Communications and brand lessons from COVID-19

An industry panel shares experiences and predictions on COVID-19 and what it means for brands and communications, marketing and the media

Brands must be agile, adapt communication to their audience, treat people well and adopt principles based on individual safety and embrace flexibility as they strive to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Those were headline takeaways from an industry discussion last week hosted by Sydney PR agency, Lighthouse Communications, which covered observations and learnings on the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel included corporate affairs, HR, marketing, government, media and PR representatives and explored and how things have changed across marketing, communications and the media.

Here, we present highlights from that discussion.

Retail at the frontline of a global crisis

At the frontline of the effects of the crisis, Coles media and sponsorship GM, Kate Bailey, said there wasn't ever really a question for the supermarket chain about what it would be communicating to customers and even if it should be communicating, because the impacts were so significant quite early on.

As the surge in supermarket sales took off, particularly in items like toilet paper which quickly spread to other basics, Bailey said they needed to consider what tone of voice they should be using as they talk to customers.

“What are the right media channels to use? And who's the voice of Coles and how should that be communicated? From the beginning, it was responding to unprecedented demand," she said. "We decided quite quickly the comms should come from our CEO or COO and that it was really important that we put a person behind the communication."

Coles built its COVID-19 comms around its websites, email database and its existing relationship with FlyBuys members, making a ready-made audience. It has continued with these channels throughout the past couple of months.

“Those were the channels where we could get messages to the market really quickly, without requiring a huge amount of artwork and being able to manage it remotely,” Bailey continued.

Supermarkets were a vital part of the pandemic, and managing both the customer experience side of things in tandem with the employee safety and security became another challenge. Here Bailey said the supermarket giant realised how important it was to create an experience that really helped team members manage through a really difficult time.

Four key principles guided the comms from mid-March until recently. Firstly the messaging needed to recognise the feeling of unease, both with customers and team members; secondly, managing team members safety; thirdly, recognising the demand for cooking inspiration through its websites; and finally, keeping customers regularly updated.

Longer term, Bailey expects some of the changes to remain. “We've seen a significant increase in the number of customers visiting our website, shopping online, visiting our digital channels and looking towards digital channels for information, and we expect that to continue,” she said.

Government as the source of truth

NSW Ministry for Health director of communications, Judy Goldman, said as news of the coronavirus started to emerge, the department soon realised it was dealing with something without precedent, even for those who had dealt with similar situations with viruses such as SARS and MERS.

This resulted in a situation where the team would be given information in the morning and were starting to plan the communications, but find the situation had changed an hour later.

The first challenge was how to be transparent and proactive in an environment where there’s a lack of understanding about what and how to do it in this kind of situation. “It was about getting the right information to the right people. But when the number of cases started to grow, the comms strategy quickly moved into another gear,” Goldman said.

Goldman explained the communications team couldn’t create content fast enough on the topic of COVID-19 because of the insatiable appetite for information, both from the media and the public. This saw Facebook followers spike in number, put all content across its existing channels and also examine the other channels they could use. Added to this, the NSW Ministry for Health had to rapidly assemble a team to execute communications.

“We needed a digital team. We needed a team of content and campaign people, we needed designers. And we also needed a team of media people who could manage through the crisis and deal with the state of misinformation and information,” Goldman said.

The department quickly became a source of truth for both Federal and state governments, individuals themselves as well as doctors and health practitioners wanting information to provide to patients and clients. Going through this experience, Goldman said clear roles and responsibilities is key to managing teams in these environments. “You have to create a purpose-built team,” she said.

Also providing a perspective on government and public health communications, Simon King, director of communications for the NSW minister for customer service, said the first task was to help make people aware of the pandemic situation and also drive people to the NSW government website as the source of truth for all the COVID-19-related information. 

To help, King pointed to a heat map, which visually depicted the number of active cases and testing spots as the most transparent piece of communications.

“If you want to get the message to the right people, look at the data and look at where the problem areas are. And you can look at vulnerable areas, such as hospitals or aged care centres,” he said. “It wasn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to messaging, it was very data-driven approach to make sure those who were most exposed were getting the messaging.”

King also said the vast array of social channels and service centres allowed his team to “listen to the people of New South Wales and understand their questions and concerns and then use that to provide the right information to them through the government website and its other social channels”.

“And it could be fed to the department of health and the Premier about what they need to be touching on in their daily press conferences,” he said.

Up next: How the media handles a crisis, Telstra's connectivity role, and one futurist predicts what COVID-19 means for us long term

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