COVID-19 crisis creates potential and peril for mission-first companies

Edelman just released a supplement to its annual Trust Barometer survey focused on the COVID-19 crisis, and the message to companies is blunt: Do the right thing. Or else.

Fully 81% of people in 12 global markets surveyed for the Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic report rated “I must be able to trust the brand to do what is right” as a deal breaker or deciding factor in their buying decisions. What do they expect? Ninety percent either hope or insist that brands “do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and their suppliers, even if it means suffering big financial losses until the pandemic ends.”

In overwhelming numbers, respondents want companies to shift to producing products that help people meet virus-related challenges (89%), offer free or lower-priced products to those most affected (89%) and fill in the gaps in government responses (86%). One in three (33%) say they have already convinced other people to stop using a brand they felt was not acting appropriately in response to the pandemic.

Promise or peril?

These results signal both potential and peril for B Corps, social enterprises and other mission-first businesses. The crisis situation gives them a chance to show how they live their values and (one hopes) demonstrate that sustainability practices have made them more resilient to systemic shocks. But it will also cast a harsh light on those whose actions don’t live up to their words—and condemnation will be especially swift for companies that have branded themselves as good for the world.

The upshot for PR

When it comes to communications, the Brand Trust report underscores what we’ve been telling clients about addressing the COVID-19 crisis (and any other).

Communicate frequently, with feeling and facts. Many leaders worry about communicating too much. That’s only a concern if you have nothing relevant to say. So by all means avoid sending messages that amount to “Hey, the coronavirus” (we’ve gotten quite a few of those). But people do want to know about concrete actions you’re taking that affect them and the community at large. Eighty-nine percent of survey respondents want companies to “keep the public fully informed regarding how the brand is supporting and protecting their employees and customers.”

Problem solving is popular—and reassuring. What are you doing to solve any pandemic-related problems affecting your ability to serve customers? What are you doing to help your stakeholders, or anyone else? What knowledge can you share based on your expertise? Talk about all that. Here’s a little incentive: 37% of survey respondents say “I have recently started using a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way they have responded to the virus outbreak.”

Good things don’t erase bad things. Generous and helpful actions are an unqualified good. But they don’t make past negative actions disappear. In fact, it’s more likely that the negatives will color perceptions of the positives, which may be dismissed as woke washing. The lesson again is: do the right thing. And if you don’t (we all make missteps), admit it and fix it.

Consider this: “Brands and companies that I see placing their profits before people during this crisis will lose my trust forever,” say 71% of survey respondents. Lest there’s any doubt that people are paying attention, the Financial Times (hardly a bastion of hippie business) has been tracking “saints and sinners.”

In sum: Speak often, honestly and with empathy and humility. Take actions that solve problems, and tell people about them. Share whatever information you have. Be a mensch.

Related post:

3 ways to build your brand story through turbulent times