Managing your brand and reputation during COVID-19

There is no doubt COVID-19 has proven itself a shocking global health and economic crisis. But for many businesses, their response to COVID-19 also carries a reputational risk. We have already seen a number of companies and individuals suffer enormous brand damage as a result of misguided actions during the pandemic.

Understandably, up until this point, many organisations have been consumed by managing the crisis, but the time has arrived to turn attention to managing through the pandemic and rebuilding for the recovery. As organisations explore how to protect their financial future, it is important they do the same for their brand and reputation. The way in which businesses respond now and over the coming months will have a significant impact on their future trust and standing in the market.

While every industry is affected by COVID-19, some are experiencing higher levels of reputational risk due to increased government, public and media scrutiny of how they respond to the crisis. In Australia, the real estate industry is one finding itself in the spotlight. Real estate agents and landlords risk being criticised for seeking to enforce the terms of lease arrangements, while tenants look for rental relief in challenging financial times.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly highlighted the challenges faced by the industry while imploring landlords and tenants to work together to find their way through this crisis. Recently, the Federal Government unveiled a rental waiver and deferral scheme for commercial properties and state and territory governments have introduced a number of assistance measures for residential tenants and landlords. Property owners now face a challenging time as they juggle the significant drop in their own business with their responsibility to support existing tenants. The community, media and government will be watching the industry’s response and business must adopt an approach that carefully considers the operational and reputational implications.

So what can organisations do to protect their reputation while rebuilding from a crisis like COVID-19?

It is more important than ever that they proactively engage with their stakeholders and communicate clearly. During these times, it can be easy to forgo stakeholder engagement in favour of operational and financial management. But prioritising your stakeholders and strategic communications activities at this time will protect against reputational damage and assist with rebuilding and positioning the brand for the recovery.

Ideally, businesses should already enjoy a relationship of mutual trust with their stakeholders. Now is the time to reinforce it. Ramp up your communication efforts, let your stakeholders know what is happening and keep them informed. And don’t stay quiet if the news is bad; clear and frequent communication is much more important when conveying bad news. Remember this is a two-way conversation. Stakeholders needs and circumstances will have changed so seek to understand what is important to them now and respond accordingly.

During this time organisations will be judged on how they support all stakeholders, but particularly their employees and their customers. Develop a messaging framework that focuses on these two groups first and then flows down to other stakeholder groups.

Some stakeholder support will be mandated by government and industry. But, an organisation that can go above and beyond those mandated requirements will benefit through strengthened stakeholder trust. These supports do not have to be financial. Start by seeking feedback, find out what your stakeholders need and try to assist.

Finally, where circumstances allow, make your communication personal. We may be physically separated, but a phone call or video conference will deliver much higher value in terms of stakeholder trust than a mass email.

For many organisations, the end of the COVID-19 crisis will not see a return to business as usual. Uncertainty will remain and it will be a time to adapt to a new normal and to support stakeholders through the changes in their circumstances, their needs and their way of operating. Clear communication will be an organisation’s greatest tool in rebuilding their business and restoring confidence among stakeholders.

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