Public will be 'less forgiving' of brands in next stage of COVID-19 crisis

PR professionals should prepare for the public to be "less forgiving" of organisations as the coronavirus pandemic enters a new phase.

(Credit: SEAN GLADWELL via Getty Images)
(Credit: SEAN GLADWELL via Getty Images)

That was a key message at PRWeek's online Crisis Communications conference yesterday.

Speaking on a panel about adapting to the new world of crisis management, FTI Consulting's James Melville-Ross outlined the "very different communications challenges" should a 'second spike' occur.

"Our experience from crisis comms is that audiences tend to be less forgiving second time around," he said.

"I think the media was pretty forgiving of organisations in the first wave because everybody was taken by surprise, everybody was dealing with the same issues. I don't think that's going to be the case next time around."

Melville-Ross, senior managing director in FTI's Strategic Communications division, urged organisations not to step back from pledges to help vulnerable people, and to be wary of reversing pay cuts of senior leaders.

"We've seen CEOs taking pay cuts," he said. "Where that has happened, investors have been happy to continue to support the business. But already we've seen in the last week companies starting to step back from those executive pay commitments, and the exasperation is pretty evident from the way that some of the media are responding to those movements."

Similarly, London City Airport head of comms Joe Rankin predicted that there would be a "lot less tolerance, and a lot more scrutiny" of brands.

He said the public is "starting to question decisions" more frequently, and warned of greater scrutiny in the future of messages put out at the beginning of the crisis.

Rankin said: "You may have said that face masks were unnecessary in January because the Government guidelines said so, [whereas] now in July the Government guidelines say face masks are very necessary. You can't really win on that because you follow the advice and in retrospect you're wrong, in someone's view.

"I think the challenge – whether it's [during] the second wave, or however coronavirus plays out – is going to be not only communicating what's going on now in a much less tolerant environment, but also justifying what you've done previously… I think that could be a big challenge."

Hearst UK director of PR and communications Effie Kanyua said there is now "greater activity in terms of people holding brands to account" for the messages they put out.

"I think brands will definitely be more scrutinised as people look at what they're actually going to contribute across the board.

"If you're pushing out messages it's [about] making sure you're not looking opportunistic or tokenistic… making sure it reflects the tone and mood of the particular time, and that's hugely important."

Human messaging

Elsewhere, views differed on whether companies will 'revert to type' regarding their style of corporate messaging post-COVID-19, or retain the more 'human' approach common during the crisis.

Rankin said: "I worked agency-side a long time and there's always a temptation to revert to safety in corporate-speak, or whatever you want to call it. There's safety in not saying too much, not saying something personal, not admitting that you don't know the answer or avoiding apologising because of the potential legal ramifications.

"The nature of this crisis is so extreme and unusual that there will be this temptation to say: 'That was coronavirus, that was an exception, and in a 'normal' crisis – if there is such a thing – in which we've done something wrong or someone is opposing us, it's better to revert to the tried and tested'.

"I think that will probably play out. It's incumbent on all of us, if we think it's right, to be more personal, to be more human."

However, Kanyua said feedback from audiences of Hearst's brands points to a "shift in mindset".

"I think the human touch, authenticity, showing that more human, responsible side as a brand will continue, because I think people are holding brands more accountable. They want to see more transparency and they want to see brands have more of a purpose, make more of a contribution. So I think the tone and language could be a permanent shift, certainly from what we see on our platforms."

Rankin agreed that consumer expectations have changed, but he maintained that corporations are likely to revert to their 'comfort zones'.

"There could be a significant clash of permanently changed consumer expectations and businesses feeling more comfortable in the 'less-COVID' way of communicating," he said.

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