrated this in a photographic content series on its Facebook page “Faces of Courage”. The series reveals the human stories behind the crisis response, while sending a message of reassurance by underlining the system’s capacity and resilience.

3. DIFFERENTIATION – What continues to set the organisation apart, even in these times of crisis?

A message on differentiation is key. It reinforces the organisation’s core values and its singular impact. As the crisis continues, more brands are coalescing around front-line workers to show solidarity and support. Some organisations are sending meals and care packages to healthcare workers, donating supplies to affected areas, and even setting up temporary assembly lines to manufacture additional masks and disinfectants.

As more brands do likewise, there’s however a risk of appearing opportunistic by jumping on the bandwagon. This is where a clear line has to be drawn between doing good and shouting about doing good.

By focusing on one’s differentiation, an organisation can communicate its unique value proposition while addressing real needs in times of crisis. Grab, for instance, rolled out GrabCare in a timely fashion as an initiative to transport healthcare workers. It underlined the decacorn’s capacity to build and test new features within a short period of time while making a difference in times of crisis.

Strategic messaging drives clarity during crises

As part of crisis management and response, establishing a strategic messaging framework ought to be a key priority. This can serve as a fundamental reference point for brands for all communications to different stakeholder groups.

Of course, every piece of communications needs to be adapted to the situation at hand. A strategic messaging framework ensures that the organisation’s values, purpose and thinking are clearly articulated in every decision and communication in the organisation.

Such clarity is sorely needed to navigate this period of protracted uncertainty.

A version of this story was first published as a WARC exclusive, as part of its Snapshot series offering guidance and insights to marketers amidst the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Agung S Ongko 04.3.2020
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