PR during the Coronavirus crisis: Adjusted communication for the survival of the brands

Alena Kulenović Delić, PR Manager, McCann Sarajevo

"Neither it is new, nor it is normal", I heard a significantly different one, immediately at first sight interesting phrase, while hearing the psychologist’s review on life today quite by chance on a radio station,  , still in the coronavirus era, but with a significant lapse of several months, in which we had time to “adjust”.

I must admit, it still sounds worse than the expression that has been imposed on us so far as the slogan of 2020 - "the new normal", but much more realistic, because the situation in which the whole world, united in fear of a common enemy - the COVID-19 virus, stopped and for most normal things still remains quite “immobile,” is no longer new, but certainly not normal either.

However, to continue to survive, we must adapt. Saying that, I do not think that we should be encased and wait for someone else to move the world instead of us, but to observe, analyze and then create smartly.

The beauty, significance and value of every creation is based on communication, mostly visual, but the importance of words is not any less important. Therefore, below is a summary of the challenges PR faced at the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, and what this industry is facing today. Of course, quite personally and subjectively, based on the experience of working directly with clients of different profiles, but also while observing the overall market.

The Coronavirus has caused a huge socio-economic decline all over the world, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a large number of people lost their jobs during the implementation of emergency measures to prevent the spread of the infection. Unfortunately, among them were also media workers, experienced journalists and editors. Burdened by the earlier period of unprofitability, additionally enhanced by a complete stoppage or radical reduction of advertising campaigns, many media had no other choice.

Huge changes in the media; working in two shifts, reduction of newspaper printing, the abolition of editorial offices and columns, complete suspension of print editions of the magazine, changes in the program schedule, suspension of shows, are just some of the situations in which the media found themselves. The only topic in the public focus - Coronavirus, won the entire media space of a completely new, “breaking news era”, and people - worried about health, life and existence in the endless scroll for the latest information - were not even interested in reading, listening or watching anything else.

In this context of the media on one side, but also the challenges faced by companies and brands, whose business has become more or less endangered, required adaptation, or fundamentally changed, on the other side, PR had to find its right path and meaning.

In those moments, the role of brands was to show empathy, to take care of the safety of people - their customers or consumers of services, and to help them. In a situation when lives and health are endangered, opportunism would be a bad choice! Therefore, product PR, and generally standard communication that promotes services or products, was unacceptable, and additionally, in moments of fear and panic, completely invisible. Customized communication, successfully placed in the context of the current pandemic, where a customer needs come first, focused on providing help or solutions, was something that could bring value to brands.

For those who could not react quickly and adjust the communication, who could not adequately create it, it was better to follow the rule that says, "Silence is gold". During the adjustment to the era of new normal, when, due to all of the above, it was even harder to reach the media space, the ability to move more intensively to the online sphere was of great importance.

Most brands saw their first opportunity for media appearance in raising public awareness of the importance of introducing social distance measures (Alma Ras; Without touching, please!), and many chose to show their social responsibility through various donations. Initially a very interesting and useful trend, it soon became very boring, because copy-paste is not exactly a way for originality. Again, those who embraced this social responsibility first left a strong impression of empathy.

That’s why the first stories about donations, especially to the medical facilities (“Lactalis BH; We sympathize with Heroes in White”), funding scientific research to combat COVID-19 (most often, the practice of global brands, such as: The Carlsberg Foundation donated $ 13.8 million to combat Coronavirus) procurement of medical equipment (Violeta donates six respirators and medical equipment worth 400,000 KM), providing technical conditions for children to successfully follow classes online (BH Telecom provides free use of tools to organize distance learning), found great media support, who gladly filled their space with CSR stories of these socially responsible companies. Regardless of the emergency measures, the desired journalists could be reached. Nevertheless, as budgets shrank more and more, and donations became endless, the game soon changed.

The most successful examples of PR were those where companies and brands, mainly domestic food manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies (Violeta, Klas, Bimal, Milkos, Bosnalijek) received free media space thanks to the quick response to meet the needs of domestic consumers, protect the domestic market and prove reliable in times of crisis. Promoting their response to the crisis with information that, in a moment of crisis the public eagerly awaited, and “packaged" in topics that would arouse optimism, companies presented themselves as socially responsible, those who care about domestic consumers and the domestic market.

In a time of crisis, the recommended direction chosen by some of the brands was to offer useful advice for a new organization of life within our homes (dm advises), or  create unique platforms for psychological counseling, online activation for education (UNICEF # StayHome Challenge), fitness and entertainment (Mercator, M Network). Certain brands, hampered by the complete abolition of BTL activities, and thus the communication that promotes them, had very successfully realized online activations, such as Tuborg's musical challenge "Are you open to challenge", and various promotions of online shopping and services (MasterCard).

After months of living with the Coronavirus, the tremendous fear and panic slowly decreases, and therefore the reactions of brands, their activities, and communication change. Numerous events are still in the sphere of the online community, but now and then a certain event, new product, campaign, again become the topic of press releases. Communication itself is still closely related to the behavior of brands, or to say their new response to our reality, and its tone, regardless of the topic, should be: useful (offers practical help), emotional (feel the mood and match the tone), benevolent (help people), optimistic (hope and normality should be encouraged at the right time).

People will still need to feel safe and protected, thus, information directed to users, and related to the work of the company, should be clearly communicated. Launching activities and initiatives that manifest national solidarity and support to the domestic market are a recommendation for good CSR, and communication of lighter, lifestyle topics, with which brands tend to bring relaxing and fun content, can most quickly put them in the context of those who, adapting to the new wave of "new normal“, are actually those who, in addition to mere survival, also offer the enjoyment of life.

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