COVID-19 – Reputational Winners and Losers and Lessons to be Learned
In our ‘Plan for Business Continuity – Tips On How To Protect Your Reputation and Brand’ blog, we looked at the importance of an effective BC response from a reputational and brand perspective. Here, we take the opportunity to put the theory into practice and provide our thoughts on who have been the winners and losers so far from a reputation/brand perspective in their response to the Covid-19 crisis. We’ll also look at some of the lessons we can all learn in responding to and managing an incident.
Whilst, ‘welfare’ and ‘delivery’ are the overriding priorities, ‘protecting brand’ is a close third and as we argued in our last blog is inextricably linked with welfare and delivery.
This blog focuses on private businesses. However, they are not the only ones who have a reputation or brand to protect. In this crisis, governments, leaders, scientists, medical experts, celebrities and countries as a whole even, are under the microscope and all are attempting to protect or manage their brand or reputation. Whilst there have definitely been some winners and losers thus far, it’s worth noting that as the scope of an impact widens, as with this pandemic, then the focus of blame softens. So, for example, it is not the case that businesses are being held primarily responsible for any issues in the UK, this is falling solely on the UK government.
Let’s start with the reputational losers.
Wetherspoons: Tim Martin, the Wetherspoons chairman, came under attack for a number of statements made at the outbreak of Covid-19, starting with his reluctance to close his 867 pubs saying that “My instinct is that closure won’t save lives but will cost thousands of jobs and create unsustainable costs for the UK.” adding that there had hardly been any transmission of the virus within pubs and advocating the ‘group’ immunity strategy for the UK. He then went on to post a widely criticised video message in late March to his 43,000 employees telling them they would no longer be paid from the end of that week until his company had worked out the details of the furlough scheme, under which the government will pay 80% of wages. As a result of these outbursts and the video going viral he and, by association, Wetherspoons as a brand, were widely vilified and criticised. #boycottwetherspoons trended on twitter and statements have been made such as this one by Ian Hodson, the president of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union, “this country will not forget the way in which employers have treated their staff during this crisis. Now is the time for all workers to come together and oppose greedy inaction by millionaire bosses” A call to arms if ever there was one and a red alert moment for any organisation that it has to get this right or suffer the consequences.
Sports Direct: Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct boss, insisted staff should still come to work even when the nationwide lockdown for all non-essential staff had been instigated, claiming the need to exercise in lockdown make it an ‘essential’ business’. Sports Direct then reportedly went even further in provoking public outrage by hiking prices of some of its equipment by up to 50%, looking to take advantage of the increase in demand for some of its stock. Despite his later apologies for a series of blunders in the way his chain reacted to the coronavirus lockdown, the damage had been done. Even Piers Morgan, the TV presenter who is no stranger to controversy, was among those vowing to boycott Sports Direct saying on his ‘Good Morning Britain’ show that “We will remember the companies who stepped up to care for their employees and customers and we’ll remember those who abused their employees”.
Along with Wetherspoons and Sports Direct, we’ve also seen Pontins, Waterstones, Dexter’s Estate Agents, Travelodge, Topshop and Virgin Atlantic named on widely seen ‘boycott’ lists due to their poor handling or insensitive approach during the crisis. Even organisations which have traditionally had a reputation as being responsible and caring have made errors of judgement. Waitrose & Partners, the supermarket subsidiary of John Lewis Partnership, had to quickly make a U-turn on a policy decision where workers self-isolating because of their family had to make up their hours owed at a later date.
Now let’s turn our attention to the winners.
OK, which organisations fared well from a reputation/brand perspective during the early stages of Covid-19? One indicator of this is the YouGov BrandIndex data service (which measures public perception of thousands of brands across dozens of sectors on a continuous basis). One of the organisations that fared particularly well on the BrandIndex during the second half of March was Pret a Manger. The sandwich shop chain was praised for its ability to adjust its strategy to Covid-19 in line with changing government advice. When everyone was encouraged to work from home on 16 March and avoid restaurants and pubs, Pret quickly announced new measures to keep staff and customers safe, such as extra sanitising, but remained open. On 18 March, it adapted its strategy-making its outlets takeaway-only to protect staff and customers, while receiving praise on social media for offering NHS workers free hot drinks and 50% off all food.
3 days later on 21 March, following the PM’s formal closure order, Pret had shut all its outlets. Despite the lockdown extension, on 15 April Pret announced that ten stores situated near hospitals would be opening to help feed frontline workers, with the NHS discount reinstated. All of these actions resulted in a positive impact on Pret’s public perception.
Brewdog: Another organisation that fared well was this Scottish craft brewer. On 18 March, James Watt, Founder of Brewdog, announced on social media that the company had switched production from their signature brew Punk IPA to ‘BrewGel Punk hand sanitiser’ to help combat nationwide shortages. The response was immediate and full of praise. The offer of a free beer when lockdown is released was also well received!
In similar approaches, we also saw many companies such as Domino’s, Gregg’s, Leon, Deliveroo along with all of the supermarkets offering a range of perks to NHS frontline staff. The list of perks also covered offers from other food outlets, transport companies, hotels and miscellaneous businesses. The list can be found here for those who are interested or can make use of them – https://www.england.nhs.uk/coronavirus/nhs-staff-offers/
It will be hard to differentiate here who were the early adopters and who were just trying to keep up with the Jones, but regardless all will likely be viewed positively as a result.
Other success stories include:
Co-op who took on 5000 extra store workers to cope with increased demand, offering temporary employment to hospitality workers who lost their jobs.
Whitbread, owners of Premier Inn, Beefeater and Brewers Fayre chains, topped up its employees’ salaries to 100% who needed to be placed on furlough while its sites remain closed. To add, this hasn’t just been a Whitbread initiative, and has been widely adopted measure across a range of sectors.
Several banks, HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds voluntarily introduced a range of measures to ease the financial strain on households such as waiving interest on all overdrafts through April. These have in the main since been superseded by wider scale FCA measures, but again the proactive steps resonated extremely positively with their customers.
The list of both good and bad examples is considerably larger than those mentioned above and there’s too many to list, but what can we learn or glean from the early responses of some of these organisations to the Covid-19 crisis?
1 – When dealing with such a fast-changing and evolving crisis such as Covid-19, understanding shifts in your stakeholder’s perception is key to tailoring your responses. In short, you have to be constantly alert and agile in your responses.
2 – It’s also clearly a highly desired trait, from the publics perspective certainly, if you’re willing to stand up and own your mistakes when made aware of them (although some will hold the bar slightly higher than this and expect some gesture or new commitment to tip the scales back in your favour). Defiance or refusal to accept you were wrong is tantamount to suicide for a brand.
3 – Even better, try and avoid making them in the first place. As we suggested in our last blog, yes you need to be prompt but not rash in responding, and this is where a review committee/sounding board can be invaluable…..and also discourage any tweeting at 1 am in the morning! What this doesn’t mean however is radio silence.
4 – Decisions made on the basis of short term and profit-motivated gains are potentially damaging for your brand, whereas acting unselfishly is likely to result in positive PR that will no doubt strengthen your organisation’s reputation. Act in everyone best interests and it’ll pay you back tenfold in the future. Whether that is being flexible, offering refunds or just having patience and tolerance.
5 – Whether it’s the government, a regulator like the FCA or some other industry body you must monitor communications very closely and adhere to their guidance being provided during a crisis. Not doing so, for whatever reason, may appear belligerent or disruptive, at best and potentially criminal at worst.
6 – As mentioned, time and again in these blogs, looking after the welfare of your staff is your number 1 priority. People really are your most important asset and often the public face of your business. If you do it right its promotion of the best kind. Do it wrong and there’s no hiding from the incoming backlash and damage to your brand.