Tips for managing your brand's reputation in responding to the coronavirus pandemic

Kye Parkin
Communications Executive | Business West
31st March 2020

The disruption that the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is causing business, large and small, has been devastating. With shops shuttered, offices closed and high streets deserted, businesses have had to radically alter the way that they operate.

Whilst most businesses will be concerned simply with keeping the lights on at this time, businesses would be well advised to carefully consider the decisions that they take in the weeks and months ahead with an eye on how they are likely perceived by customers and the general public.

Reputation is everything in business and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will prove a make or break moment for brands depending on how they respond to the crisis. 

How well-known UK businesses have responded publically to coronavirus so far

Businesses that are seen to do the right thing and maintain strong customer relationships are well placed to weather the storm and come out the other end with their brand reputation intact. Those that fail to do the right thing or come across poorly in the media, may well lose customers and see their revenues plunge.

The differing public approaches of Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin and Scottish craft brewery Brewdog to the coronavirus outbreak are a case in point.

Not one to shy away from courting controversy (or the media spotlight for that matter), Tim Martin posted an ill-judged video on social media informing staff that they wouldn’t be getting paid whilst Wetherspoons doors were closed and suggested they start looking for jobs elsewhere. The video quickly went viral and prompted a serious backlash in the media and online with #boycottwetherspoons trending on Twitter.

Contrast the reaction to Tim Martin’s handling of his company’s response to the pandemic with that of BrewDog.

On 18 March, BrewDog’s founder, James Watt, announced on social media that the company had switched production from their signature brew Punk IPA to ‘BrewGel Punk hand sanitiser’ to help combat nationwide shortages. The media response was instantaneous and wholly positive, particularly as it was announced BrewDog would be handing out their sanitisers to hospitals and vulnerable people free of charge.

Other businesses such as Pret, Domino’s and Greggs have also ridden a wave of positive PR during the coronavirus pandemic as a result of offering free food and discounts to NHS frontline staff.

Whilst it remains to be seen whether Wetherspoons treating its staff so poorly, so publicly, is enough to put punters off their pints when their pubs eventually reopen, BrewDog has seized upon the current pandemic as an opportunity to do something good and presumably strengthening its brand reputation in the process.

The valuable lesson here is this: decisions made on the basis of short-term and profit motivated gains are potentially damaging for your brand, whereas acting altruistically can generate some positive PR that will no doubt strengthen your brands reputation in the medium to long-term.

So, how can you be more like BrewDog in communicating your response to coronavirus? Here are 5 key things to consider that will help you safeguard and potentially enhance your brands reputation in these turbulent times.

1. Follow government advice…to the letter

It seems obvious enough that we should all be following government advice right now, but that didn’t stop Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley from arguing the toss. 

Following the government’s announcement that all non-essential retailers would be mandated to shutter their stores with immediate effect, Ashley came out publicly to criticise the government’s prescribed list of ‘essential’ retailers and questioned why Sports Direct wasn’t on it.

Whilst some business owners might understand and even sympathise with Ashley’s frustration at having to temporarily pull the plug on his high street empire, just pause and think for a second what sort of message this sends to the general public.

When the man at the top comes out so publicly to disagree with official health and safety advice it sets alarm bells ringing prompting erstwhile loyal customers to begin to question how seriously its senior management takes its duty of care to keep us all safe.

All business owners know that health and safety is paramount, but in the current climate any minor indiscretion or failure to comply fully with the rules means businesses could find themselves in the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons. 

Putting profit before people can be seen as churlish at the best of times; given the current set of circumstances it could leave a business’ reputation in tatters.

2. Look after your staff – they’re the public face of your business

Treat ‘em mean keep ‘em keen might work for some when it comes to the dating game, but it is seldom seen as sage advice when it comes to managing your employees. It’s a cliché but it’s true, people really are your best asset.

Your people are the ones who have helped you succeed before the pandemic and they are the ones that can help get you through it and come out stronger on the other side.

Whilst it is true that trading in the current climate is tough and that wages are often the biggest cost burden for businesses, business owners should been seen to be doing all they can to keep staff on the payroll in these testing times.

Where tough decisions do unfortunately have to be made, businesses need to be acting with upmost sensitivity.

But why?

Engaged employees can be your best promoters. On the flipside, disgruntled employees are potentially among your worst detractors and therefore a massive threat to your company’s reputation.

What’s more, with the advent of social media and company reviews website Glassdoor the word about corporate malpractice gets around fast in the digital age. And this is something Britannia Hotels found out the hard way a week or so ago.

Following the decision to close the doors of its Coylumbridge Hotel in Aviemore, the hotel’s entire staff were informed by letter to pack up their things and vacate the premises immediately. After an ex-employee posted the letter on Twitter it went viral, calls grew louder for a boycott from the Twitterati.

This week the hotel chain once again came under fire from Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, for evicting homeless people from its hotel in Manchester leaving its already fragile reputation in tatters.

3. Adapt and maintain service standards the best you can

There is no such thing as business as usual right now, but businesses are advised to try and adapt the best they can. And in doing so firms need to be mindful of what sort of message they are conveying to the public as a result of the actions they take.

Some businesses are rolling with the punches and adapting well to the coronavirus pandemic, strengthening the relationship with their core audience and even engaging with new ones. The Body Coach, aka Joe Wicks, is a case in point where he has been able to engage with a much younger global audience since the pandemic started, becoming the self-designated ‘nation’s PE teacher’ while schools are closed.

Not all businesses have the luxury of being as flexible as Mr Wicks (no pun intended) and are finding it difficult to change their business or service delivery models overnight. That being so, in industry sectors where the scope and range of services are having to be scaled back as a result of coronavirus, customer communications is key.

With millions of us self-isolating or social distancing in our homes right now, the demand for home deliveries groceries is through the roof. Seen by many as pioneers of the online grocery business, Ocado, responded swiftly to this nationwide upsurge in demand by putting an immediate halt to app-based orders and introducing a virtual queueing system online.

Whilst some customers will have been left frustrated at being unable to use the Ocado app on their smartphones and having to wait in a queue (just like you do in a regular supermarket), from a PR perspective it is better to openly acknowledge your limitations as a business and set customer expectations from the get go, rather than leaving them frustrated by making promises that you cannot fulfil.

4. Play nicely – offer refunds and be flexible

Don’t get a bad reputation for refusing refunds or stinging customers with punitive charges or cancellation fees for a situation they are powerless to change.

Retailers such as Apple acted swiftly to extend the returns period for products purchased in their stores as a result of coronavirus and have received positive PR for it.

In the travel industry, few have covered themselves in glory in this regard.

The travel industry has been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic with borders closing across the globe often at short notice. Mass cancellations have left customers in limbo not knowing if or when they will be able to travel or if they’ll get their money back.

Some travel providers have been more helpful than others.

Ryanair has attracted criticism for their convoluted refunds process for cancelled flights, whereas airlines such as BA moved quickly offering flexibility to customers with pre-booked travel, but stopped short of offering refunds to the ire of customers and commentators alike.

Without question the companies that will fare best out of the coronavirus pandemic will be the ones that play nicely in releasing customer cash and offering flexibility.

If you’re tempted to let your customers come to you asking for refunds in the hope that one or two of them might forget, then don’t. It’s much better to be proactive in refunding your customers or to stop charging them immediately when you know they’re paying for something you can’t deliver.

Having closed their doors to the public, PureGym wrote to their entire customer base to inform them they wouldn’t be charged as long as gyms aren’t operational. This proactive approach puts customers’ mind at ease, shows that you’re trustworthy and helps to reduce the burden on your customer service staff.

In summary, making it difficult for customers to get their money back or change their plans is bad for your company’s reputation.

5. Give something back

In times of crisis it can be difficult to win new customers, particularly when so many of us are strapped for cash. That being said, you might be able to win a few people over by giving something back to the community.

AA are a case in point. With all but key workers working from home there are noticeably less cars on the road and a lot less breakdowns. Faced with a greatly reduced workload, the AA have volunteered their mechanics work for the Ambulance Service to fix ambulances as the coronavirus pandemic reaches its peak. A fantastic initiative.

Other companies such as Lidl have donated six figure sums to help the elderly and vulnerable in society, for example.

In a word a little bit of kindness can do wonders for your brand reputation.

To conclude, whilst businesses are navigating a number of different and seemingly more pressing priorities right now, your company reputation remains a prime concern and should not be allowed to fall by the wayside.

Businesses that are seen to be responding positively to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are the ones most likely to survive and thrive throughout it.

So, be kind or at the very least follow Google’s oft quoted adage, don’t be evil.

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