Brand Communication

I’ve been working in advertising, marketing and communications for over 25 years. I love communications. I love how a clever use of words can elicit a bark of laughter or a nod of understanding. Or how talented teams tease out nuggets of truth in order to write great strategies – and build memorable campaigns. More recently, in my role within a South African NGO, it was all about using the power of words to inform, educate and make a difference.

Less than 6 months ago I joined a marketing and communications team within the travel industry. Happy days. Day-to-day writing covered topics like over-tourism, conservation and eco-tourism. I got to write about incredible destinations, hidden gems and small South African tour operators making a real difference in their communities.

Over the last week we have seen the travel industry in free-fall, witnessed first-hand the uncertainty and fear of local business owners. Our crisis comms team, well-versed in crisis comms for brands and businesses, have faced a world in crisis. They’ve done an incredible job, leading with facts, sharing information from reputable sources, developing and updating FAQs for the travel industry, running webinars and producing an endless stream of press releases – all with heart and empathy. On very little sleep.

They quickly became the core ‘COVID-19’ team, and while the rest of us supported them, we were tasked with the general marketing/communications needs of our clients.

I have never felt more at sea.

I’ve written articles around transitioning to working from home while knowing full well that for the majority of people in South Africa remote work is not a possibility. And those who can maybe facing other challenges, for example, homeschooling children with special needs without respite or looking after at-risk parents. I’ve talked about using self-quarantine as an opportunity to ‘level-up’ while understanding that most people will be paralysed by anxiety.

Brands are grappling with a new reality. With a complete lockdown looming, how do businesses and brands communicate during this time without appearing out of touch or insensitive? How do you ‘read the room’ when the room (i.e. our current reality) changes daily.

Phrases like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unchartered waters’ are quickly becoming worn. Globally, some brands have hit the mark (for example, Nike’s ‘Play at Home’ message), while others have misstepped (social media is not kind when you do).

AdAge are doing a fantastic job of tracking marketers’ responses to coronavirus on a daily basis. It makes for fascinating reading. It’s also overwhelming.

What is the best response in these ‘unprecedented times’? Can businesses really help, or should they just get out of the way? Do we need to hear from every brand we engage with, or just those that can offer relevant solutions and advice?

There are no easy answers. But if businesses can’t add value, share necessary information or offer meaningful support RIGHT NOW, then it’s time to rethink your comms strategy and content calendar. Share your customer service policy and ‘hotlines’, be available when clients need you. Keep up to date with what’s happening – establish yourself as a reputable resource if you can. Check your tone. Be brave enough to be quiet. At the very least, pause all pre-scheduled emailers and social media posts.

Things will change in the days and weeks ahead. People may need more distraction then, even entertainment for the sake of entertainment, but now we need to tread carefully.

We’re painfully aware that the travel industry is bleeding, that marketing budgets will disappear as ‘non-essential’ spend is cut. But for the sake of the teams and businesses directly affected, we have to ‘carry on carrying on’. We’ll learn as we go, share insights and lean on each other – and hopefully come out the other side with positive stories to share.


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