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Why some corporate leaders are getting their Covid-19 communication right - and some are getting it very wrong!

Leaders, brands and reputations are like teabags: You only know how strong they are when they get themselves in hot water.

Never has this been truer than today, as we all find ourselves in Covid-19-generated ‘hot water’ and business leaders attempt to respond to falling income streams, closed workplaces, displaced employees and creaking supply chains.

There is no doubt that the challenges facing all businesses, large and small and across all sectors, are unparalleled and as there is no standard management approach to this situation, some business leaders have been making extraordinarily damaging decisions. 

Having never faced anything quite like it, it is not surprising the huge disparity in how businesses are responding and the resulting reactions.

There is an undeniable truth now, that poor judgment and decisions will make or break corporate reputations. 

On one hand, the missteps of some have created tirades of public comment, whilst elsewhere, where businesses are getting it right, the public have embraced the brands, celebrated their actions on social media and deposited reputational credit in what they see as genuine and authentic leadership.

Leaders have either got this right or wrong because of two key reasons. 

Either, it is because they don’t really understand what they face and don’t, therefore, have the skills to cope with it, or they are choosing to try and maintain a status quo of how they always operated, because of their own vested interest. 

Both these illustrate a lack of the ‘Right Stuff’ to manage businesses in VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous) times. As such behaviour drives nails into their brands and reputations, potentially destroying businesses or at least taking years to re-build, what should they be doing?

Well, just before I give you my four key attributes of brand preservation, let’s just remind ourselves of the sheer range of responses we are seeing and what in our profession of PR and marketing we are in effect either going to promote or pick up the pieces from.

We have seen a holiday chain become notorious for callously laying off and evicting its staff at no notice. We have seen businesses call for government hand-outs at the same time as suggesting they will pay bonuses and dividends. We have seen price hikes on certain goods which remind us of WW2 racketeering and hedge funders celebrate making billions, and we have seen one sportswear retailer suggest his shops were vital to the nation’s health, dismissing the risk to the health of his employees. I could go on, except that thankfully we have seen much more positive behaviour to counter-balance some of these examples.

So we have bonuses being paid by Aldi not to its senior management, but to its hardworking staff going the extra mile to keep shelves stacked; Iceland foods initiating special hours for elderly shoppers; BrewDog switching production into hand sanitizer and giving it away; Morrisons setting aside £10 million of groceries for food banks, Uber paying for 200,000 free trips for NHS staff, whilst various major company CEOs have slashed their pay or taken themselves off the payroll all together. Of course many more localised smaller, often owner led businesses are also doing tremendous localised efforts making significant impact on people at risk. It is looking at these exemplar behaviours and seeing how our own Omnicom agencies are supporting our displaced teams, responding to our client needs and coping with the raft of requests for pro-bono support, which clearly identifies four key learnings if you are going to survive this crisis, make the right decisions, be seen as a responsible business and build brand and reputation resilience. They are:

Think Human: Those businesses that are getting this right are putting the person, the human, at the core of their decision making and communication. They are showing empathy with employees who may be trying to work in cramped multi-occupancy flats. They are understanding customers whose worlds have been turned upside down, who may need extra time to pay or assistance in accessing goods and services. These businesses are putting people first, thinking in other people’s shoes and above all acting with others as we would hope others would act for us.

Forget the status quo: The world is different and with that the significance of the old ways of doing things, the weekly reports, the rule book, need to be thrown out of the window. But so does the way in which leadership thinks. The type of people and the type of behaviour which used to be seen as most important in the businesses, may not be so important now. So, value and recognize what will keep your business operating now and ditch out of date cultures and routines. This undoubtedly leads to innovation.

Innovate to survive: Depending upon what specialism you and your clients are in, will determine what the specific innovations are that you will feel are possible. But given the potential protracted basis of this crisis, standing still is not an option. A great example of this is in my small Shropshire village, which lacks a village shop. A local family owned wedding catering business lost all its weddings – 30 for the summer, overnight. But as it retains its suppliers, it has created a pop-up village store in the owner’s garage. We are using it under strictly regulated distancing measures and many of us are volunteer deliverers to the elderly in the village. The owners may not be as profitable as they would be normally, but they are surviving and they are the village heroes. This is what business, whatever the size needs to do.

Adopt a wider purpose: Finally, if ever there has been an illustration of where a core appreciation of your purpose in business should be beyond simply profits it is now. Surviving this crisis will take all of the above and then some, but core to this must be an appreciation that businesses that build a core purpose helping people, defined by ethical values and compassionate credentials, will have a loyalty from employees, investors, customers and others which will help them weather the storm. Selfish, singular money-based motivation will simply not cut it in either this crisis or the purposeful age.

Today’s business behaviours are tomorrow’s reputation let’s get this right and see healthy businesses survive for the good of us all.

Written by John O’Brien, EMEA managing partner of Omnicom's integrated agency One Hundred Agency

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