COVID-19: What does additional scrutiny of corporate behaviour mean for comms teams?

One of the effects of lockdown is that people are reading more.

The more they read, the more the public like you? Better make sure that's the case, warns James Acheson-Gray
The more they read, the more the public like you? Better make sure that's the case, warns James Acheson-Gray

Conversations with two editors this week – one of a leading trade publication, another of a national daily newspaper and a corporate affairs director – have all confirmed that they are seeing a very significant increase in the amount of time that readers are staying with articles. With luck, you might even read beyond the next paragraph.

The concept of ‘dwell time’ – how long someone spends looking at a piece of content – is well-understood by digital marketers, but what does an increase mean for a corporate affairs teams?

Organisations are being scrutinised like never before

It’s not just external scrutiny: employees are watching your actions ever-more closely. Coronavirus has amplified a shift that had already begun, with a globally connected public auditing your organisation through online media. But now they have more time and they are anxious.

Expectation was already rising for business to act with social responsibility

Your audiences are assessing whether the steps you’re taking around coronavirus are authentic to your purpose, whether they help your own employees and whether they bring wider societal benefit. Fail to convince them and you run the risk of being called out. Look out for Piers Morgan’s morning roll call on Good Morning Britain – and then on Twitter – of organisations that haven’t reached his expectations.

As tension and emotions increase, reactions to your corporate behaviour are highly geared

The shifts are quick and subtle. At the start of the month a CEO taking a salary cut looked like a leadership outlier; now, you’re a laggard if you haven’t communicated the steps your organisation is taking. PR consultancies are not immune. People in our industry are having to advise on big judgement calls. It’s high pressure and it’s putting those at the frontline of the organisation’s reputation into the heat of battle like never before. An appreciation of context is critical in a highly febrile environment which adds to the risk of a misstep.

This is a moment for the longer reads

We’ve all had brevity drummed into us and so have recognised the challenges of getting across more complicated, nuanced ideas – which every organisation has. With increasing attention spans through longer dwell time, now could be the time to post long reads, make them compelling, go deeper at a time when people want substance, stability and expertise. Some will ask whether a deeper understanding of a company’s actions evokes greater empathy or drives more criticism. Most would argue that you build trust through transparency and explanation.

Don’t ignore comments boards, particularly in a crisis

Reader comments are also significantly up. An interesting discussion point is whether people are engaging with the primary content (the article) or moving straight to the secondary content (the comment boards). Who is the real influencer in times of crisis: the author or the community? Comment boards often reflect extreme views, but they are a useful guide to stakeholder feeling.

Gather data

You are unlikely to get dwell-time data from a third party about your earned content. However, on your own channels you may be able to gather metrics which look at the percentage of time spent on blocks of content within a larger piece. This can help to refine the content. But quality wins through: if you are producing rubbish, it won’t be read, however much time people have.

The optics of the decisions companies make have been brought into sharp relief by COVID-19 and it’s a moment that calls for sound judgement and experience, underpinned by relevant data insights where possible.

The big question is how the world will change, post-COVID-19. When all this is over and people have less time on their hands, will the same levels of scrutiny apply to business? I think yes.

James Acheson-Gray is a founder partner at Apella

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