How to Manage and Avoid a COVID-19 Communications Crisis
It’s hard to say whether we’ve actually entered the post- era of the COVID-19 pandemic. If anything, it seems the U.S. has entered a renewed period of uncertainty as cases of the mutations proliferate in parts of the country where vaccination rates are lower.
One challenge we’ve encountered consistently at WeSparq is the need to effectively and compassionately communicate COVID-19 policies as organizations and businesses struggle to balance in-person interactions with virus transmission precautions. Here's what's worked so far.
Restaurants and Anti-Vaxxer Review ‘Bombing’
One example category that has faced much tension in this regard are restaurants. As outbreak cases of variants spread in the U.S, many restaurants have started requiring proof of vaccination for indoor, and in some instances, outdoor dining. This has resulted in major instances of backlash on restaurants’ promotional channels. This includes their Yelp pages getting overrun with one-star reviews from people who have never eaten there; their Instagram posts get spammed with negative comments; and, their inboxes and voicemails getting flooded with angry messages. Across channels, the tenor of the messages are similar: people claiming the business is acting discriminately to unvaccinated individuals.
This trend has especially gained steam since Yelp added new “proof of vaccination required” and “all staff fully vaccinated” to restaurants’ filter list recently. In response to the anti-vaxxer backlash on Yelp pages of restaurants implementing vaccine restrictions, Yelp has also begun monitoring pages to prevent “review bombing” (Yelp pages getting overrun with one-star reviews from people claiming anti-vaccination discrimination)
Since January, Yelp has marked more than 100 “unusual activity alerts” on businesses’ Yelp pages after they’ve been review-bombed. Yelp has also said it’s taken down more than 4,500 reviews that violated its content policies since January.
How can businesses proactively address the communications risk of “review bombing” and also implement safe COVID-19 protocol for their staff and customers? We take you through the best practices of crafting customer-facing COVID communications that will help diffuse the potential of anti-vaxxer sentiment.
Events and Unspecific Trolling on Social Media
Organizations are beginning to explore how to safely gather outdoors and there aren't any existing templates for how to do this safely right now. For many of these groups, despite efforts to abide by CDC Guidelines, their social media event marketing hasn't been spared from unspecific trolling comments and accusations of being 'super spreaders' and 'endangering the public.'
With the micro-economies begging for business and communities in need of healing and human connection, the question remains - what are the measures we need to take to ensure the public's safety?
The Mosaic Festival Silicon Valley taught us that there's no harm to over-preparation. Work sooner on a proactive COVID safety plan, communicate often, and think about your emergency plan. What the WeSparq team learned from Burners Without Borders is that while thinking about safety, it's equally important to think about it compassionately by following a few easy steps:
1. Communicate guidelines clearly.
2. Create safe spaces outdoors.
3. Express the rules of engagement - radical self-reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility, consent.
Over and over, we're reminded that irrespective of the nature of the business, the tenets of brand guardianship go by the same rules.
1. Focus on What’s Important to Your Customer
This first step actually requires a step before, which is that you understand who your audience is. This is a necessary step to take before you can craft an approach that fits what’s important to them. If you still haven’t developed a specific audience persona profile, no worries, it’s a pretty simple process. Check out our 5 Step Guide to Defining Your Brand Personality for more insight on how to define your audience.
Much of this depends on the demographics and needs of the community in which your organization operates. If you own a restaurant in a city, many of your customers may be vaccinated and looking for ways to safely congregate outside of their apartments. If your business operates in a suburb, perhaps your customer base is made up of parents who are concerned about their children’s health and safety.
Identify who your customer is and define what they care about in the midst of COVID-19 uncertainty. This will help you directly address what your customers care about and crave to know through your communications. If you need some informational support to answer these questions, ask for feedback on your social media pages or conduct an online survey. You could also offer your regular customers a promotion in return for their opinions on what matters to them.
2. Be Clear, Transparent and Proactive
Once you’re clear on who your customer is, you can better craft policies that align with what they care about. As you make decisions about how your business is going to approach the current state of the pandemic, be clear in your communications to customers about what you’re doing to handle the current situation. It’s also important that you launch your COVID communications as soon as possible to get ahead of customers’ concerns.
A good example of this is the note Target’s CEO sent to customers describing enhanced cleaning procedures and additional staffing for order pickup and drive up services.
Be transparent in communicating near-term challenges. This includes being honest about the rise of Delta and other variant cases and the uncertainty of the current situation. Use these communications to reinforce your business’ core values and also communicate the safety precautions you are implementing to confront current challenges.
Make sure your communications are consistent across channels. That means including clear information on your website, social media pages and in-person about what your policies are. Be decisive and do not waver in the face of potentially antagonistic feedback. If you are “review bombed,” remember that what we've actually seen is that it’s unlikely most of the reviewers are actual patrons of your business. Also don’t attempt to respond to every review as responding can push up negative reviews (Yelp’s algorithm highlights reviews based - among other things - on recency). Instead, try to respond to the same amount of positive reviews as negative ones. This way the Yelp algorithm won’t highlight negative reviews over positive ones. Handling as much positive feedback as negative is also better for your morale overall.
In your responses, be timely, address the reviewer by name, try to acknowledge something positive from their review (even if it was negative), explain what went wrong and don’t pick a fight. In terms of COVID policies, the “what went wrong” in this case is that they were not able to eat indoors at your restaurant. As stated above, be clear that your policy aligns with current legal mandates or CDC recommendations.
Side note: If you have yet to craft a set of core values to guide your business, it’s time to do so. There’s no better way to define your company’s mission and raison d'être (“reason for being”), beyond the tangible products or services you offer. This is the first step to building a strong brand that can endure crises like the pandemic. Check out our Guide to Defining Your Brand Personality for more information here.
3. Provide Relief When Possible
First off, we’re not here to tell you how you should craft your COVID-19 safety policy. In most cases, however, businesses are required by the city in which they operate to implement certain virus transmission precautions. Restaurants in San Francisco, for example, started being required to obtain proof of vaccination from indoor diners as of August 20, 2021. In these cases, it’s above and beyond your control to relax measures when it comes to mask guidelines. That also gives you an out. Meaning: you can inform antagonistic reviewers that you are required by law to ask them for proof of vaccination.
In the policy areas where you do have some leverage, try to offer customers relief. Not only will this increase overall customer loyalty, you can also use it as a tool for getting new customers. You never know if you might have regular customers with pre-existing conditions that inhibit their ability to safely get the vaccine.
This might include offering free delivery to first time customers who order takeout or crafting a promotional points system for takeaway orders. This is reminiscent of actions JetBlue took at the onset of the pandemic when it became the first airline to waive change and cancel fees for coronavirus-related concerns.
For customers who are vaccinated, reinforce their continued support with promotional offers that also expand your following. This might be launching ‘buy 1 get 1 free’ item offers or discounts for referring new customers.
Regardless of approach, focus on empathy rather than trying to create selling opportunities. Mold your advertising and promotion strategies to align with the mood of the moment.
In the tenacious words of Winston Churchill during WWII, “never waste a good crisis.” There’s no question we have entered a period of prolonged tumult in America and the world as we face the pandemic, climate change and beyond. With that said, as the needs of consumers change, there are many opportunities to fill in the gaps highlighted in the market. Filling these opportunities with compassion, and with an eye to the future, will not just benefit your business but also align your values with a more sustainable world.
Pictured here: The WeSparq team learning about compassionate reintegration somewhere out in the Nevada desert.