With COVID-19 lockdowns beginning to ease around the world, we are now entering a new stage of the pandemic. Simultaneously, we are also moving into a new and distinctive phase of corporate communications in response to coronavirus. 

In short, silence is not an option. Consumers actively want to hear from the companies they engage with. The opportunity to protect and enhance reputation is great, but with companies coming under more scrutiny from the media and the general public than ever, the stakes are incredibly high. 

To date, communications efforts during the pandemic can broadly be broken down into three key phases:  

  1. COVID-19 Comms Phase One focused on initial and immediate responses, with companies and industry bodies outlining their closure and cancellation details to customers.

  2. COVID-19 Comms Phase Two saw communication leaders’ efforts shift to detailing lockdown initiatives, including adapting business services, improving customer accessibility, and supporting employees. Purpose-driven activities to support the national effort were also promoted. 

  3. We are now entering COVID-19 Comms Phase Three, a time when companies need to provide clarity around how they are adapting their products and services to meet the so-called “new normal.”

What messaging should communications leaders be focusing on in this next phase? What are the most critical topics that consumers want to hear from them about? Does this differ across sectors? And how can companies that have made mistakes so far win back public support and improve their reputations?

We recently undertook a study in the U.K. to explore these topics, with an eye toward designing the most effective communication strategies over the new few weeks. Our web-based questionnaire was answered by 1055 participants in May 2020. Here are the key findings.   

1.      Past mistakes may be forgiven if you get your messaging right now

Our research reveals that perceived communications successes or failures to date have already had a significant impact on corporate reputation and are already influencing consumer behaviour. Companies that have communicated well during the pandemic are gaining ground, with more than two thirds (67%) of the general public saying they will start buying products from them. In comparison, more than half of consumers (56%) have stated they will stop buying from a company that’s handled the COVID-19 crisis badly, and a quarter of respondents (25%) say they have already convinced someone else to stop using a company’s products altogether. 

But the research has also identified an opportunity for rebuilding some of these damaged reputations. Airlines, travel, and insurance providers were some of the industries to score the lowest approval ratings in our research, coming under intense public criticism for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet the public wants to hear from these industries the most right now—above any other.

Insight-driven, strategic communications could be game-changing for the reputations of companies within these industries over the next few weeks. 

2.     The most important communications issues are clear

The loud message from consumers is that they want to hear from companies—even if you’re a company that’s communicated badly in the eyes of consumers. Respondents were clear on the topics they want to learn more about, too. Across industries, in order of priority, they are as follows: 

  1. Actions related to customer safety 

  2. How products and services are being adjusted to better meet customer needs post COVID-19

  3. What companies are doing to combat spread of COVID-19

  4. What actions companies are taking to safeguard employees 

  5. More functional communications on availability of products and services—dates and times, etc.

Interestingly, there seems to be a shift away from the altruistic attitudes exhibited by the public earlier in the pandemic. In previous communications phases, companies that were supporting their employees and promoting purpose-beyond-profit activities received high public approval ratings. But in this new communications phase, we can see that four out of the top five messaging priorities are all about the customer—their safety, the services that they receive, how they’ll be protected, and when they can access services. Only safeguarding employees sits outside of this.  

3.     But communication priorities are markedly different from one industry to the next

While the communications focus areas are clear across the board, there are significant variances in the priority of messaging across different industries. Companies must pay attention to this over the next month. Getting it wrong would not only be an opportunity lost, but could also present potentially lasting reputational damage. 

For example, when it comes to airlines, hotels, and travel, the public most wants clear communications about how companies are going to adapt their offerings to meet their changing needs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they want comfort and hope about their future holiday and travel plans. 

Second to that, they want to know more about reimbursement for unused products and services, as well as cancellations—indeed, interest in this is higher here than in any other sector. Customer safety drops down the list to third here. 

But compare that to energy & utility companies: Here, the public is demanding corporate communications around flexible payments and cost reductions. The public is also keen to know how these industries will be supporting the COVID-19 effort longer-term, through donations. 

The messaging hierarchy shifts again when it comes to insurance companies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given recent refund initiatives from insurers, the topic that consumers most want to hear about is reimbursement for unused or cancelled products. 

Listen to what your stakeholders need

This latest COVID-19 communications phase is set to last for at least a month if not more. It is undoubtedly a unique opportunity for companies across the board to build on their successful communications efforts to date, or to repair damage that has already been done. 

The key to success will be in carefully listening to stakeholders and developing communications strategies in response to their shifting needs. 

Rick Keen Vice President, U.K. and Middle East The RepTrak Company