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Communications in the Time of COVID-19- What Now and What Next?

Communications in the Time of COVID-19: What Now and What Next?

Robyn de Villiers

Chairman & CEO, Africa

BCW Africa


For many marketers, 2020 has been a year of cancellations, rescheduling, and putting things on the back burner for better days. But if B2B and consumer brands want to come out on the other side intact, this is a trend they need to avoid.

BrandZ™ research has shown that investing in brand health is never more important than in a crisis— with strong brands recovering nine times faster than average ones after the 2008 financial crisis. So, while the correct business response to COVID-19 should primarily be to protect employees and support communities, that does not mean ceasing all communications spending.

BCW Africa believes there are three things communicators can do now to continue building brands and reputations during COVID-19: focusing more than ever on internal communications, repurposing communications to make them relevant to these difficult times and reaching out collaboratively to make a difference.

Focusing more than ever on internal communications

In times like these, there's no such thing as too much communication with your employees. So, provide as much information as you can as often as you can, particularly around job security.

You should also go big on recognition. Acknowledge the IT people who are keeping everyone connected. Thank the people who are placing themselves at physical risk to continue delivering essential services. And make employees proud to work for your organization by stepping up in ways that make a meaningful contribution to fighting the pandemic.

Repurposing communications to be relevant for these difficult times

It’s time to look at every piece of external communication through the lens of what’s suitable in the current situation. Channels, messages and approaches that worked in the past may be wrong for the business-unusual times in which we find ourselves. Above all, brands need to be intuitive and try to get the constantly changing tempo right.

In general, you should also hold back on reassuring your audience and giving them advice on what to do. That’s better left to government entities, the World Health Organization, and those delivering essential services. Instead, you can add value in other ways. Introduce concepts that amuse during long hours of lockdown and capitalize on people’s increased time and headspace for learning, upskilling, and trying new things.

We are living in a milestone chapter in history. Some are saying it’s the end of an era and the beginning of an uncharted new world. Help commemorate what billions of people on earth are sharing — for a brief, unpleasant, but massively impactful period of time.

Reaching out collaboratively to make a difference

You can also collaborate with others in ways that reflect your corporate values and brand purpose, and address key areas of need – assisting and acknowledging frontline workers, helping small businesses facing closures and widespread layoffs, and increasing your commitment to CSR initiatives that support communities facing social and economic hardship.

From a public affairs perspective, engage with the government and relevant bodies to get the concessions or support you need, and to offer the help you can. Get your leadership out there — make sure they are visible, in-touch, and brave. CEOs are emerging as chief brand officers, and people need to see them in action.

Long-term strategy may not be possible given current uncertainties, but you should start considering what lies ahead. Spend time scenario planning on the potential impact of the pandemic on your employees, customers, and business. The world is likely to emerge from COVID-19 with many new norms, including:

  • A changed workplace. Look for a permanent switch to remote working and demands from employees for greater flexibility.
  • A shift from global to local.  More people will likely support local businesses in the face of economic hardship.
  • Intensified focus on health and wellbeing. This encompasses both personal health and the planet, with brands facing heightened expectations for sustainability and responsibility.
  • Increased emphasis on freedom. Expect resistance to rules and restrictions and potential conflict with voices of authority.
  • Greater reflection.  People will internalize the COVID-19 experience and ask “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”

COVID-19 calls for a new human face in brand-building. Moving forward, brands will need to be more audience-centric than ever as they promote less and protect more. Winning brands will be those that care for and contribute to society in ways that are authentic, distinctive and memorable.

Robyn de Villiers is Chairman and CEO of BCW Africa

As one of the world’s top three largest PR firms, BCW has extensive experience in both crisis and education programmes, involving important public health issues and situations, including Ebola, swine flu (H1N1), avian flu, SARS and BSE.

BCW Africa’s services include scenario planning and mapping; media and social media monitoring; risk audits; political and regulatory intelligence; internal communications; media training; media and stakeholder communications; crisis preparedness training and crisis management support.