Communicating as a business through Covid-19 – looking carefully ahead

By James Walker, Executive Director – Sustainability and Sophie Coley, Senior Account Manager  

Today marks two weeks in official lockdown at Alert Level 4. As everyone in the country knows, this period of restriction was initially set for four weeks. We are yet to hear whether four weeks will be enough, or if we will need to fight-on in our bubbles.  

Many people feel that there is hope emerging that we may soon return to life with more freedom.  From when we first wrote a couple of weeks ago, we are seeing an evolution in the context in which businesses and brands are communicating, which we explore in this blog.

With indications that the lockdown is working, there is increasing pressure from sectors of society for business to begin re-opening, in a way that is sensitive to the situation. We are seeing in media commentary attention shifting to the financial impact of the nationwide restrictions and how to get the economy moving again.  

Communications from the Government has evolved in tandem. While cautiously indicating progress, the Government is imploring people to stay the course, reminding us that a unified health response, is the best response for the economy over the long term.  The World Economic Forum’s report on the economic lessons from the 1918 flu provides some explanation.

Over the past week or so, the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) widened the definition of essential goods from food, to essential appliances and clothes. This has added to a sense that we are moving in the direction of ‘normal’. However, it has not been without complication. Businesses have had to self-define as essential in the registration process, which has created confusion. At what price does a sweatshirt move from essential to non-essential?  If you’re replacing your fridge, is an ice-maker essential?

For businesses that have got that judgement wrong, the back lash from the public has been strong. This is understandable, given every New Zealander has had to make big sacrifices in Alert Level 4, and Kiwis value fairness. It’s a reminder that when it comes to reputation, meeting regulations is one thing, and meeting the expectations of your customers is another.   

Essential businesses that have remained open, particularly the supermarkets, have communicated effectively during this uncertain period. They’ve done this while coaxing customers to shop very differently in store – after a wait outside.  Supermarkets have provided practical information customers have needed in a sensitive way. They’ve made it clear how they are protecting their frontline team and been judicious with their advertising communications to avoid generating additional demand through product/price promotions. When mistakes have been made, supermarkets have been responsive to the feedback they’ve received– they’ve listened and acted.  

Beyond providing necessary information, during the past couple of weeks, many brands in New Zealand have chosen to say little.  In comparison, internationally, we have seen brands like McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Volkswagen alter their logos to demonstrate their solidarity during our unified isolations. For brands, the consideration is how customers will react to these expressions of empathy and whether they find them genuine. Back at home, we’re hearing through our own networks about businesses providing a hand to people and communities, without seeking any public attention.  

For a business communicator, where to from here? With at least two more weeks in lockdown, it is time to start thinking about the re-emergence of wider economic activity, even if you don’t quite know exactly what will happen. Speaking to a group of CEs recently, Finance Minister Grant Robertson encouraged businesses to think about what their operations could look like at Alert Levels 3 and 2, and we expect more guidance to come from the Government on this.  

Just as we’re all waiting for more information from the government, your suppliers and employees will be waiting to hear from you about your intent. As you step through your planning, it’s important to maintain clear lines of communication with both those groups. They need to be ready, when you’re ready.   

While you’re thinking ahead, it’s important to keep in mind that New Zealand has changed during these four weeks of lockdown. We won’t go back to exactly the way things were.  People will have lost income, lost jobs. Some people will have got sick. Others will have struggled with mental health, or difficult family situations. However, there are positive shifts too. We’ve spent more time with family, learnt new skills, seen a decline in air pollution and emissions, and had time to reflect. When we look around the world, we’re feeling proud as New Zealanders about how we’ve dealt with this pandemic in a smart and unified way. 

As you think about the next steps for your business, and what you may communicate, it is worth reflecting on what has changed and what that means for your business. Some of the principles that are guiding communications through this period of four weeks will continue to serve business well. Tell your customers, suppliers and employees what they really need to hear. Be informative. Be sensitive. And most importantly, be respectful of the context.