In PR, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, it does not make a sound. If you’re waiting for permission to start communicating the great things your organization did in response to the early stages of COVID-19, it's here. It’s bolster season, the time when brands shift from crisis communication to that of praise and thanks.
This is not to say the pandemic is over. We know it's not. And it's not to diminish hardships the spread has caused. But as social distancing protocols begin to loosen in some parts of the world, and the planet braces for a slow return, the opportunity to bolster is critical for brands, which the pandemic disrupted.
There’s nothing new about bolstering. The sentiment of not letting a crisis go to waste has been the stuff of communicators and politicians going back to the sophists in ancient Greece. The concept of celebrating success, good decision-making and pointing to breakthroughs in modern PR lends itself to historical figures like Barnum and Bernays, who knew how to garner positive attention and inspire the masses (the latter of the two a bit more ethically than the former).
Bolstering is tied directly to corporate social responsibility and overall goodwill. In fact, bolstering happens all the time, but typically those messages are lost in the noise. What’s unique about bolstering circa COVID-19 2020 is the ability to unite a message with a global headline and hot-button issue. The equation is simple: Do good things and talk about it.
In fact, brands are doing great things and talking. PRNEWS has compiled a comprehensive index of bolstering messages in the article: “Brands Doing Good During a Difficult Time.”
People need hope and trust
People are looking for affirmations of hope, positivity, and as always, trust. In a special COVID-19 edition, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer pointed to alarming statistics related to consumer trust in business. It determines that 50 percent of people believe business is doing poorly, mediocre or completely failing at putting people before profits; only 43 percent believe that companies are protecting their employees sufficiently from COVID-19, and 46 percent do not believe business is helping smaller suppliers and business customers stay afloat.
Yes, audiences need to know you’re re-opening. People need to know you’re ready to hire. But most important, they want to know how your organization contributed toward solutions during the crisis. Show them.
You’re likely already seeing it. Big brands like Amazon, Walmart, and just about every insurance company and car manufacturer are releasing bolstering messages that seek to showcase success and build trust.
When is the right time?
In the stages of a crisis, the apex is considered to be one of the most important. It’s here that the crisis has reached its peak, and it’s just beyond this point that things begin a slow, downward trajectory toward post-crisis recovery. The problem with the apex is you don’t know you’ve hit it until it’s passed. What peak means is different for every brand.
For communication pros, that narrative derived from the questions below usually means a shift in tone moving away from scary, but necessary protocols; away from harsh reality; away from messages of caution; and toward a new message.
Articles, social media posts and advertisements begin to flirt with the language of a return to normal. As is true when assessing the timeliness and readiness of any message, know thy brand, and to thy known brand be true.
To jumpstart a bolster campaign, think about the following:
Start by writing a narrative
- How did we respond to the crisis?
- What things did we do well?
- Who or what are we most proud?
- What did we learn?
- Who are our heroes?
- What happens next?
A few more tips: As with any effort, get buy-in from leaders. And don't forget to thank employees, volunteers and donors. Think about format and placement. Make sure it’s the right time; don't be tone deaf to other issues affecting your audience.
Joshua J. Smith is assistant professor of PR at Virginia Commonwealth University Robertson School of Media and Culture