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How to be a business thought leader when no-one has a clue what will happen next

Written by Simpatico PR

Posted on 2020-05-05

Last month an advertisement placed by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) in the FT, reminded advertisers that "When others go quiet, your voice gets louder".

As an appeal to brands to stay engaged with customers through the Coronavirus crisis, it used the same line that’s been used by the advertising industry in every recession for as long as I can remember.

The logic is compelling - there’s bags of historic evidence to support the argument that if you go dark during the tough times you’ll need to spend twice as much or more coming out the other side.

The same point can just as well be made to business brands that risk dropping off the radar by cutting back on communications at a time when advice, innovation and action have never been more important.

But this time is different right? None of us have seen or experienced anything like it.

From a business PR point of view if your industry is directly impacted, how on earth do you run an effective communications programme when all the safe predictions for the economy, for customer behaviour and successful business strategy have been ripped up and thrown on the lockdown bonfire?

No one has a clue how the crisis will end and what the business environment will look like on the other side.

A recent survey published by Campaign predicted a Q2 slump in advertising expenditure somewhere between a 30% to 60% and no meaningful recovery until next year. The spread of predictions as to how bad things might get and when the recovery might occur says a lot about the level of uncertainty haunting the advertising industry, just as it does so many other areas of business.

Until we have even a rough sense of a timeline towards recovery nothing will change. Even then, the road to normality will likely be long, messy and unpredictable.

And what will post 2020 normality be like?

From office space (Barclays Bank suggesting it’s use of large offices may be a thing of the past) to the end of the golden age of air travel with British Airways laying of 12,000 staff, to car sales dropping to levels not seen since 1946, the depth and breadth of the changes we are witnessing is staggering.

All of this makes business PR thought leadership pretty difficult.

And yet, here I am doing exactly that. So how do you create meaningful thought leadership content to share in a time of acute crisis? Here are a few rules of engagement and a few observations.

We all know COVID-19 is serious. There’s suffering out there and it may well have affected you or people you know personally either as a health issue or from an employment or business point of view.

So your business communications must have purpose and add value. Stay the right side of opportunistic.

Avoid speculation based on third-party data and opinion especially at a national level. Keep focused on what you can legitimately talk about with your stakeholders – customers, staff, business partners etc.

If you have genuine insight based on your own expertise and analysis as to how to things may play out at a macro level – great share away. But you are more likely to have evidence and insights specific to your industry.

Consider the known unknowns that you can see emerging from conversations with your team, clients and business partners and the range of potential responses.

Innovation generally flourishes in adversity and this is a rich area for commentary if you have original ideas.

Look at building evidence and or data.

@Mindshare_UK for example initiated a UK COVID-19 Tracker to inform brands how people’s attitudes, desires and needs are changing week-to-week, building robust data over time and providing insights as to how brands should talk to people now and in the future.

But, take snap shot opinion polls with a big pinch of salt.

Recent national polls have shown a huge appetite to maintain the lockdown even though road usage data has seen a significant up-tick and the streets are undeniably busier. Are people saying one thing (because they feel they ought to) and doing another or simply maintaining social distancing but getting back to a more normal level of activity?

Do we want to stay in lockdown or do we want to use our common sense and do as much as we can while maintaining social distancing? It’s a moot point.

Sharing inspiration and innovation in the context of the crisis works, if you combine it with valuable insight and guidance.

For example this report from @signsalad looking at the way Covid-19 is changing cultural cues and how brands are responding.

The majority of research on consumer attitudes is landing on frugality and caution as themes that will shape consumer behaviour through the COVID-19 crisis and for some time to come. This piece from EY is typical. But what are the implications?

The response to First World War was the "Roaring Twenties". Austerity after World War 2 lasted well into the 1950's. It wasn't until the 1960's that serious societal changes occurred as a new generation sought to break free from the straight jacket of the past.

Don’t over predict the permanence of the current changes.

From a business point of view, clearly the economic impact of the crisis is profound, but how permanent is it? Sir Martin Sorrell predicts a Darwinian cull within the marketing industry. Is this prescient? Obvious stuff? Self-serving? Who really knows at this stage?

In the thick of it it’s easy to imagine that life will never be the same again and numerous commentators have described this time as an opportunity to create a better, more sustainable, fairer form of economics.

There’s much to be said for that, but people do tend to return to past patterns with alterations rather than radical change.

After the great fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren submitted radical plans for a grand new layout of streets across the City of London with many long straight boulevards. They were never built – instead, local business-people and home owners rapidly rebuilt their emporiums, workshops and homes over the same pre-fire medieval network. Hence St Paul’s Cathedral sits amidst the meandering nature of London’s financial district rather than at the end of a of a grand avenue.

Old desires, needs and behaviours will re-emerge. But how will they be fulfilled? This is perhaps the biggest open question.

Keep it current. The time to talk about the impact of home working on business, teams and creativity was in the first week or so of lockdown. It’s amazing that this sort of stuff keeps coming but here’s another just gone live with a mindfulness spin. We all know the issues and we’re all experts at Zoom and Teams and so are our grandparents!

One of the fascinating aspects of the lockdown experience is that we are all having the same extreme experience – never before and hopefully never again at this universal scale. So, we all have a perspective on what we’re experiencing now and what it may mean.

But we are all looking for guidance too.

If guidance is what you offer as a business, it may be worth considering how to ensure your voice is heard even during these challenging times.

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