Communications During The Coronavirus Crisis: Going Beyond the Basics

The coronavirus has been dominating news headlines in Bulgaria and around the world. In these unprecedented times of rapid change when one third of the world’s population is under quarantine, communications professionals are confronted with two significant questions: how to respond during the crisis, and, looking ahead, what changes in consumer behaviour to anticipate as a result of a prolonged lockdown.

While some of the changes have obvious implications for consumption as restaurants, hotels, travel and out-of-home entertainment sales have been practically wiped out, most marketers want to look beyond the obvious, and are asking themselves what they need to do now and in the coming months to support their consumers and keep their brands afloat.

A good answer to these questions is provided by behavioural science, which tells us that a natural fear of the unknown, authority bias and social herding are all contributing to the enormity of the behaviour change during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Messaging strategy

A structured analysis of the situation through the lens of behavioural science would look something like this:

  • Behaviour: Fear and anxiety
  • Theory: Probability weighting
  • Implication: Communicate positively and proactively

Research shows that we tend to overestimate small probabilities. While the coronavirus is more contagious than the flu, the majority of cases (more than 80%) of COVID-19 are mild to moderate, and some are even asymptotic. However, the panic caused by the media makes the threat loom large in our minds. According to our research into the media coverage of the pandemic in Bulgaria, the media has played a pivotal role in increasing our inclination to overestimate small probabilities by focusing on the coronavirus death rate and fatalities.

In fact, many businesses exist on the strength of probability weighting. No one will buy a lottery ticket if they did not exaggerate the infinitesimal chance of winning the jackpot. No one will buy insurance if the fear of loss did not appear much bigger than the real chance of the disaster.

While the short-term loss is inevitable, marketers need to ensure that they protect their brand image, communicate positively and proactively to consumers and contribute to reduce fears, while at the same time guiding them to pursue the right habits to safeguard themselves.

With the COVID-19 crisis continuing to escalate, corporate communications teams feel under pressure to address every single question or concern raised, but such a reactive approach could only further escalate the crisis.

 It is therefore important to develop a clear strategic messaging framework that represents your organisation’s fundamental position in relation to the crisis. Ideally, it should contain one key message and a set of no more than three concise supporting messages, underpinned by concrete talking points on operational actions and measures being taken, including adjustments in operations and marketing, as well as any relevant corporate responsibility initiatives.

Behavioural economics teaches us that framing is often more important than the messaging. It is not so much that marketers need to abandon their usual message; what is required is to put a new frame around it. Those new frames should be support, information, and consolation. The behavioural principle of reciprocity suggests that consumers will positively remember the brands that they felt held their hands in this period. Positive, well-framed communication can help marketers in strengthening their bonds with consumers. The focus should not be the deaths but the recoveries, not the villains but the heroes!

The power of stories

Storytelling remains the main tool for communications professionals to engage and influence their audiences. However, organisations show varying success in harnessing the power of stories. Many spin engaging stories around their brands and their users, powerfully interweaving the two. Whereas others merely rely on facts and claims of superiority, which often go unnoticed and unheralded. What we need to hear are positive stories that will calm the mind and help us make better decisions to return to normalcy.

What to do in the immediate present?

Adjust media investments based on the moods and expectations of consumers

During the crisis, marketers should focus on maintaining brand credibility with video storytelling and limit product-driven communications and sales promotions. We recommend the following media strategy:

  • Minimise: Outdoor
  • Increase: Digital (online media, short video, social, news and info sites)

Invest in brand-building

As noted above, brands should divert resources to brand-building, which establishes consumer trust. In this regard, communication effectiveness studies by experts Les Binet and Peter Field has showed that brand-building drives long-term growth as 62% of consumers are loyal to brands that they trust.

Lean into data

Most organisations sit on a mound of valuable data, but the challenge is to get insights from this data, which allows you to develop your strategies and tactics.

In the context of the COVID-19 outbreak, marketers might be asking these key questions:

  • How is the media covering various aspects of the crisis?
  • How can I convey my key messages so that they don’t get lost in the sea of information surrounding the outbreak?
  • Which of my customers are most affected by the outbreak, and who are not?
  • Is the change in consumer behaviour just temporary, or will there be long-term repercussions?

If you are interested in learning more about how data science and analytics can be used to generate insights and formulate communications strategies in times of crisis, download our in-depth data-driven analysis The case of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bulgaria. The report is based on 18,983 articles from Bulgarian online media published in the period 1st March – 11th March 2020.

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