Expert Insights

Brands, COVID-19 and Social Media

March 17, 2020

By Brian Snyder, Executive Digital Director

It’s been quite a week for all of us. Last Monday, I left home to facilitate a strategy development session with a new Golin client. While on-site, I got a call asking me to reroute my return flight to the other side of the country to help manage a brand’s Coronavirus crisis. It was a difficult few days in the comms team’s situation room, but ultimately, the brand helped many people around the world through timely and transparent communication.

A week later, the crisis has grown exponentially, and it’s difficult to predict when it may end. Before Illinois restaurants were forced to suspend operations through the end of the month, Nick Kokonas (Alinea co-owner and founder/CEO of Tock) wrote “I’ve decided to share [The Alinea Group’s approach to managing through the crisis] here, for those in the industry and for our amazing customers to understand what we are going through, what we are doing for our employees, our flexibility regarding bookings, and the economic impact more broadly. I’ve erred on the side of transparency even for that information which we usually would keep private.” It’s a great read for business leaders in every industry, and I thank Nick for inspiring this post.

I hope these suggestions help social leaders in-house and at other agencies who face intense brand challenges use social media to help people.

1. Know Your Role

This is not the time for marketing, promotion, entertainment or levity from brands. Now is the time to serve customers, employees and other constituents through timely and transparent engagement. Align all your marketing communications channels to providing information and service. Turn off email marketing, promotional paid social, retargeting, banners and pre-rolls. Talk to everyone across your organization who owns a customer touchpoint to align messaging. When your brand is in trouble, no amount of promotion or discount will help you earn the attention and action of your customers. But serve them well in this period, and they will be more likely to maintain loyalty and return to you in the future. They might even advocate for you.

2. Know What’s Happening

Audit your business’s operational response to the issue. Are you taking care of your customers, employees and other stakeholders? Social media is often where operational issues will surface first. Not handled appropriately, they may lead to further reputational damage. Knowing what your operational leaders are doing will help you know what to expect in social. And what you learn from social will help you make the case for better operational business decisions in service of your stakeholders.

Set Google AlertsSprinklr smart alerts, NewsWhip predictive alerts, etc. for outbreak-related mentions of your company, brands, products, services, locations, executives and other prominent people. Categorize issues, and set escalation paths to your PR, legal and operations teams. Translate the insights you mine from social into tangible action to help people and defend the brand.

If you run an employee advocacy program, follow its hashtag to know what employees are saying publicly. Depending on your company culture, they may organically post messages of support and protect the brand. They may also undermine your efforts if the on-the-ground reality doesn’t match your communications talking points. But resist the urge to encourage, facilitate, incentivize or promote employee advocacy, as it could appear contrived to the broader social audience. The benefit is not worth the risk.

3. Communicate Effectively

To earn your customer’s attention and action, you must deliver relevance. That means understanding what they need, want and expect, then tailoring your messaging to appeal to those needs, wants and expectations. Never has relevance been more important than it is now. People often say social media is the world’s largest focus group. Analyze social listening data to understand the needs, wants and expectations of not just customers but all your stakeholders (employees, suppliers, partners, investors, etc.) Work with your communications team to align messages across all channels to meet and exceed these. Social gives you the unique ability to understand what your stakeholders want from you in real-time. Use it.

When you are ready to make a proactive statement or provide an update on your brand’s response to the issue, do not link to press releases from social. Instead, use messaging from those releases to create social-specific, consumer-friendly content.

Put a name and a face to your response if possible: a senior business leader, not a PR representative or little-known spokesperson. Put that senior leader on video for social if possible.

Once you put out a statement via a social post, press release, blog post, etc. do not change it without transparently noting the changes and the reasons for them. Screenshots are forever.

4. Prioritize What Matters

If you’re still taking a first-in-first-out approach to social engagement, now is the time to switch over to prioritizing inbound messages by brand and business impact, starting with Coronavirus. Prioritize pandemic-related inbound messages for review before other issues, customer care, brand building opportunities, etc. in your social media management system / engagement console.

Outbreak-related mentions and messages may not include mention of “COVID-19” or “Coronavirus.” When building queries for alerts and priority response, include keywords that indicate urgency such as death, suicide, lawsuit, family separation, medication, critical, safety, illegal, shocking, stranded, scared, etc. — as well as their synonyms and variants. It’s the worst brainstorm ever: think about all the things that could reasonably go wrong for customers experiencing your brand and prioritize them.

Beyond keywords, prioritize inbound posts:

  • containing video, as they may represent first-person accounts of issues
  • from influencers (blue checkmarks, 10K+ followers* and brand watch lists)
  • from journalists or government officials (using keywords in their bio)
  • with 100+ engagements*
  • received via private channels (Twitter DM, Facebook Messenger, etc.) as the chat-like interface of private messaging creates a customer expectation for real-time response

*right-size these thresholds to your brand

5. Engage Authentically and Transparently

Develop a playbook for social replies using your media FAQ documents. Translate any PR-speak into conversational language. Establish a list of “do not respond” and “flag for escalation” terms and people. Train everyone engaging in social on behalf of the brand in your processes, brand voice and communicating with empathy, compassion, authenticity and transparency.

Make friends with your legal department and work with them to approve your response strategy and core messaging so that you don’t have to have them approve every reply or post.

When considering timing for your pivot back toward normal operations, analyze brand, competitor and cultural conversation in social. Resist the urge to pivot before you are ready. It takes a lifetime to earn a reputation and a moment to burn one. We don’t know what the future holds for COVID-19 and what its effects will be on the cultural and business landscape. It may be many weeks from now before brands should even think about pivoting. Until then, focus on your customers and other stakeholders. Pay attention to what they tell you in social and continue to hold yourself — and your company — to meeting and exceeding their expectations.

6. Take Care of Yourself and Your Team

Check in on each other frequently via text or instant message. Try to find moments of joy and levity to share internally. If you manage people, schedule more 1:1 time with each of them. Use videoconferencing to make the interaction feel more personal if possible. Establish rotational working schedules to ensure all your social team members have time for rest and self-care. Augment the in-house social team with agency staffers to provide robust coverage. From all indications, we are in for a marathon, not a sprint. Your brand will only get through this if you and your team are ready, willing and able to go the distance.

Please leave feedback, questions and suggested edits and additions in the comments. I’m also happy to chat live anytime from my self-quarantine home office. Hit me up on Twitter or reach out via email. Stay safe and healthy.

#JustStayHome #WashYourHands

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*If you have questions or are seeking counsel, email Brian at