PHA Group Chairman Phil Hall provides PR advice on managing your reputation post pandemic.

The pandemic may no longer be headline news, but what can we learn from it as far as business recovery is concerned?

Arcadia, once the darling of the high street and Debenhams, which can trace its history back nearly 250 years, were among the early fallers, but thousands of companies have gone under.

Covid has accelerated the demise of weaker brands and reputations have been trashed and businesses that seemed healthy a few months before were left fighting for survival.

Vaccines saved lives but also contributed hugely to stock markets rebounding and indeed hitting new heights as each medical advance becomes headline news from London to Sydney.

The question for businesses is how to manage reputations in challenging times and emerge stronger.

Corporate reputation and strategic consultancy

According to a global survey by the Intercontinental Communications Agency, the two big growth areas in public relations are corporate reputation and strategic consultancy, ahead of social media community management and marketing communications. The pandemic has made many businesses assess their priorities and that is not going to be a short-term trend.

One in three executives at leading global companies consider reputation is essential to planning business strategies, according to a survey of 600 C-Suite executives across 12 countries who each have more than 1,000 employees. The results show how the pandemic has brought reputation into focus.

Consumers are increasingly sensitive to issues of corporate responsibility and may react with their wallets. They can attack a corporate entity with a few clicks on their twitter account and it does not take much for that noise to grow.

Having the right strategic counsel in place is the best way of preventing corporate reputational damage and sometimes that requires a pro-active approach. However, when mistakes are made it is vital to be prepared with the right structures and processes in your response plan.

Crisis preparation

Training the senior leadership team for a PR crisis and the subsequent media attention is a vital step. This includes ensuring key spokespeople are media trained in communicating key messages and managing difficult press interviews – if you want an example of what can go wrong when you have not prepared properly for a media interview, look no further than the Duke of York’s now infamous attempt to explain away his connection to the Epstein scandal at the hands of Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. His reputation will never recover.

Media training is only one component. Every organisation, however small, should have a crisis manual. It helps to identify risks to the business and build a plan for crisis management for staff and stakeholders to refer to. What do you do when an unfortunate remark is made by a CEO such as Bill Michael, former chairman of KPMG who told staff on a zoom call to “stop moaning” about the pandemic and “stop playing the victim card”. He apologized but within days he had left the company. Having a process in place for the unexpected is crucial.

Understanding the opportunities and risks of your online presence can also play a part in managing a crisis. Social media and company websites can be a powerful tool to communicate a message and reach a huge audience but they can also add fuel to the fire if accounts are mishandled or staff are not properly trained. A plan and a process with clear defined guidelines can mitigate that risk and calm staff in a time of stress.

Taking the front foot

Alternatively, reputation can be managed with a positive, pro-active approach. In today’s world silence can be fatal for business, particularly in such a competitive landscape and with an expectation of a transparent corporate culture.

During the pandemic, many brands scaled back their marketing budgets – 62 percent of marketeers changed their strategy due to Covid-19, including Coca Cola, which paused all Q2 marketing in the UK having previously spent $5.8 billion on advertising just two years earlier.

Tempting as it may be to curb a marketing and communications spend and keep a lower profile during a crisis, doing so may do more harm than good. In 2009, a study in the Journal of Advertising, analysed Proctor and Gamble’s response to the Great Depression. In contrast to its competitors the brand increased investments in marketing and reaped the rewards. Today it is a brand worth $230 billion.

Brands that get on the front foot in times of crisis have been shown to benefit from maintaining and increasing brand equity and share of voice. And that has been particularly important with media consumption at its highest among consumers who now work from home more frequently or stay close to home.

A Census-wide poll shows that 48 percent of us are reading media publications more than usual and radio listeners have increased by 22 percent. Consumers are seeking familiar trusted sources for reassurance in strange times and there are opportunities for businesses to capitalize. Being seen as a good corporate citizen is a way of communicating a brand ‘s values even if you can’t serve your customers as you might wish. The fast food chain Leon, for example, was widely praised for a campaign to feed the NHS at the peak of the pandemic.

In many ways, consumers have never been less forgiving in the judgements they make; they see through brands they deem not to be authentic. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of reputation – and those who get it right will emerge from it stronger.

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