Pandemic PR strategies from Pure Public Relations in Sydney

COVID-19 comms strategies have shown us empathy is everything

These days, public uncertainty is a huge barrier for brands and governments alike. It’s been some time since the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and the general public remains understandably uncertain about what the future holds. This uncertainty has rippled down into government mistrust, reduced spending, and even a rise in conspiracy theories. In some cases the shift towards mistrust leads to constructive, positive behaviour – but not always. Thankfully, PR can help…

In some cases, the shift towards mistrust leads to constructive, positive behaviour. As of July, for example, savings in Commonwealth Bank’s accounts were up 14% compared to the same time last year. But in other areas, such as uncertainty around the COVID-19 vaccine, scepticism is a real risk.

Thankfully, PR can help. A strong communications campaign is a perfect vehicle to steer an uncertain audience towards acceptance, and the pandemic has already provided us with a wealth of examples of how to get it right.

Consumers reacted by hoarding at the start of the pandemic

Speak the language of empathy

If there’s one thing we’ll all remember about the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the very primal desire to get our hands on one product above all else: toilet paper. No one could have predicted the panic-buying frenzy that started on our shores and soon spread throughout the world, much like the virus itself.

In response to the overwhelming demand for essential items, the supermarkets decided to come together in a communications campaign like no other. Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA told the Australian public that they were “working together to provide for all Australians”, and urged shoppers to treat supermarket workers with respect.

Humanity is one of the things that they did well. They did TV interviews in a high-vis vest from a warehouse stocking toilet paper, and interviews in front of a busy supermarket. The lessons learned? Make it relatable and speak people’s language. Mirror how people are feeling, demonstrate empathy and don’t disregard consumers’ concerns.

Be willing to take risks

There’s one more public health example from well before the pandemic that has some useful lessons for tackling today’s plague of uncertainty. In 1982, seven people died after taking Tylenol-branded acetaminophen capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. No one was ever charged or convicted over the crimes.

Johnson & Johnson moved swiftly, putting the public above profit by recalling 31m bottles of Tylenol capsules from shelves and offering a safer replacement free of charge. All in all, Johnson & Johnson spent more than $100m over the crisis.

The public wants to see that brands are willing to go the extra mile for their customers, even if that extra effort involves taking a risk. By putting its own neck on the line, Johnson & Johnson’s customers felt reassured that the company would go to great lengths to keep them safe.

Listen to concerns

According to new Ipsos research, nine in 10 Australians would get vaccinated for COVID-19 if it were available. But among the 13% of Australians who said they somewhat or strongly disagreed that they would get vaccinated for COVID-19, almost half were worried about side effects (46%), one-quarter doubted the effectiveness of the vaccine (24%), one-fifth did not think the virus posed enough of a risk to them (18%) and another fifth had a general opposition to vaccines.

Vaccine hesitancy is a real worry for public health officials, because the coronavirus vaccine will only work if enough people get it. Simply assuming that the public will trust the government ‘because they’re the government’ isn’t good enough, and also isn’t realistic.

Social listening is a great tool to do this effectively and accurately, along with reading what’s being written in the papers, on blogs, and in thought leadership pieces. There’s a good chance that many people have made assumptions that aren’t correct, since there’s not a lot of clear information around a potential vaccine at present.

Social listening is the key to countering these incorrect assumptions. And speaking to your audience as though they are intelligent enough to receive more than a sound bite will make them feel respected, and reassures them that decisions are being well thought through. Validate them that you too have considered the concerns that they have, and that there is a plan for it.

Listening helps you anticipate any and all questions, and answer them in a respectful way that doesn’t make people feel stupid for asking. Consider Jacinda Ardern’s handling of communication around COVID, where she took the time to answer children’s questions in a special kids’ press conference.

Her communication acknowledged what people were feeling, thinking, and questioning, and took the time to address that with really clear information. Her COVID plan didn’t contain a huge amount of exceptions that were hard to follow, people knew what was coming next, and felt part of the process. Imagine if New South Wales’ move away from plastic bags at supermarkets took the same approach.

Ultimately, whether you’re a brand, a school, or the government, it’s critical that you create an environment where people feel like they’re completely understood. In order to banish uncertainty, empathy is the key. ‘In times like these’, hollow platitudes are never enough.

This article was originally published in Mumbrella.

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