Communications strategies for business recovery post-COVID19

By Nabillah Badri and Lim Hui Shan

As the number of COVID-19 cases began to dip in some parts of the world, ‘lockdown’ or ‘circuit breaker’ measures set by local governments are slowly eased in stages allowing businesses to resume in some type of normalcy. The pandemic however has now forced organisations and brands to step up in their communications plans to help bring them back from the brink that the crisis has abated. How can they best work their way around this and what can they do to develop trusted relationships with media?

Telum Media recently organised a webinar panel to discuss communications strategies as businesses are starting to pick up the pieces in the COVID-19 recovery period. 

Our panelists were Ven Sreenivasan, Executive Editor for SPH Radio and Associate Editor at The Straits Times; Jason Leow, Managing Director, Corporate Affairs and Communications at GIC and Mabel Chiang, Managing Consultant for Archetype. The hour-long webinar moderated by Telum Media’s Region Head for Southeast Asia, Haikel Fahim, was attended by more than 1,200 media and PR professionals.

Redefining communication strategies
The pandemic has affected each brand uniquely but communications is one of the many shared challenges brands face. For Jason, he strongly feels that brands should now work on shifting their marketing focus, in addition to re-shaping their content and messaging. He expressed that people are not ready to be marketed thus brands need to be seen as helping to solve and not sell.

“My sense is that people want to see brands rising to the occasion and being the moral community leaders right now.” He stressed that the focus on communications should be on helping people understand the crisis and highlighting the ground challenges in the hope of motivating similar positive actions from others.

Jason later added internal communications plays an equally important role to alleviate pandemic-related uncertainty among staff. In this case, organisations should steer away from comms relating to productivity, rightsizing, cost management, efficiency and instead move the focus on care and concern, health and safety, as well as helping employees to understand the situation and making sure decisions are communicated early. “That would be helpful because let’s face it, lots of us are now planning our work around our lives,” he stated.

Mabel echoed similar sentiments from an agency's perspective, “The priority now is to think, act and speak human in the way we respond internally and externally with our clients and partners - that centres all we are doing.”

COVID-19 and the media
The media industry may be among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis as journalists on the frontline wilt under the weight of the emails, alerts, and notifications they are receiving. Yet at the same time, it is also the one humanity is relying on for crucial up-to-the-minute information which inevitably may have caused COVID-19 news fatigue amongst news consumers. Ven lamented that we are now in a seminal moment in time hence no matter how much fatigue one is experiencing, people still need information from credible sources especially while they are shut indoors.

It will be a long road ahead for the media as Ven predicts the pandemic will continue to rule the headlines even as the pandemic situation stabilises or recovers completely. “My guess is that there will be a lot of news and a lot if it will be somehow related to the situation we find ourselves in. There is no getting away from it because that’s the nature of the beast - the media has to provide you with the information.”

Ven points out insightful tips for brands as they continue to vie for attention against pandemic related news. “Brands have to keep their eyes and ears focusing on the changes on the ground and understand how the preferences, values and priorities in society are changing with the times.”

Mabel too has witnessed a shift in consumption of story from consumers viewpoint - from lifestyle to how people are navigating in the new normal and has concluded a few trending topics from her observation: individual safety, security, stability and emotional needs. "Brands should think along these lines and how their business can add value to these needs. More importantly, brands need to demonstrate genuine care for the community, she added.

Media engagement in the new normal
Newsrooms, like many other businesses, are operating with social distancing measures in place. Coffee meetings and newsroom visits have now been replaced by phone calls, video conferences or video meetings, as new mediums to engage with newsrooms and relevant journalists. 

There is a big pool of journalists within a media outlet therefore communications practitioners need to recognise the right person to engage. Ven advised, “Know your audience and which journalist to reach out to. Do not carpet-bomb the entire newsroom. Once you pick the right group or journalist, reach out to them. Journalists like to hear your story but it’s got to be a convincing, good and relevant story.”

The panels also agreed that brands need to be a team player when building relationships with the media during the pandemic period - by being proactive and providing extra materials as most journalists are now working in a challenging environment under certain constraints, away from the resources they are accustomed to. “Be mindful that it is not about pushing the story but making it helpful for them to advance their story,” Jason emphasised.

Mabel noted while trust remains high on traditional mediums, the role of digital and social should still remain in a brand's marketing mix. “Social media is an outlet for people to amplify their voice more so than ever. Brands need to be mindful that a strong narrative and response framework should be in place. You can’t control what happens on digital and social platforms, it is important to have the right framework to take control in the digital sphere.”

Planning ahead
Crises strike when one least expects thus for Jason, having a crisis plan in place and tested is a no-brainer for many in-house comms teams and PR agencies. Subsequently, he stressed that it is essential for communicators to know how their role fits into the plan as they are responsible for being connectors and helping to keep stakeholders in the loop about response actions.

“Crisis comms should not be done independently of a crisis management plan. So first get a crisis management plan going before deciding how the comms should work. Comms professionals must be part of the session making body for all crisis management and never end up being the downstream player, reacting to the demands of staff memos and messages from the business. Comms is the one function that can look across the business and the external world and provide counsel in the sense of what needs to be set and done at any point. Bring that filter to the business at the very start.”

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