Rising to the COVID-19 Challenge:

How Companies are Rewriting the Reputation Playbook in Real Time

May 20, 2020

By Scott Farrell, Global President, Corporate Communications

“We’re in this together!” 

How many times have we seen or heard this rally cry since the Coronavirus burst out of China with unparalleled speed and force? It’s ubiquitous: in television commercials and newspaper advertisementsin soundbites from politicians and health officials; even written in colorful chalk on the sidewalks in our neighborhoods. 

But more than a rally cry, this statement is true in fact. This may be the first time in generations that the entire world is sharing the same cultural context. While the context may be the same, the way companies and brands are navigating the crisis varies greatly. However, we are seeing two commonalities emerge among those companies setting the standard for others to follow. 

First, this unprecedented humanitarian crisis has seen many companies completely rewriting in real time the conventional corporate playbook when it comes to responding to large-scale crises and disasters. Historically, in the wake of terrorist attacks, massive hurricanes, floods or earthquakes, the corporate focus and resources are immediately trained on victims and those who have lost loved ones, their homes or their jobs. As the coronavirus has travelled the globe and inflicted unprecedented pain, suffering and disruption on the lives of people everywhere, companies are responding in an entirely different way.  

In an era of rising populism and intense employee activism, the epicenter of response is employeesCompanies who are successfully navigating both the business and reputation challenges of this crisis prioritized their own people making sure they have all they need to remain safe and healthy. This has been particularly evident for businesses deemed “essential.” The early days of the pandemic in the U.S. employees of some essential businesses staged protests, with some even walking off the job and threatening the companies’ ability to operate at scaleThey charged companies with putting profits ahead of people.   

As the crisis has evolved, engaging and inspiring employees continues to be the focusEntire industries are now being scrutinized for doing too little too late to ensure the wellbeing of those who are the very lifeblood of the organization. And they’re paying a steep price with reputations under attack and possible loss of customer loyalty and revenue once business returnsWhile the way a company treats, engages with and inspires its employees has always played a significant role in shaping reputation, surveys of consumers continue to validate treatment of employees as perhaps the single most important driver of reputation at this moment. For example, when Morning Consult asked consumers to rank actions that influenced their decision to buy products from a particular company, 90% said “take care of their employees and treat them well, even in tough times” was very or somewhat important. That tied with “have the products you need available when you need them.”   

In the context of stakeholder activismcompanies are also discovering the true power that corporate social responsibility, or purpose, can have in driving reputational and business value. Conventional checkbook philanthropy is being eclipsed by actions targeting the needs of the vulnerable: front-line healthcare workers, those who are ill and their families, small business owners, the unemployed 

Consumers expect this kind of action. Responding to a survey conducted by Ipsos, 72% of consumers report that companies have a social responsibility to offer aid during the COVID-19 pandemicThe companies who are succeeding here, though, are not acting out of haste simply because consumers expect it. They’re taking a thoughtful, strategic approach that ensures their actions and partnerships align perfectly with culture, purpose and values. That approach includes a clear definition of the problem to be addressed (e.g., loneliness, personal safety, job security), an intuitive link between the brand and the problem, a motivation that comes from helping others vs. seeking credit, creating impact at speed and scale and proper mitigation and planning for any risks that may arise.   

The notable examples are companies that are showing their humanity and are going beyond their economic interest to address this crisis — forming partnerships. Like Google and Apple, hiring each other’s employees. Like Aldi and McDonald’s, repurposing their plants. Like GM and Pernod Ricard, for responding to those immediately affected. Like BMS providing free medicine to those who have lost their jobs. Like Walmart stepping up to assist with drive-through testing. And like Allstate, refunding premiums to policyholders because shelter-in-place advisories around the country have led to fewer drivers on the road. This moment has been a test of character for companies and their leaders, as they carefully weigh and embark on actions to protect their people while also driving positive reputation and business results.  

While at this writing the timing is uncertain, it is inevitable that companies and their employees will go back to work. Smart companies however, will take this opportunity to go forward and not back. They will not return to business as usual. There are three key pillars that corporate brands need to anchor all marketing initiatives in this new environment — culture, purpose and risk. These should be the lens through which all marketing initiatives and campaigns are viewed and judged 

The transparent view into the way companies treat and engage with their employees will be expected to continue. The COVID-19 epidemic has shown employees the power their voice has in affecting positive change in the workplace. Companies who don’t understand this will do so at their own peril. Because of the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on people of color, the current focus on Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace will become even sharper and will broaden significantly with a greater expectation for the role companies should play in addressing the various gaps faced by people of color. D&I will take on a new sense of scope and urgency and companies will be judged by their commitments and their actions internally and externally 

One of the key lessons on COVID-19 is how it is accelerating the expectations that businesses will fill the void left by the apparent limits of governments to address global issues and foster innovation. Those who champion moving forward to accelerate progress and build a more humane, sustainable and inclusive economy will be rewarded. Environmental, Social and Governance will be more important than ever. Leaders should seize the opportunity to deepen their commitment to ESG and make it core to their recovery efforts. Given the level of stakeholder expectations, generational change and intense scrutiny, any effort to go back on previous commitments, in spite of financial pressures, will have serious reputational costs. 

Across the board, COVID-19 has thrust four values into the public spotlight: humanity, empathy, authenticity and transparency. Companies built on those values and those who consciously built their words and actions using those values as cornerstones will likely emerge from this transformative experience with strengthened stakeholder relationships and enhanced reputations.  

Many are already gazing into their crystal balls and pondering where companies, their employees and consumers will be at year’s end. We don’t think there’s one answer that fits all companies and brands. While this may well be the first time in generations the entire world has shared the same cultural context, we are each experiencing the pandemic in our own intensely personal way. That affects the way we are seeing brands and companies now engage at scale and with us individually, and how we will review our relationships in the aftermath. As companies emerge from the pandemic our role as trusted advisors will be to help them see the world and the company’s place in it from a whole new perspective. Just as this pandemic has been unprecedented, so too will be the time that follows.  

* If you have questions or are seeking counsel, please reach out to Scott at sfarrell@golin.com.