Amidst the deluge of COVID-19 news that we read from across Europe, the US and now increasingly developing markets, there have been some bright spots. Pret a Manger scored a win when it announced it would be offering free hot drinks and a big discount to all NHS workers. Supermarkets have also been hailed for their rapid responses in order to keep customers safe, despite the early panic buying.
Not all brands are coming through this global crisis with their reputations intact, however.
Primark, Matalan and the Edinburgh Woollen Mill came under fire after they collectively cancelled or suspended orders totalling £2.4bn, resulting in more than a million Bangladeshi garment workers being sent home without pay or losing their jobs. Primark has since agreed to pay manufacturers’ wages after a backlash and is now setting up a fund to help pay the wages of millions of affected workers.
Perhaps the most prominent backlash in the UK was directed at Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct and a string of high profile retail names; after he announced he would be keeping the sportswear chain open as an essential business. The company even went as far as lobbying the Prime Minister on Twitter. He later issued a public apology regarding his own, and his company’s, actions.
Sometimes PR disasters are fleeting and the damage may be minimal. But the damage to a reputation during such a very public, and very significant crisis, such as we are seeing now, can be irreparable.
Even for those companies who are not cancelling orders or defying government orders, there are very obvious risks when communicating blindly during a crisis.
Continuing to communicate as if oblivious to events unfolding around you can suggest insensitivity, or complete ignorance. Yet perhaps even worse, are companies that seek to shoehorn messaging around COVID-19 into external communications when there is little reason to do so, just to make their communication ‘relevant’ or ‘timely’.
In an unprecedented landscape such as we are currently facing, it is a good litmus test to question all external communication, with one eye on whether it could be deemed insensitive by being sent out. Ignoring, or worse piggybacking, off a human crisis, will stay in the media’s minds; but it will also remain in your clients minds for many years to come.