“Be sensitive, not silent”: How to tailor your brand’s marketing in a time of crisis

I remember sitting down with my team before Christmas and discussing how we were going to position our clients’ messaging in light of the bushfire crisis. My one simple instruction was – we need to be sensitive, but we don’t need to be silent.  

If only I had known at the time just how guiding (and long-lasting) that simple message would be.  

With over 20 years in the comms industry I have guided clients through many unforeseen challenges, so when these recent global issues arose I was very quick to see brands adopt a familiar fight, flight or freeze response.

Some companies ramped up their communications to have a determined voice amidst the frenzy. Others ran in the complete opposite direction and distanced themselves from controversy with empty phrases like “we’re here for you.” And the rest, well, they froze completely – reverting to silence out of sheer fear and uncertainty.

Here are a few critical pieces of communication advice to help navigate marketing during a crisis.

Communication comes from the top down

As we commence the new financial year, organisations are facing many unknowns; will they make it to the end of 2020? Will they have to lay-off staff? With big changes and mass redundancies taking place, internal communication should be a key priority. 

If communication isn’t handled correctly from the top down, additional uncertainty will circumnavigate your business. Senior decision-makers must stay ahead of the curb, addressing things quickly and honestly. Once internal stakeholders are onside and aligned to the company direction, you can focus your efforts externally. 

But this external arena is where many organisations trip up – questions I’ve been asked frequently include ‘how do you have a voice amidst global tragedy?’ ‘How do you meet company objectives without sounding insensitive?’ A great approach I’ve always used to guide my business is found in Moreno’s (2010) paper on ethical communication: 

“Today more than ever before, we need to communicate in another way. We should do this through the correct use of the resources that we have at our disposal, or in other words, with transparency, sincerity and honesty.

Regardless of your business’ size, we all have an obligation to communicate with basic human values and decency. And that has never been more critical.

Silence is not the easy road

In a time of conflicting ideologies and hysteria, we are experiencing what I would call a mass ‘freeze’ effect, where people think it’s better to not say anything than something stupid.  And while this might feel like the best approach, think again! 

Whether you are driven by the fear of speaking out, circumstantial uncertainty, or if you just feel there are too many voices saying the same thing, remaining silent as a business will be detrimental to your long-term goals.   

Take for instance, (ironically) the Corona Beer brand, who remained silent throughout the entire crisis. Statistics show from the U.S. that 38% of consumers wouldn’t buy the beer in public under any circumstances, which means that millions of dollars in revenue have been lost based on the brands’ association with the pandemic.

On the other hand, renowned fashion brand Prada used the pandemic to pivot completely and focus efforts on communicating effectively with the community. The Italian style empire produced thousands of medical supplies and launched ‘Prada Conversations’ in Australia via Instagram, allowing followers to get exclusive behind-the-scenes insights into the brand. Due to this repositioning, streams of positive feedback came from audiences across the world and the brand was featured across global media channels. 

While it may seem easy for many brands to keep a low profile, those that are choosing to communicate with value, are succeeding.   

But…at the end of the day, there is a fine line. You cannot just start spouting empty promises and meaningless sentiments. 

Moving from silence, to sincerity

When taking that next step and thinking about how to start communicating sensitively with your audience, remember to be agile and transparent. Here are some things to consider: 

  • How is what I am saying relevant to what my audience is going through?
  • What external circumstances do I need to be aware of? i.e. protests, restrictions
  • Does what I’m saying provide genuine value to my audience?  
  • Is all my messaging consistent and considerate of what’s happening around me? 

While businesses don’t need to fear speaking out, they do need to be ready for the pit bulls if they catch even a whiff of insincerity. On the other hand, if your business leads with genuine communication, in the long run, the results will far exceed what you planned for. 

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