TVS Motor Company's Varghese Thomas says PR should focus on building trust during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the single biggest challenges at the Public Relations community. There is widespread panic triggered by misinformation; inadequate hospitals capacity leading to alarm; the stress of social distancing and lockdowns to cope with; jobs being lost; and there is uncertainty around manufacturing, travel, supply chains and public services. 

The recent Edelman report called Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic found that 78% of respondents felt businesses had a responsibility to ensure their employees are protected from the virus in the workplace and to not spread the virus into the community. 

This is the perfect storm into which PR can step in and bring about calm using some crisis and risk communication best practices mixed with some intuitive solutions.

This is a black swan event and there is no ready-reference PR guidance to rely on. To address the situation, most PR teams will have to use experience and gut feel to strategize, plan and execute the action.

To start with, PR practitioners must stop all other communication such as pitches, brand-building and organizational chest-thumping, before jumping into COVID-19 related communication. 

As many as 54% of the respondents in the Edelman report said that they would not pay attention to new products unless they were designed to help with pandemic-related life challenges. This does not mean initiatives should be frozen. The business should continue, as far as possible, as usual. However, the focus of all communication should shift wholeheartedly to the well-being of employees, customers, partners and public safety. The underlying rule of all communication should be to avoid profiting from the pandemic.

Trustworthy communication can be created in a number of other ways. While the health situation around the world will change on a daily basis increasing uncertainty, PR professionals should adopt the following processes:

Providing factual, trustworthy information: The Edelman report found that 63% of respondents in the survey wanted the employer to share information about coronavirus at least once a day. To do this, the PR team should stay current using only trustworthy sources of information – WHO advisories, government orders, local administration ordinances, etc., and provide employee’s information from a business and health perspective. Ensure that their families are kept informed as well.

Communicate with transparency: Employees, stakeholders, customers and partners will want to be kept informed. The key is to remain honest, explain what you know, admit what you don’t know and always reveal the sources of information. As many as 84% of respondents in the Edelman report wanted their organization to be a reliable source that keeps people informed about the virus and the progress being made in the fight against it.

Maintain empathy: The uncertainty around COVID-19 induces social, psychological and behavioural changes. There is a stigma attached to being infected. Families suffer along with the infected person. Maintain empathy. Provide information that helps in decision making. The findings of the Edelman report show that 83% wanted brands to issue public statements expressing empathy and support for those most affected by the pandemic.

Maintain clarity: State your concerns and commitments, demand cooperation, communicate new solutions and policy updates as quickly as possible to those impacted. Provide details of plans, programs and investments underway. Focus on solutions. Bring a tone of authority and leadership to all communication.

Keep employees and customers inspired: Tell stories of individuals in the enterprise who have overcome odds without compromising their health. Tell stories about how the organization is contributing to the well-being of the societies it serves. Focus on innovative ideas that enable people to overcome odds, maintain business continuity and improve public awareness. Staying indoors can be tough. Encourage employees and their families to play games, read more books, and get more sleep. This is not the normal remit of PR, but these are not normal times.

The COVID-19 pandemic requires PR professionals to bring experience, intuition and gut feel into play. There are very few rules to go by. No playbooks to refer to. If anything, this is a good time to rewrite many of the PR practices that have become outdated. As the pandemic changes the world, so should the practice of Public Relations.

Varghese M. Thomas  is vice president & global head – corporate communication TVS Motor Company