HM Insights

Coronavirus: How good PR and communications is vital to avoid the ‘Court of Public Opinion’

Article provided by John Morrison, managing director of Morrison Media.

Political commentators often say when it comes to politics, a week feels like a very long time. It’s safe to say in a UK dealing with lockdown since mid-March, a week now feels like a lifetime.

Businesses and their staff – including my own at Morrison Media – have been on a steep learning curve when it comes to working remotely.

Zoom office meetings, webinars, Microsoft Team brainstorming sessions – online replacements for the good old face-to-face meeting – are now the norm. Never before have we been able to study other people’s choice of wall colour and curtains in their homes as now.

It has been fascinating to chart how working from home has shifted the dynamic with many clients. For them, they are experiencing the same issues as us – the need to home school their children while juggling working life, the restrictions of exercising just once a day, the lack of contact with elderly relatives and concerns about whether they are keeping safe.

That empathy needs to be harnessed in the workplace, especially when it comes to taking on board the impact that Coronavirus is having on everyone’s working lives.

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Managing reputations well

Morrison Media provides a number of core services – among them media training, crisis communications and public relations, which we conduct at a strategic level. Our clients include the international IT company CGI, the Port of Cromarty Firth, care at home business HRM Homecare, and the Prince’s Trust.

Since the lockdown, the demand for our core services has switched more to reputation management, as businesses look to protect their brands as best they can, while dealing with an economic meltdown the likes of which we have not seen for over 100 years.

This is because the business community recognises the need to react intelligently to negative events that may occur, in a way that keeps their reputations intact.

Reputation management is vital in today’s world of 24-hour news and social media. In just a few seconds, Twitter can become your best friend or your cruellest enemy. Corporate reputation is everything, and it has to be carefully nurtured, developed and protected at every turn.

A failure to do so by any business will extend far beyond the bottom line. Every bad decision faces being tried by the Court of Public Opinion.

The public are the judge, jury and executioner and thanks to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram they can convene at any time of the day or night.

So, here are my top three tips to consider if you want to avoid falling foul of the ‘Court’:

1 - Good communications are vital

Every firm must remember that good communications are front and centre of a modern, digital-savvy business. One poorly executed decision can prove extremely damaging for even the most popular business and destroy brands overnight.

One example of poor communications is Tottenham Hotspur. The top English Premier League side was one of the first clubs to furlough their non-playing staff, however their move came on the same day Tottenham announced record revenues of £461m, with chairman Daniel Levy earning a £3m bonus as part of earnings totalling £7m.

Not only that, but Spurs manager Jose Mourinho and one of his stars were spotted training in a local public park in breach of social distancing guidelines. The backlash from the Court of Public Opinion – which included many of Tottenham’s own supporters – was as swift as it was angry.

An apology was issued over the park training incident, while the decision to cut wages by 20% was reversed – instead the club’s own board would be the ones having their wages cut.

They then also sought to appease the ‘Court’ by offering their support to the NHS, making their multi-million pound stadium available to house local maternity and antenatal services. This move helped free up space at the nearby North Middlesex University Hospital to deal with the ongoing Coronavirus crisis and won fulsome praise from those in charge at the hospital, but damage to Tottenham’s reputation had already been done.

2 - Avoid unnecessary reputational damage

When it comes to reputation management, it’s vital to have ‘consequential thought’ – think of the consequences of what you say and do.

Any riposte to an on-the-record enquiry, or any failure to think through decisions to stay open or reopen your businesses, or encourage your employers back to offices, will have consequences.

Two examples spring to mind. First was Tim Martin at the Wetherspoon pub chain who lived down to his negative public profile, sacking thousands of staff, advising them to get jobs at Tesco. The equally cuddly Mike Ashley of Sports Direct insisted his employees were “essential workers” because they supplied sports gear at a time when public and private gyms were closed.

Within days Ashley was backpedalling furiously as the Court of Public Opinion swung into action. He issued a letter which said he was “deeply apologetic” for a series of blunders in the way his chain had reacted to the coronavirus lockdown.

The retail tycoon also admitted his request was “ill judged and poorly timed” and said he would “learn from his mistakes”.

And he offered his delivery trucks to the NHS. Fair play for backing down in the face of a furious public and social media backlash but, again, the reputational damage had been done.

Everyone understands that businesses are staring into the financial abyss due to Coronavirus. This is not an easy time for anyone, but approaching difficult decisions with humanity and sensitivity is surely the way to go.

It is vital that companies, which have spent years developing good reputations in their communities and beyond, recognise that one kneejerk reaction could undo it all at a stroke.

With careful management, proper governance and strategic use of government support, companies can survive coronavirus. On the other hand, bad management, lack of empathy and poor staff relations can see them summoned before the Court of Public Opinion, which can destroy their brand and reputation very quickly.

3 - Don’t be afraid to tell your story and defend your strategy

Good communication is all about telling your story well. Whether that be through a necessarily short and snappy tweet or in a longer and more discursive article or conversation.

Getting the high-level messaging right is always going to be critically important, but there’s an awful lot of noise out there that you have to cut through in the Court of Public Opinion.

However, people will always look for quality. That means you have to make sure you have a quality story and that you tell it effectively and in a way that will stand out.

One example is the response by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to the Coronavirus crisis.

Faced with decisions that are not only life and death to tens of thousands of vulnerable people, but will also affect the livelihoods of millions more, she moved very quickly into lockdown, saying categorically that staying home saved lives – at a time when other world leaders were still to be swayed.

But she also offered meaning and purpose to what she was asking New Zealanders to do. In freely acknowledging the challenges they faced, she displayed great empathy.

Finally, she sought the correct words when giving speeches to reinforce this message, and spent time answering questions from the media – and answering them well. An example of how perfectly she pitched her message was the announcement to the children of New Zealand that her government considered the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny to be “essential workers”.

Such a strategy achieved its main aim – saving lives in New Zealand. So far there have been nine – just NINE deaths. In Scotland, a country with a slightly higher size of population, the figure stands at nearly 1000.

But it also saw Ardern’s stock rise considerably in the global Court of Public Opinion, while others continued to see theirs battered, principally Brazilian Coronavirus denier, President Jair Bolsonaro.

Good communications can make the difference

These three key examples show what not to do – and what to do – to avoid a guilty verdict and its negative consequences in the Court of Public Opinion. In this hugely challenging time, as a pandemic continues to rage and many of our livelihoods are being turned to dust, it might not seem that vital.

But for businesses ‘on the edge’ facing an uncertain future, they can be the difference between going bust and staying alive.

Article provided by John Morrison, managing director of Morrison Media. He can be contacted at [email protected] or by ringing 0141 406 3663.

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