Publicity During The Pandemic: Positive, Perilous Or Perplexing?

Publicity During The Pandemic: Positive, Perilous Or Perplexing?
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In this guest post, Papermill Media’s Angus Ife (main photo) runs his keen PR eye over brands who nailed it during the pandemic and those who got it SO wrong…

The dust is settling. The lockdown is easing. We may as well put the kettle on and fire up the post-mortem.

I’d wager with confidence that literally every brand I follow has published something about The Pandemic since the start of March; TV ads, EDMs, media releases, Instagram posts, Facebook videos, LinkedIn articles – all of a sudden my collective feeds were clogged with instructional infographics on how to wash my hands, screenshots of Zoom calls and at-home workouts, all centred around one virus-infested elephant in the room.

While some brands hit the nail on the head and marketed to perfection, poetically publicising their pivot, some showed, pretty transparently, that the PR representative had received little more than “we should probably say something about The Pandemic” as a brief.

We know you can’t buy a reputation, we know that crises present opportunities (did you know that Slack was invented during the GFC?) and we know that, above it all, brands want to stand out.

The question is, which brands navigated through the communications minefield well, and which ones should have maintained a dignified silence?

These questions are likely to form the basis of many university subjects for years to come, but in the meantime, here is my take of the good, the bad and the ugly during The Pandemic.

The good: A much-loved Australian fashion brand

A well-known, Melbourne-based fashion label announced in early April that it would be redeploying its designers, pattern makers and machinists to make environmentally friendly, re- usable medical clothing in lieu of its traditional product lines.

This push was announced as a holistic effort to not only support the company’s suppliers, but to provide sorely needed scrubs and workwear for Australian frontline health workers.

But the benefits didn’t stop at healthcare workers – the push saved jobs, lent a hand to suppliers struggling to make ends meet, and upheld the brand’s community values.

This ticked a lot of boxes. Genuine. Large-scale. Supporting stakeholders at many different levels. This was the gold standard in pivoting, and communicating it without pomp. The bad: A major supermarket chain

In a move to help Aussie battlers during unprecedented times, one of the country’s largest retailers announced an altruistic, humanitarian and philanthropic CSR initiative via a press release: 20% off the price of beef mince for four days.

Perhaps I’m too cynical, but something about this press release didn’t sit right with me. Partly because the company buried its genuine goodwill – donations to food charities and added support for suppliers – in favour of leading with a hard sales message.

Their intentions may have been pure, but to me it seemed like they took this fairly stock-standard sale, slapped a few unprecedented times and Aussies doing it tough catchphrases in there, and sent it out as though this four-day deal was a genuine act of charity.

The times certainly are difficult and many were, and still are, doing it very tough.

But 20 per cent off mince for four days? That’s hardly benevolence.

The ugly: A subscription-based news service

News. During The Pandemic. It’s important. And people want it. In fact, some could argue their very lives depend on access to free, informative news.

So in hindsight, The Pandemic probably wasn’t the best time to be promoting paid subscriptions to said news site. Especially on social media.

While age-old economic ideas of supply and demand might be in effect, newer-age ideas of public opinion and brand equity really need to be held in higher value.

The irony of it all was that this particular news outlet’s pandemic coverage was actually free – and still is – but that message got lost amongst the throngs of angry social media users who tore shreds off the ad, many threatening to cancel their own subscriptions.

Advertising subscriptions via social media is nothing new, I’ve seen these ads a thousand times before, but in this case the old adage “timing is everything” certainly rings true.

Sort it out, newspapers.

And the first annual Pandemic Publicity Perhaps-next-time-just-say-nothing Award (The PPPNTJSNA) goes to…

The supermarket chain. You took a 20 per cent price reduction on beef mince for four days, and somehow managed to link it to the coronavirus outbreak.

You went the “Aussie battlers” angle.

You threw in a “times are tough” (twice).

You buried the actual goodwill gesture, instead leading with a sales message.

And you turned it into a press release.

What does it all mean?

Publicity during The Pandemic serves as a timely reminder of something we’ve always known as PRs/marketers – you can’t buy your reputation.

A genuine effort will always win out over a transparent publicity push. And boy, have we seen some transparent publicity pushes in the last eight weeks.

Just because the angle is there, and you can make it fit, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, or that it will be well-received. Just ask next semester’s university lecturers.

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