May 11, 2020
Announcing layoffs can be challenging for many different reasons. Fundamentally, no one likes giving or receiving bad news. Beyond that, though, there are more specific reasons why this kind of announcement requires careful consideration of both the messaging and the audiences involved.
The recent announcement made by United Airlines of a coming layoff offers a real-world example of this challenge. In a memo sent out to approximately 11,500 workers and shared with the media, United Airlines head of human resources, Kate Gebo, announced that the airline would reduce hours and staffing in the coming months, layoffs that could also include the company’s administrative team.
The announcement included the caveat that these moves would be made after funding from the CARES Act is no longer available to keep the company afloat. This factor somewhat complicates this communication, because it is unclear if there will or will not be any further help from the government.
What is clearer in the message is that the company expects air travel passenger demand to continue to be drastically reduced, and that United expects it will take some time, perhaps years, for demand to return to pre-COVID levels. That, company leadership says, means growing smaller for the long-term.
These are not the only details in the announcement. Additional communication was specifically focused on non-union employees who were told they would be required to take 20 unpaid days off and that some would be required to transition to a four-day work week.
When asked about the reasons behind these changes, a company spokesperson said they had no choice given the economic circumstances. “Travel demand is essentially zero for the foreseeable future… Even with federal assistance that covers a portion of our payroll expense, we anticipate spending billions more than we take in… For the next several months. That is not sustainable.”
Many company employees are currently on voluntary leave, and United has presented some offers for voluntary contract buyouts. Meanwhile, the company is facing a lawsuit from some union workers, who want to block the reduction in work hours. The suit alleges the choices being forced on employees by the company violates the CARES Act.
Through all of this, the company has continued regular direct communication with employees, offering a series of company memos explaining how things were and what company executives had decided to do about it. While the news is difficult to hear, the communication is clear, allowing workers at every level to make decisions with the facts in front of them.
May 7, 2020
As the powers that be ponder how to reopen Broadway, a ballerina not far away is busy making sure the show goes on, even if it means broadcasting from homes across the world. Working with Joseph Phillips, Misty Copeland is the innovator behind “Swans for Relief,” an organization working to raise funds for dancers all across the world who are out of work due to COVID-19 related shutdowns.
Copeland told the Associated Press the effort is a way to “bring the dance world together” in order to make a bigger impact as a group. “I started reaching out to my friends, and everyone I was reaching out to was like ‘Yes, I’m in!’”
This agreement led to a joint production for a virtual audience and led to a partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation to “help ballet dancers maintain living expenses.”
To show the strength of what might be possible, Copeland brought together 32 colleagues from across the globe, with dancers representing at least nine different countries performing the “Dying Swan.”
Copeland said one of her secondary goals with this effort was to begin a conversation about how the ballet world interacts with its fans. “We needed (to) reset, step back, and reassess how we do things… It’s about time we learn how to exist in this virtual world for the ballet community… figuring out new ways of bringing theater to people… reaching more people.”
For Copeland, one of the first steps in creating this conversation is showing how it can be done. She hopes to develop a better and greater idea from that seed, with help from other performers and producers.
This conversation about effective communication and new ways to connect with an audience runs parallel to a debate currently in process where producers and performers connected with Broadway are deciding when and how to reopen theaters. The parallel narratives create urgency for both groups to generate ideas and put them in front of an audience.
While there may be some friction and divergence between these ideas, that doesn’t necessarily mean the two efforts are in opposition with each other or that the narratives from one group necessarily contradict those from the other group. Effective communication around these efforts and to these audiences, for which there is significant crossover, is a vital component of how success in these endeavors will be developed and measured.
Copeland has an active and enthusiastic audience now. It will be interesting to watch how she promotes her vision going forward.
May 1, 2020
As some in sports media have begun to talk about baseball and hockey coming back this year, there are others who are openly wondering if football will start on time. At present, most teams have not made any kind of announcement for or against the idea. Some have opted to cancel offseason workouts, however, and the New Orleans Saints are one of the latest.
The Saints made the announcement that their offseason program would not be happening, and that players would be expected to workout at home and come to camp ready, whenever camp might be. Both GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton told the players to expect their coaching staff to maintain “regular communication” with players through spring and summer.
Part of that communication was a positive and empathetic message from Payton to his players: “Pay attention to your family. Pay attention to keeping yourself and your family safe. Abide by the orders of each of the states that you’re in. We’ll handle the rest of it… Get yourself in shape, and then, when we’re able to get together, we’ll move on and have a great training camp and a great season…”
With this message, Payton was able to get his key message across, that he expected the players to be ready to go when called upon, while still defining priorities for the team and the brand. Take care of yourselves and your families.
Looking at that message, we see a leader who is on message, as well as speaking in a way that draws people in and creates buy-in. In a time of crisis, there is a risk of losing loyalty if a message tells people what they should do rather than addresses their feelings or concerns. Payton knows his team won’t make any kind of run if there’s mistrust and division. He also knows that players won’t play for a coach they don’t believe in.
This principle has some relevance to nearly every brand or organization. People, whether they are members of a team, an audience, or a market cohort, want to be connected and appreciated, not taken for granted. Leaders and marketers can do a lot of heavy lifting with short, simple communication that is primarily connective.
Case in point, Payton didn’t have to say a lot to say what he needed to say in a way that connected with his players and their families at a time when many people are worried, scared, and wondering what might happen next. Once they were connected with his message, Payton offered clear expectations, as well as a long-term vision everyone on the team could get behind.
April 29, 2020
Last week the world of sports rejoiced at the news that, someday soon, Major League Baseball might re-start. But it didn’t take much time for the other side of the argument to surface. From a sports PR perspective, the weeks and months prior to the announcement that MLB Spring Training was canceled, and that the season would be postponed, were dominated by news of the sign stealing scandal. The Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox were called out, and several players and coaches were specifically named as willing participants, in what some commentators in the sports media called one of the worst professional sports scandals in decades.
Now, just as fans were getting accustomed to the idea of baseball making a comeback, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the penalties the league is leveling against the Red Sox. Saying that the team’s infractions were less severe than those of the Astros, the penalties he announced were also less severe. Boston lost a second-round pick in the next amateur draft, and former manager Alex Cora was suspended through the 2020 postseason. In addition, Red Sox replace system operator JT Watkins was suspended without pay through this year’s postseason for “violating the prohibition on in-game use of video to revise sign sequences…”
Speaking directly about his decisions, Manfred said: “Unlike the Astros conduct, in which players communicated to the batter from the dugout area in real time the precise pitch about to be thrown, Watkins’ conduct by its very nature was far more limited in scope and impact…”
Watkins, who came up through the Red Sox system, playing until 2015, initially denied the allegations against him. Manfed disagreed, calling Watkins a “key participant” in the infractions. Watkins has said nothing else since Manfred made his announcement. Personally, Watkins will have some ground to make up to win back his reputation, however, the team as a whole came through fairly unscathed.
One of the biggest questions when the news of how pervasive the sign stealing scandal went came out, was which teams would be tainted by the news. Would the Red Sox see their championship run attached to an asterisk with the label “cheater” associated with it? At present, that doesn’t look like it will be the case, at least for most fans. They understand the relatively limited nature of this infraction, especially compared to what the Astros had been accused of.
However, “less ground to make up” is not “no ground to make up,” and that means the Red Sox will have to answer some questions, win back some doubters, and put up with connections to the cheating scandal for some time yet.
April 27, 2020
Even without a marquee live program like Game of Thrones to bank on, HBO is gambling that customers are ready to officially cut the cord and pay them directly to stream their content. The premium cable network recently announced a release date for its HBO Max streaming service on May 27. Given that, at $14.99 a month, the price tag is more expensive than competitors like Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix, it’s clear the brand believes it still has enough to entice viewers.
So, what can streamers expect from HBO’s new service? Early press reports offer a varied lineup of WarnerMedia brands including Friends, Looney Tunes, Sesame Street, as well as new “Max Original” series for both adults and kids.
Some viewers are asking if that’s all. WarnerMedia says “no.” In fact, the company recently told the press AT&T, which it owns, is planning to invest about $2 billion in programming and promotions for HBO Max over the next two years. WarnerMedia Chairman Robert Greenblatt, told the press: “Our number one goal is having extraordinary content for everyone in the family, and the HBO Max programming mix we are so excited to unveil on May 27 will bear this out…”
With the coronavirus forcing millions to stay at home, streaming demand is way up, which means this may be a great time to get into the market. But finding market space will be a challenge. Netflix stock is through the roof, and Disney+ plus is seeing a major surge in subscribers. HBO clearly believes they can compete with these streaming titans head to head. Greenblatt said: “The all-star teams behind every aspect of HBO Max will deliver a platform and a robust slate of content that is varied, of the highest quality, and second to none…”
That’s a strong, positive message that, ultimately, will be left up to the streaming consumer. The big question right now, is what will HBO use to entice people to give the service a try? Will they give them a trial period for a free or reduced price, or are they banking on big-name programs to get people to switch over?
At this point, the jury is still out on that one. The company has about a month to bring out the big guns and show consumers the “varied high-quality” content on offer for nearly fifteen bucks a month. There’s no doubt people are willing to pay for streaming content, as long as it’s high quality, but it will need to be as good or better than what’s already out there.
One factor HBO is banking on is exclusivity. The company has already said some programming, even classic sitcoms, will stream exclusively on HBO Max, even those that have previously been available on other platforms. That could be a big win for the company, if viewers find a show they care enough about. So, how will they approach this PR challenge? Time will tell, and the clock is ticking.
April 23, 2020
According to American author and academic Alexis De Veaux, “Survival is a four-letter word.” But to Dan Seavers, content marketing manager at TeleWalker, “data” is another. Seavers and others like him believe data will delineate marketing’s future. How CMOs analyze and blend data with their ideas and creativeness will define their brand’s future success.
Data and Dating
In some ways, gathering data is somewhat like the initial stages of dating. Where one or both parties seek out more information to determine if the other is a potential love interest. Getting to know more about him or her is essential. This same kind of courtship is true in gathering data to successfully move a consumer relationship with the brand forward.
In preparing to leverage data, the first step is to assess and analyze the brand’s current situation and sources of data. Some sources include social media, CRM, sales, customer service, online, broadcast and print mentions, online reviews, analytics of websites, marketing KPIs and consumer analyses.
As discussed in earlier articles, departments in many companies remain siloed. A joint survey by HubSpot and TeleWalker recently reported that 47% of brands surveyed still remained siloed. Future success demands that all departments collaborate and share data.
Conduct an audit of existing data to understand how customers are relating to the brand. Is there enough information to enable the company to identify customer awareness of the brand to craft tailored buying experiences for them? If not, create a plan to capture that data. Conducting SWOT and PEST (political, economic, social and technological) analyses are also helpful.
Two templates are important in reaching consumers. The first is a personal template that recognizes consumer interests and touch points. What does the brand’s ultimate consumer look like? What are their goals? This information is invaluable in personalizing future communications.
The second is a journey map. This not only tracks how the brand is delivering satisfaction to consumers, but also helps identify missing content that can increase return of investment and sales. Not having this data likely means a brand being out of tune with consumer demographics and other consumer psychological attributes. And like a GPS, establishing a journey map will inform the brand where the consumer is in relation to their goals and journey with the brand.
With the available data gathered, analyze and re-analyze what’s available and draft a strategic plan that leads to action. The HubSpot/TeleWalker survey also found that respondents overlooked 8% of data they gathered, meaning that decisions were being made on just 20% of available information.
The plan should have goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based. Within it should be action plans with timelines to keep everyone involved accountable. Some metrics to watch include using social data gathered to better understand and employ consumer behavioral insights, measuring and monitoring changes in the brand’s conversion rates, and logging the length of time consumers view band videos instead of the number of views.
Reports should be made monthly to the marketing group, collaborating departments, and senior staff and also include analysis, insights and other suggestions.
April 21, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced us to an unlikely media sensation. Olive Veronesi, a 93-year-old Pennsylvania resident charmed social media when she ran out of beer and took matters into her own hands. Stuck in her home due to social distancing, and hoping to offer a bit of a smile to friends online, Veronesi posted a photo of herself in the window of her home, looking bereft and holding a Coors Light can as well as a sign that read: “I need more beer!”
Shared countless times, the image – and Olive – became a social media viral hit. Thousands identified with what it feels like to be stuck inside, running out of things that we love. Social media users empathized, laughed, and spread the image far and wide. A local media station said many people reached out to Veronesi offering to bring her more beer. She says she appreciated the sentiment and hoped they got a smile from her post.
Eventually, someone at Molson Coors saw the photo and read the message. Then, a few days later, a refrigerated delivery truck showed up outside Veronesi’s home, dropping off 150 cans of Coors Light. Speaking to USA Today, Molson Coors confirmed the gift came from them, offering this message to their new fan: “When we saw Olive’s message, we knew we had to jump at the chance to not only connect with someone who brought a smile to our faces during this pandemic, but also gave us a special opportunity to say thanks for being a Coors Light fan…”
Cue another viral story. The images of a stack of beer cases, along with a smiling Veronesi hit social media like a wave of sunshine, with people spreading the fun story. Now… imagine what might have happened if the PR people at Coors had been asleep at the wheel. Sure, they could have allowed one of the many local well-wishers to fulfill Veronesi’s request, but what a missed opportunity.
By “jumping at the chance” to fulfill her wish, the company earned many more times the value of media coverage simply by being willing to take advantage of an opportunity. Sure, they can’t afford to do this for everybody, but smart digital PR means knowing when and how to tap into social media’s PR bullhorn to help amplify a message.
By preparing ahead of time to be nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities when they come, the PR team at Molson Coors bought massive consumer goodwill for the cost of a few cases of beer. An easy trade any day of the week.
April 21, 2020
All company brands and logos evolve over time. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes brands just want a fresh look, something more in tune with current aesthetic tastes. Other times, the company is interested in rebranding or shifting a product focus, such as the recent changes to Dunkin’ Donuts. Other times, though, a company changes a brand to make a socio-political statement, or to send a very clear message… even if they do so with relatively little fanfare.
Take, for instance, the recent change to Land O’Lakes dairy products. The brand markets butter, cheese, and other familiar dairy products and has been on many grocery store shelves since the 1920s. Their logo, featuring the Native American woman known as “Mia,” has been a staple image in brand packaging for generations. But, a closer look at recent packaging shows Mia has gone.
Instead of the smiling young Native woman, consumers will now see either a new stylized Land O’Lakes logo or the smiling faces of some of the company’s client farmers. What was the reason for the change? The company’s CEO, Beth Ford, said they wanted to shift to a look that was more closely aligned to what the company is all about: “As a farmer-owned co-op, we strongly feel the need to better connect the men and women who grow our food with those who consume it…”
That’s a strong take, especially given what many people might assume about the nature of the change. Getting ahead of the likely commentary on the story, media reports about the shift were quick to point out it was a Native American artist who created the familiar image. Patrick DesJarlait was the Ojibwe who remade the Mia image back in the 1950s. A renowned American artist, his work was celebrated for decades on consumer packaging and in museums.
When asked about the news of the change, his son, Robert, said he had mixed feelings. “I’m sad to see it go, but I can understand… We live in a politically correct time, so maybe it was time… It’s certainly developed into a stereotype.”
Those comments certainly mirror what a lot of consumers and commentators have been saying. However, Land O’Lakes made the stronger choice in aligning the decision with the company’s values, rather than trying to make a political statement. Brands exist to help define a company in the marketplace. It’s likely that many consumers did not even realize the company was a farming cooperative at its core. In making this change for this reason, it gave the company the chance to tell the world and, potentially, reframe the company image in the minds of consumers.
April 16, 2020
COVID-19 not only disrupted our daily lives but also those of thousands of businesses and industries. While the pandemic has caused chaos for marketers, it also presents an opportunity for those who can quickly adapt to the suddenly changed landscape.
Before the pandemic, consumers were exposed to 5,000 messages daily according to data analytics company Talkwalker. There are four areas of a brand’s marketing campaign that CFOs need to pay attention to today.
Area 1 – Content
Meaningful engagement is even more important today since there’s an avalanche of consumers going online to search for and purchase merchandise. Content must reverberate with them from the start and then engage them throughout their visit.
Inspect the data about the product, not just the brand, to determine discussion points. What kind of conversation can a marketer start that will initiate further thinking and consideration about what other uses consumers might have with the brand rather than how the brand benefits consumers?
Area 2 – Influencers
Pre-coronavirus, trust levels were already strained. It’s compounded today with conflicting reports about the pandemic coming out daily, spam emails and robocalls, etc.
Influencers can make a difference in consumer choices but selecting ones with the right mix of range of interest can be challenging. But next to friends and family, a good influencer is the next best trusted source for brand recommendations, especially to Gen Z and millennials.
One thing marketers struggle over is relevance or reach. Which is more important? Reach may generate a lot of likes but if they don’t produce sales, so what? In selecting influencers, consider the relevance or impact they’ve demonstrated. Popularity doesn’t drive revenue.
Area 3 – Target Audience
Dig into and depend more on the consumer data that the brand has gathered. Now is not the time to use instinct. Instead, analyze the brand’s audience, their needs and interests and develop content that addresses them.
Consider near and upcoming special days that are just around the corner like Mother’s Day in light of the pandemic. Is there something the brand could do to make the occasion even more special and memorable to both the recipient and consumer?
With so many people working from home during the pandemic, one or more brands will emerge as industry leaders because they’ll create their own messages, contests or events that cater to the homebound. Brands that pioneer these special occasions will also gain market share.
In spite of the current pandemic, all is not bleak. There is still opportunity out there for marketers and brands with forward thinking to build upon. All it takes is a keen knowledge and awareness of the target audience, their interests, a brand that meets their needs, and connecting openly and personally with them.
Consider stalwarts Disney, Microsoft and HP. They all set up shop at a time when most people would sit on the sidelines and wait until things began turning around. These companies jumped in early to gain an upper hand. Microsoft started up in 1975 while the nation was going through a recession. HP’s roots go back to 1939 during the great Depression. And Walt Disney started his company during the recession of 1923 and 1924.
April 13, 2020
Media outlets across the world are working out how to cover the COVID-19 outbreak, and they’re learning on the job. Where is the line between accuracy and hype, between reporting the current facts on the ground and waiting for further details or testing? And where is the line between factually reporting government decisions and taking the risk of deteriorating the confidence of citizens looking to their government for action and answers?
These questions are playing out in real time in London, UK, as even media outlets who are typically sympathetic to the ruling government have been strongly criticizing leaders’ decisions in recent days. Headlines have criticized a perceived “confusion” and “lack of clarity” from government messaging, while others are screaming for a better, faster plan to roll out virus testing.
Further complicating the tenuous relationship is the recent change in venue for communication. Where daily reports were, until recently, made in person, now reporters are getting them over video chat. While the technology is decent for communication, the audio can get choppy when various people want to ask questions at once, and it’s difficult to interrupt, challenge, or ask follow up questions. And, with Boris Johnson now undergoing treatment for the virus, the narratives have only gotten pricklier. Formerly supportive journalists have described the current communications as “pathetic” and a “complete waste of time.”
In the meantime, other members of the media are still demanding further clarity and consensus from government officials, lamenting “answers without questions.”
So, what can this scenario teach us about PR communication in the time of COVID-19? Plenty, actually.
First and foremost, do not allow changes in how messages are getting out to increase message confusion. When venues or mediums for communication shift, the nature of the message delivery needs to shift to accommodate these changes, and more time should be dedicated to establishing and ensuring clarity of message.
Secondly, understand that people don’t like and will resist change. This may seem basic, but many brands, personalities, and entities are not practicing this “common sense,” leading to frustration for their audiences. Any kind of change to any routine can cause upset, distraction, and distance. Communicators must adjust by leaning in, offering concessions and education to minimize frustration, not just continuing business as usual.
Thirdly, accept that everyone is under additional stress, pressure, and worry. We are living through something unprecedented, and that has everyone on edge. Add to this baseline the frustration of quarantine and the worry that comes with waiting, wondering, and not getting clear answers, and people are much less receptive to messages, because of all those negative emotions. Effective communicators will account for this in their PR, shifting or revamping their approach in a way that is aware of the current situation without making everything about that. People need a break. They need something positive and authentic that is clearly communicated, whether it’s coming from the government, the media, or their favorite consumer brands.