Communicators Deploy Strategies to Pivot as Pandemics Unmoor Businesses and Organizations

It is likely you’ve used the word pivot more during the pandemic period than in pre-pandemic times, or what’s now called before time. In addition, words like flexible and adaptable are appearing more often in the vocabularies and writings of brand and agency communicators.

It’s not a surprise that businesses and organizations are seeking to pivot, adapt and retain a level of flexibility. Changing course quickly, or at least having the flexibility to do so if necessary, has become the order of the day during this triple pandemic moment (the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial reckoning in the US following the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the economic havoc resulting from the first pandemic).

Crisis Without an Ending

Unlike most crises, the COVID-19 pandemic lacks a clear end. Recall predictions several months ago that ‘by July 4 this will all be over.’ As we finalize this edition, nearly 40 of 50 states are experiencing rising numbers of cases.

The week leading up to July 4 saw some of the worst days of coronavirus infection. On July 4, new cases dipped slightly, to 45,000, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The three previous days saw more than 50,000 infections. In addition, the US has recorded 2.84 million cases and nearly 130,000 deaths, making it the global leader. The US death rate has slowed to hundreds daily from 2,000+ in April.

Instead of it all being over, localities and states are thinking about or delaying reopening. Companies are seeking communicators to counsel them about how to craft messages about closing entities that reopened only recently.

Savvy PR pros anticipated this scenario. For example, Kelly Stepno, APCO Worldwide’s N. America practice lead, crisis management and litigation communication, says practical planning and preparation for reopening included the possibility of “another round of stay-at-home orders, a quick closing after reopening and a second wave,” she told us in an interview last month.

From a crisis standpoint, she said, the question is how do you prepare for those scenarios? While planning is vital, she said, it’s critical that companies make sure they are nimble and agile.

The disruption of COVID-19 and the racial reckoning that the Floyd and Arbery killings unleashed have unmoored much of the US.

This uncertainty around health and the awakening over racism has spread to companies and organizations. This has resulted in proposed, and, in some cases, actual changes. Pivot, pivot, pivot.

Many Pivots

Pivot examples in recent weeks are numerous. First, some of the COVID-19-related pivots and the #BLM-related pivots:

    • The Texas governor reversing course and ordering a mandate for mask wearing;
    • Ticketmaster late in April agreeing to refund customers for tickets to virus-related cancelled concerts;
    • TX and FL opening and then closing beaches ahead of July 4 weekend owing to virus spikes;
    • McDonald’s changing plans to reopen dining rooms for July 4; instead, postponing them 3 weeks;
    • Packaging changes at Uncle Ben’s, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth announced in late June;
    • Also in June, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School removing the name of the former US president
    • Early in July, the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins announcing possible name changes
    • In June, the NFL saying it should have listened to players about racism;
    • AdidasHR chief retiring abruptly June 30 after staff claimed she hadn’t taken diversity seriously;
    • Cancelling of TV’s “Cops” and “LivePD” in June;
    • Media entities, including the AP and NY Times, changing policy in June to capitalize “B” when referring to Black people;
    • Starbucks and Taco Bell in June initially refusing and then changing rules to allow employees to wear #BLM-related clothing;
    • Some 750 advertisers and counting, including Unilever and Coca-Cola, dropping Facebook advertising in July and/or halting social media ads for 2020, protesting a lack of control over hate speech on social (see PRNEWS, May 2020).

Communicators are well acquainted with pivoting in uncertain and volatile times. It is akin to what companies do during a crisis. Communicators and other staff study the situation via listening, determine what, if anything, to say or do and then make recommendations to the C-suite.

Deciding when, if and how to make changes to policy are some of the most difficult aspects of crisis management. Once it is decided to change, communicators craft a message.

Social Listening

Kim Atkinson
VP, Communication

Typically, a pivot begins with listening, which is anything from knowing the latest innovations to following stories dominating the news to understanding how consumers feel about your brand on social media.

Social listening always is important, but it might be more so at this pandemic moment for several reasons. Since travel is limited, “social is where you’re hearing about events…even the media is watching social for information…[and] consumers are telling you what’s important on social, sometimes before the media does,” says Kim Atkinson, VP, communications, SmileDirectClub,the global teledentistry company based in Nashville, TN.

And since almost everyone is homebound, social media use is at record levels. It’s where the public is living. Failing to check the pulse on chatter around a brand or topic before crafting and delivering a message could result in a company coming off as tone-deaf, says Catriona Harris, CEO, Uproar PR.

In addition, Atkinson says, with the intense speed of the news cycle during the triple pandemics, social listening is a prime way to judge what incidents might progress to crisis level.

“We find ourselves doing a lot of monitoring, holding and waiting to see what actually becomes an issue and what blows over,” she says.

The new cycle’s speed makes listening especially critical now, says Meredith L. Eaton, N. America director of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.

“It’s important to know early on who is driving conversations, where they are happening and what they’re about–all of which will help dictate how, when and where a brand responds,” she adds.

Communicators use some of the below factors to analyze listening data, include:

  • Is the situation happening on more than one channel?
  • Will it have a significant business impact?
  • How much media attention has it received?
  • Is a major influencer involved?
Meredith L. Eaton
Director, N. America
Red Lorry
Yellow Lorry

When an incident emerges, Atkinson has volume and sentiment data sent to her every few hours. “[Sentiment data] is helpful,” she says, “because you can see where conversations are: is it anger, disgust, joy? That informs your actions.”

Yet, as important as listening is to determine the nature of what you’re dealing with, it is just one tool.

Listening “should be used to inform brand decision-making, not direct it,” says Hinda Mitchell, CEO, Inspire PR Group. “Listening is one tool in a broad group of resources that can guide brands in shaping their position.”

Atkinson agrees, noting she incorporates social listening data into a framework. The volume on social helps determine if you’re dealing with an incident, an emerging issue or a crisis, she says. In addition, it can help inform communicators to craft a reactive or proactive statement.

“There’s no playbook for this moment. The communicator has to take all this into account and make a recommendation” about what to do, if anything.

Easier said than done.

Art and Science

Hinda Mitchell
Inspire PR Group

While listening and especially social listening can seem like science—if the number of social conversations exceeds, for example, X thousand, you have a crisis—that isn’t the case.

Knowing when to make a change “is a mix of art and science,” Atkinson insists, noting there often are mitigating factors and every situation is different.

Every so often, for example, an incident arises and conversations about it increase. Still, “you know you’ve handled it, been transparent and authentic, and it should” subside, she says.

Sometimes those situations begin similarly and end differently. For example, advertisers have pressured Facebook for years about hate speech, yet only recently has the situation seemed to headed to crisis level.

Similarly, opponents of the Washington football team’s name have raised the issue for years. This time, though, those conversations are occurring at time when racial inequities are in the mainstream. At our deadline, the team’s majority owner Dan Snyder indicated the club is exploring possibilities surrounding changing the Redskins name.

Crafting the Message

After the difficult decision to make a change is reached, communicators are called to craft a statement.

Says Harris, a key part of pivoting is that at the core of the message, brands need to remind their audiences “who they are as a company, their values and provide powerful messaging behind the change. It is important that each audience is considered to ensure a successful shift in position.”

Adds Mitchell, “It’s always important to consider how the new position aligns with company culture and brand personality.” Inconsistency will confuse the public.

“Companies,” she says, “perceived to have a solid reputation are those where there is firm alignment with their brand DNA and where their positions reflect the values of the company, its employees and its customers.”

Culture’s Importance

For Atkinson, brands with a solid culture, values and a well-thought-out mission statement make the communicator’s job easier when an issue arises. “Before you make a decision about what to say, you check it with your values, your culture and your mission,” she says.

In addition, if the company makes a misstep, you review and say, ‘Did our action track with who we are, our values and culture?’ If you’re operating within a brand value system that is open and authentic, you can look at what customers and perhaps some employees are saying and adjust, she says. “If you pivot, you can hold yourself accountable to those values…Your brand personality is your north star.”

History also is important. “Be prepared to comb through your past and address anything that doesn’t fall in line with your new stance,” Eaton says. “If you don’t, someone else will, and you’ll not only have to answer for your changing position today, but any conflicting position from days, months or years before.”

A prime example is Franklin Templeton’s (FT) firing of Amy Cooper, the executive who was caught on video calling 911 after Christian Cooper, a Black man, asked her to leash her dog. The firm determined the May 25, 2020, incident was an example of Ms. Cooper’s racism and fired her. Yet media reports surfaced that FT had promoted an heir of the firm’s founder with a checkered past. It led to this NY Post headline: “The firm that fired Amy Cooper promoted a male heir who beat his wife”

In addition, when explaining your pivot, if there are or were victims, apologize. “Admit your mistakes,” Eaton says. “It’s important to recognize a change in position by first acknowledging the flaws of your previous stance. Brands should also be prepared to address anything that doesn’t align with the change so there’s no hypocrisy remaining within the organization.”

Atkinson agrees, “If you didn’t do what you said you’d do, you have to face up to it, own it and make it right.” It’s best for brands to work relatively quickly and say, ‘This happened…it’s not what we said we were going to do…we understand that didn’t meet expectations…and here’s what we’re doing to make it right,’ Atkinson says. “As long as you’re living up to what the customer expectation should be…and you hold yourself accountable to it, people can be very forgiving. But it requires 100 percent of your team’s attention.”

It’s also important to own the mistake(s) as much as the course correction. “Balance is key,” Mitchell adds. “The public expects brands to be accountable, and it also appreciates brands that are transparent with missteps,” she adds.

Balance is important in another way, particularly at this time. For Atkinson, it’s the balance of communication and operations. “You can get all the great PR in the world,” if you can get favorable media coverage. “But if a company is not keeping an eye on how it’s delivering [services and products] to the customer… [PR is] going to have to do twice the work to repair” the brand’s reputation. At a time when any one of three pandemics is influencing supply chains and other aspects of operations, keeping an eye on the 360-degree marketing-communication-operations ecosystem is critical.

And, of course, when you say you’ll do something, follow through.

“A change in position can’t just be all talk,” Eaton says. Prepare action “for the long haul,” she adds. “Brands are setting powerful precedents now, and they need to be willing and able to stick to them – that means committing the resources today and tomorrow and every day after that to make the new position” part of the company DNA.

At this time, it looks like there are many more pivots ahead. “We don’t know what the future looks like,” APCO’s Stepno says, “but we’re all going to live in a state of disruption for the foreseeable future.