Brands should take a lesson from the personal during the coronavirus pandemic

Amid this one huge thing, it is the small and personal that take on increasing importance.

Time for brands to stop avoiding 'eye-contact' argues Sarah Owen
Time for brands to stop avoiding 'eye-contact' argues Sarah Owen

We are all simultaneously dealing with the massive and the minutiae. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the way we communicate as individuals changed abruptly and is now rapidly evolving. Brands could do well to learn from this.

Take the example of how we interact when social distancing.

At the start of this enforced behaviour change, the awkward two-metre gap 'shuffle' was accompanied by a dropping of the head to avoid all eye contact.

Then it progressed to include eye contact, as if a hard stare would ensure the two-metre gap was observed.

More recently, it’s become a gentler manoeuvre, a gradual swerve to achieve the requisite distance, invariably accompanied by a smile, or even a "Thank you."

I’m an extrovert – greeting strangers is normal, and these smiles of unity are especially reassuring.

Some businesses have adopted the ‘avoid eye contact’ school of communications – and many have not moved on.

Some have chosen to go dark; if you can’t sell your products or services, why speak to customers?

But how does one ultimately survive this – by going quiet, looking at our feet and thinking only of ourselves, or do we hold our heads up, reach out to our communities, rethink opportunities and be ready to change direction when needed?

Communication in the time of coronavirus is not about volume, it’s about veracity.

Sarah Owen, founder and CEO of Pumpkin PR

For brands, often simple and honest messages are best, as they must admit that everything hasn’t gone to plan, and mistakes may have been made.

Those early emails from chief executives often jarred, invariably taking one of two forms: that their customers were the most important thing; or that their staff were, with the focus on keeping them safe.

Personally, I preferred the latter.

Shouldn’t the priority for any business be its staff – to keep them safe and pay them fairly – and then they could turn their attention to the customers?

Communication is all about how it makes us feel – the weekly Thursday evening 'Clap for our carers' is comms at its most visceral.

Physical, audible, emotional; it’s not surprising that it has become entrenched in our lockdown lives.

We’re looking for anything that offers a shift in pace. NT Live at Home; ITV’s Quiz making us sit down at 9pm prompt; Saturday cocktails; Scrabble nights – all are welcomed.

There’s a lesson here for comms and PR.

While it needs to reflect our reduced lives, it shouldn’t constantly remind us of the negative, because as individuals we are adapting in different ways, and looking for the positive.

The right message at the right time can hit home in a way that might struggle to be heard in normal conditions.

We’re all delighted to recognise those brands promoting their about-turn to create products to help in the crisis when their normal ones are no longer used.

Brand awareness is maintained, there’s a warm glow of doing the right thing, and recognition that the brand has adapted when needed.

Communication in the time of coronavirus is not about volume, it’s about veracity.

Being kind, truthful and creative – it’s the same for individuals as it is for big business.

Sarah Owen is founder and chief executive of Pumpkin PR


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