Lessons Learned: 21 Days of COVID-19 Communications in the Consumer Goods Sector

On March 16th the first email arrived from a client asking for help in communicating critical information about the Coronavirus. Two days later, another. A few days after that, another. Then the signing of two new clients asking for the same help.

Over the last 21 days, here is what I have learned.

While tens of millions of people and countless industry sectors have been impacted by the COVID-19 public health crisis, the food sector finds itself on the front lines, with employees that are thankful to keep their jobs but that also must continue to go to work each day in fields, processing facilities, manufacturing plants, warehouses, trucks and grocery stores every day.

The frontline workers and professional executives in the food, personal care and household products sector face a dizzying array of constantly shifting hurdles each and every day.  The safety of workers, labor and supply chain challenges and surging consumer demand, just to name a few.

While working with our clients on COVID-19 communications, some patterns have emerged, and lessons have been learned. If you are in the business of food and consumer products production right now, there are only three things people (employees and customers) want to know:

  1. Is it safe for me to work in – or shop in – a grocery store?
  2. Will there be enough food when I go to the store?
  3. Is the food safe?

Of course, there are many derivatives to each of these questions depending on the audience, but here is some overarching guidance for your communication with employees, customers, policymakers and the public right now:

  • Demonstrate compassion and empathy: in the midst of a crisis and under the stress of getting your job done, remember that people are frightened right now. Be sure to remember those who are scared and those who have been impacted and let them know you care.
  • Be clear, concise, simple: your audiences want clear and concise guidance on what to do and how to do it. Tell them the food supply is resilient and why. Tell them what you are doing to protect their health. Provide them with guidance on when and how to work and shop so they can play an active role in staying safe. Full stop.
  • Fight organizational instincts: organizations are used to marketing and promotion that makes audiences feel good – branding if you will. Now is not the time for that. Clear and effective Coronavirus-related communication – and matching that with your actions is your branding right now. Throw out pre-COVID messages and advertising. Shun proposals to piggyback non-related messaging onto your crisis communications.  That won’t work and can do more harm than good. Stay on-point by helping people navigate the crisis. Right now that is your only message.
  • Communicate but don’t overcommunicate: while crisis communications theory sometimes recommends organizations “over communicate,” my observations in the last 21 days says be careful. Communications-for-communications-sake may make you feel better, but that can cause your audience to tune-out if your emails, press releases and social media posts stray from providing new, important and actionable information.

Employees and the public have shown great resiliency in recent weeks and it looks like we face many more weeks of stay-at-home orders.  Hitting the right note in your communications now and for the duration of this crisis will help your constituencies navigate these difficult times and provides comfort in a time of chaos.  When it’s all said and done, you want that to be your post-COVID-19 calling card.

Sean McBride is founder & principal of DSM Strategic Communications, a full-service public relations and issues management firm. He previously served as Executive Vice President of Communications and Membership at the Consumer Brands Association, and as Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association