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Rules of engagement in the time of COVID-19: A brand’s responsibilities

Young girl browing social media on her phone
Written by
Kristin Gable

Kristin Gable


Written by
Pascale Larouche

Pascale Larouche

Canada and the world are navigating uncharted waters as the COVID-19 crisis evolves on an hourly basis. Much has been written about how brands have responded, from ethical acts of generosity (such as the decision of many major retailers to close stores while paying full wages to staff) to failed marketing stunts that will tarnish reputations long after we turn the page on this unprecedented chapter.

Our question is, when the world is gripped by a crisis that fundamentally impacts how we carry out our daily lives, what are a brand’s communications responsibilities towards its consumers?

1. Revisit the social media calendar

Consumers who are told to stay home under all but the most urgent circumstances may be less than enthusiastic to log on to Facebook and see a high-end makeup brand tout a tutorial for how to achieve the perfect night-out eye makeup look. Frustrated runners may not want to read articles about preparing for the (non-existent) spring race season on a popular sports magazine’s social media platforms. Budget-conscious Canadians may not appreciate that their favourite clothing brand is continuing to aggressively sponsor posts inviting them to spend money at a weekend warehouse sale (which will probably be cancelled, if it wasn’t already).

When an issue hits, brands need to ensure a prompt review of their social media content calendars, and delete or postpone tone-deaf content that is not aligned with the times. This includes reevaluating already-published content being amplified by a promoted spend, and therefore still present in people’s feeds. When a situation changes on an hourly basis, the shelf life of social content can be even shorter. Content that in any way encourages consumers to behave in manner that conflicts with what is requested by authorities, or that is insensitive to the prevailing sentiment, must be deleted. Full stop.

When in doubt, remember that it’s better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing.

2. Help out in a way that’s meaningful—not opportunistic

Loyal consumers need to be treated with compassion during challenging times, and any brand communication initiatives during the COVID-19 episode should be geared to making positive differences in people’s lives, based on the right to play.

Consider the fitness centres forced to close that are offering free online classes for members training from home. And the meal services offering free delivery. And the Internet and telecommunications companies relaxing data caps and long-distance fees. In times of crisis, society needs to come together (if only virtually), and almost any brand has an authentic opportunity to help make this happen. And although this isn’t the time to ask for recognition, know that it will eventually come through increased customer loyalty and goodwill.

3. Throw out the playbook

These are uncertain times, and those brand communicators who have not already thrown their playbook out the window are best advised to do so immediately.

As the ground shifts beneath us, the rules of engagement have become more simple: Be responsible. Be empathetic. Be flexible.

Instead of making long-term plans, think about the real-time approach that reflects your values and your consumers. What do they need from you? If you were in their shoes, what would you want from you?

And above all—will your communications approach leave you on the right side of history?

Need support? Our COVID-19 communications team comprised of crisis communications experts across Canada is ready to help organizations effectively communicate with their stakeholders.

——— Kristin Gable is a former Vice-President and Sector Lead, Retail at NATIONAL Public Relations

——— Pascale Larouche is a former Senior Consultant at NATIONAL Public Relations