by Megan Power (@Power_Report) Game-changing, world-class and cutting-edge. Data-driven, innovative and disruptive. They go the extra mile, they move the needle, they’re here to help.

If corporate South Africa’s marketing and positioning statements are to be believed, local consumers have it pretty good. If the numerous purpose-driven brands out there truly come from a place of sincerity and authenticity, even better. But I suspect the horror of the global covid-19 outbreak is about to put all this to the test.

 

Unknown, unpredictable territory

 

We’re in unknown, unpredictable territory here; as of 16 March 2020, South Africa had 62 positive cases of the coronavirus disease, and yet-to-be-confirmed local transmissions.

 

Nobody knows what will happen in the days and weeks to come. But what we do know is that the coronavirus pandemic will challenge everything organisations have ever claimed to be. It will separate customer service clichés from genuine values, and pithy platitudes from credible company culture.

If there were ever a time for business in SA to step up to the plate, it is now. The expectations will be high, too. Corporates which boast that “our people are our biggest asset” and “people over profit” are going to need to go further than just allowing staff to work from home, offering more-inclusive sick leave and agreeing to cover the wages of hourly workers. They’ll be expected to use their resources, their expertise, unique skills, access, and influence to create partnerships with government to beat this official national state of disaster that’s bearing down on us. They’ll be expected to seriously and meaningfully lean in.

 

Public expectations

 

The public will expect the deep knowledge locked in robust organisations — from large telecos, banks and insurance companies to retailers, manufacturers and carmakers — to be swiftly shared, along with skills and resources to help in every conceivable way to stop the spread of infection, and panic. Government can’t do this alone and shouldn’t be expected to. The private sector has access to some of the brightest minds around, top data intelligence, the most-technologically advanced communication tools, deep research capabilities and unrivalled access to reach the country’s most vulnerable. It’s time to use all this power for the greater good.

I spent six months working on the #BusinessBelieves campaign some three years ago, under Business Leadership South Africa’s then CEO, Bonang Mohale. In addition to speaking out against corruption in both public and private sectors, the campaign highlighted corporate SA’s massive contributions to job creation, taxes and social responsibility investment. In doing so, it helped draw perspective to the damaging “white monopoly capital” narrative and positioned the country’s major corporates as a national asset.

If ever that “asset” needed to be fully leveraged, it’s now — and it’s not an altogether altruistic move. Research repeatedly shows how much weight consumers place in brands that are guided by a purpose that reflects their own values and beliefs. It’s also just the right thing to do.

 

Behaviour 101s

 

Over and above what I regard as the private sector’s national duty right now, there are a few behaviour 101s for businesses, big and small, that are worth highlighting at this distressing time:

    • Don’t jump on the marketing bandwagon and try to profit from consumer fears and anxiety. People’s lives are at stake; consumers are at their vulnerable and they’ll remember those who opportunistically tried to prey on them.
    • Don’t put prices up on key commodities or services people need right now, especially as it relates to panic-buying. Again, consumers will remember those who exploit them. Besides, if anything, now is the time for discounts and deals (as well as limited amounts per shopper) to widen access.
    • Keep up to date on the crisis so your communication with stakeholders is reliable, trustworthy and suitable to changing circumstances.
    • Be agile. Things will change by the hour.
    • Choose your words and communications wisely. Don’t add to the noise. If you’ve got nothing of value to add, keep quiet. If you’ve no authority to speak, stay in your lane. Where you’ve key or useful information to share, though, do it responsibly. Where you can use your influence and access to reach a wider community with credible messages, do your duty. And do it well.
    • If your product or service has particular value or significance to consumers in this crisis, be clear on why and how. Don’t expect the public to connect the dots. Also make it more about the usefulness and benefit, than the product itself. This isn’t the time for a hard sell.
    • Think carefully about your organisation’s routine communication and marketing. If you choose to continue normal marketing, ensure your day-to-day communications and content are assessed through a covid-19 lens. You will likely need to change the wording, tone and content to appropriately market the same service in a changed environment.
    • Ensure there’s seniority and a steady hand overseeing your social media teams. Leaving young and inexperienced juniors to manage your digital feeds and platforms isn’t smart, or fair. Ensure oversight, and offer support and relevant training where skills are lacking.
    • Choose your crisis and communications teams wisely; this isn’t the time to leave your reputation management and strategic communications, both internal and external, to amateurs or cowboys. If you don’t have the right people within your business, bring in outside help.

Not business as usual

 

It’s not business as usual. This means political mudslinging and manoeuvring, partisan criticism of government and health authorities, wars with regulatory authorities, and even twars with competitors, need to take a backseat. There needs to be a temporary ceasefire until we’re out of the woods.

This is all-hands-on-deck, shoulder-to-the-wheel stuff. We’ve never had a more-terrifying enemy. But, more importantly, we’ve never had a more-common one. It would be criminal to waste critical time and resources on factional battles and petty point-scoring, no matter how tempting.

British actor and writer Stephen Fry summed it up perfectly on Twitter recently. Until this crisis was over, he said, hatchets should be buried, grievances forgotten, disputes resolved and feuds ended. “When the final whistle is blown we can go back to being mean and beastly,” he posted.

 

What we do now, together, will determine how quickly that final whistle gets blown.

 

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