COVID-19: CRISIS AND CORPORATE REPUTATION

Thursday 30 April, 2020

By Andrew Jones

COVID-19 is a crisis like no other. Many UK companies routinely prepare resilience plans, participate in emergency exercises and practice media interviews, but too few paid sufficient attention to the impact of a global pandemic.    

The crisis plan should, in theory, be sufficiently robust to handle any unexpected incident or event. Clear processes and procedures, matched by an ability to communicate with an authentic human voice. And people always come first – employees, customers, stakeholders and the wider community.

Six weeks since lockdown, resilience plans have long since been activated. And yet, reputations are being sacrificed on the altar of ill-conceived virtue signalling, overt hypocrisy or just plain incompetence. Now more than ever, people come first.

This is the right time to demonstrate a sense of purpose, but it must offer genuine public value and stand up to external scrutiny: trumpeting new products that protect frontline staff will soon unravel if they haven’t been produced to relevant standards; special pleading delivered from luxurious mansions won’t land particularly well with government, and even less with the general public; announcing staff promotions whilst furloughing others doesn’t do much to strengthen morale.

Some observers are too quick to draw a correlation between poor corporate behaviour and loss of sales but I do think that there is a more subtle impact on business.

The trade unions were quick to call-out those companies they believed were compromising social distancing, with an obvious impact on industrial relations; valuable staff may look elsewhere if they perceive their employers condone double standards.

There are many lessons to learn from this crisis. Crisis plans will need updating if we are to be better prepared for such pandemics. However in the rush to be heard, so many unforced errors could be avoided by keeping that people focus firmly at the centre of everything you do.

Senior VP Andrew leads our reputation and issues management practice at Weber Shandwick Scotland, drawing on over three decades of working in the media and communications sector.  Contact him on Andrew.Jones@webershandwick.com.