The communication of companies facing the challenge of coronavirus
Three and a half months after the beginning of lockdown throughout the country, the time has come to analysis how companies’ communication has adapted to this unexpected and unprecedented crisis and to try to draw conclusions for their strategy in the months and years to come. The analysis of their statements shows that while they, like everyone else, have been caught off guard, they have gradually defined and invested in new communication territories and that, in this field as in many others, the new world should not be a mere replica of the previous world. But in order to come to this conclusion, we must recall the four phases that have marked corporate communication during this exceptional period.
A quiet and discrete reaction
On the 17th of March, at noon, France is barricading itself and with it, French companies, forced to adopt unprecedented measures to protect their employees and customers, and thus participate in the national effort decreed by the President of the Republic, to slow down the spread of the coronavirus on the territory.
At the same time after the closure of bars, restaurants and other “non-essential” businesses decided by the Government, there have been a succession of announcements of plant and production site closures through press releases, often very concise, showing above all a lack of visibility on the outlook for the coming weeks. This has had a tremendous side-effect.
The exercise proved particularly delicate for companies whose activity was more directly impacted by the health crisis. Communication was therefore often on the fly and measures were taken to avoid a shutdown, the potentially disastrous effects of which were widely feared. As early as March 13th, Accor informed its customers via its social media of the adoption of a more flexible cancellation or reservation modification policy. It was not until early April, at a press conference call, that CEO Sébastien Bazin announced the closure of more than two-thirds of the group’s hotels.
Few companies distinguished themselves during this initial period. Nevertheless, we can mention Burger King, which decided from the outset to stop all activity in its French restaurants. In an opinion column published on LinkedIn, Jérôme Tafani, its Managing Director, asked both customers and employees “to stay at home”. But it is hard not to see this as an essentially opportunistic communication when we know that its main competitor McDonald’s had, at the same time, been accused of endangering its employees by leaving twelve restaurants open. And it is interesting to note that in May, Burger King re-opened in Paris faster than Mac Donald’s… Once bitten, twice shy…
An affirmation of solidarity in order to exist
In a second phase, from the beginning of April, the companies took over to affirm their will to serve the community. With activity often reduced during the period of lockdown and with no opportunity to communicate, companies chose to highlight their corporate social responsibility and to affirm their solidarity, particularly with the professions in the “front line” and in essential activities.
While some have given priority to their direct ecosystem, like Danone, which has committed to paying all its employees an emergency food bonus and has set up a support system to help its service providers get through this difficult period, others have turned to solidarity actions, often in connection with health. Bic launched a limited edition box of a 4-color pen for the AP-HP, Playmobil created a mask, the profits from which were donated to the Restos du Cœur, and many companies began to manufacture hydroalcoholic gel, masks and gowns for the caregivers, but also for all those who ensured the continuity of supply and basic services.
And when their activities did not allow them to serve the community directly, companies competed with inventiveness. For example, Orange launched a participative website #OnResteEnsemble (#WeStayTogether) in order to collect testimonials of solidarity and then disseminate them in advertising spots in support of the elderly; JCDecaux used its billboards to promote barrier gestures and thank caregivers, while G7 offered to transport health workers under preferential conditions.
A prepared and better managed recovery
Thirdly, companies had to manage the end from containment and its many challenges, particularly in terms of internal communication. An open, continuous and trusting dialogue with its employees was then necessary to succeed in gaining their support. This was the path chosen by Alstom, which had prepared a “health reference framework” with the social partners “to define the specifics of the application of the authorities’ recommendations for our activities, to remind them of course to respect barrier gestures, and to see shift by shift how to review work organisation”.
But not all companies have benefited from such a consensus. For those where dialogue is not as open, re-opening and deconfinement has not been as easy. Renault paid the price at its Sandouville plant: a conflict with the CGT led to a situation in which there was a succession of trade union criticisms, court rulings, government positions and a great deal of media comments.
Other companies saw an opportunity for external communication and highlighted the additional measures taken to ensure the health of their employees. As part of its end of containment plan, in addition to disinfecting premises, providing masks and taking employee temperatures, Veolia has introduced widespread virological and serological tests for all of its 55,000 employees in France. The company presented all of these measures through its CEO on Europe 1, without forgetting to highlight the good reception of the plan internally and its approval by the unions.
A place to take or lose
The management of the return to consumption marked a new turning point. As ones of the companies most affected by the crisis, companies in the retail sector were the first to adapt their communication. If some had managed to keep a link with their consumers through advertising linked to the confinement experienced by all French people, then they were simply laying the first foundations of an external communication that would have to reinvent itself in a much stronger way.
As the re-opening of stores approached, the brands first tried, through media spokespersons, to reassure consumers by listing all the measures adopted to protect the health and safety of their customers. This reassuring tone also materialized in the advertising campaigns of the growing number of brands highlighting and explaining the measures taken to prevent contamination. Some even went so far as to appeal to the consumer, in order to reassure him or her. Thus, Jules recalled that, even if the recommended physical distances are not always natural for each of us, respecting them allows for the protection of all. This need for security certainly remains important for consumers in the current period and will undoubtedly continue to be a theme of advertising campaigns in the near future, while the threat of a second wave of coronavirus is increasingly evoked, but it cannot be the cornerstone of brand communication in the future.
Indeed, post-crisis communication must learn more widely from this period. First of all, by responding to new consumer needs, such as those of solidarity or mutual aid, but also by adapting to certain changes in society largely catalyzed by the crisis. New campaigns on the “world of the after” are beginning to emerge, such as the Caisse d’Epargne’s “Demain, on a le choix” (“Tomorrow, we have a choice”), which conveys the idea that companies today must be useful to society in order to build a sustainable world. This is in line with the debates opened in recent years on the mission and raison d’être of companies.
While companies were caught off guard by the health crisis, they must now reinvent themselves to become players in this new world. The future will be harder for those who are unable or unwilling to take this turn.