How can brands and organisations leave a legacy after COVID-19?

Turning thought leadership into action-led leadership.

Australian supermarket chain Woolworths took in 20,000 Qantas staff who were placed on unpaid leave
Australian supermarket chain Woolworths took in 20,000 Qantas staff who were placed on unpaid leave

Over the past few weeks, I have spoken to many business owners and senior leaders, each facing their own challenges as they navigate their way through the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. I have listened as many unpack personal, societal and commercial dilemmas they were dealing with. But as a communications practitioner, there was one recurring question I was asked: Should we communicate proactively or stay silent?

For some, the fear of appearing insensitive in keeping their brand front-of-mind outweighs the risks of losing relevance and giving ground to the competition – and so they say nothing.

We all know there is a delicate balance to be struck, but my advice to these leaders is that the rules of the game have changed. This is not a corporate crisis where missteps and mistakes will be called out and remembered. This is a global crisis, where every company and every individual faces new and difficult challenges. In this environment, it's the brands that communicate effectively and with purpose that will be remembered when COVID-19 is a distant memory.

All leaders should be thinking about what they want their company legacy to be post-COVID. Do you want to be remembered as the business who dropped off the radar, or the one that stepped up and offered their customers, local communities, industries and society something helpful, honest, compassionate and relevant?

Clearly the answer is the latter but knowing where to start and how to move forward can be difficult. A natural place to start could be thinking about what information you or your business has at its disposal that is relevant and insightful in these unprecedented times. Perhaps you have access to data that reveals something that's not widely known, or you have a solution to a problem you've experienced that others could benefit from, or insight that might help with making difficult decisions.

This type of positive insight can be delivered in many forms: both online and offline, owned or earned channels, in static content and more interactively. In all its forms, it's extremely valuable from a communications perspective. It can humanise a brand by demonstrating its expertise and learnings, help to tell its story by showing innovation and forethought, or aid SEO and act as a tool for sales and marketing teams. It can also aid CSR efforts by helping you to communicate about the good your brand is doing and the wider benefit it brings.

However, in a time of crisis words alone are never enough. They need to be backed by action. Right now, true thought leaders are those who are acting positively and creatively, and communicating what they are actually doing. It's the companies displaying action-led leadership that are being called out and leading the pack, and they will ultimately see the most positive impact on their long-term reputations.

Take Woolworths, the Australian supermarket chain, as an example. 20,000 out of work Qantas employees placed on unpaid leave have been offered jobs within the chain. Pret a Manger in the UK kept a select few of its outlets close to hospitals open so that NHS staff could access fresh and healthy food on a 50 per cent discount. Both are great examples of cross-industry collaboration and humanising of brands that could have all too-easily have remained silent during this time.

In other industries, we are seeing major players take risks that benefit not just their immediate contacts, but society as a whole. In early-March, prior to WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, the NBA league was suspended for the season. Many at the time thought it was an unnecessary decision and other major sporting events delayed acting. But the proactivity shown by those at the top of the NBA meant one million fewer people would be exposed to risk. Fast-forward to a month later and we have seen other events follow suit – some bowing to external pressure to do so, rather than proactively taking a leadership stance for the good of the community. The NBA's decision went against a natural corporate instinct to downplay a situation and its impact on a business.

Many may not feel they are in a position to make such large-scale and impactful decisions. However, there are opportunities in every sector to make your mark as an authentic and memorable action-led leader.

Taking an example from closer to home, one local dressmaker in Singapore answered the urgent need for reusable face masks by quickly offering masks in the same fabrics as the dresses customers usually ordered. A company quickly pivoting and being proactive and helpful to its customers is both memorable and heart-warming. I have no doubt that their customers will remember their creativity and quick-thinking for a long time to come.

These are not arbitrary CSR efforts or empty communication campaigns. They are win-win solutions baked into the very fabric of navigating through COVID-19, and all the more powerful for their authenticity. The efforts of these companies, and the many others going above and beyond right now, should be commonplace throughout the communications calendar. All too often proactive CSR is forgotten when times get tough, but that is when it can have the greatest impact.

Redefining thought leadership as action-led leadership powered by communications is what will truly help your brand leave a legacy for the future, and it is our responsibility as an industry to lead the charge.

Mark Worthington is managing director and co-founder of Klareco Communications

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