Content In A Time Of COVID-19

Dave Barton
March 6, 2020

This is not a self-promoting plug. It’s more a set of opinions and observations. It’s not ‘news’. (If it seems weird that we’re saying this then read on and you’ll understand why).

by Philip Hicks and Dave Barton

Content people — let’s confess: we’re all guilty of getting on the coronavirus bandwagon one way or another (not throwing stones here at all…).

That said, we’d be foolish not to have been tapping into the only thing that’s dominating every media and social media outlet going at the moment. As the most challenging pandemic for several generations, it has captured the zeitgeist, and will be seen as a defining moment in time for many, including disrupting the way we go about work and play, probably irreversibly.

But there’s a difference between having an opinion on the situation; having an authoritative, legitimate, informed piece of advice to share; and bending the news agenda to push an idea, product, or service.

It’s confusing, that’s for sure — especially for comms professionals. By not mentioning COVID-19 are we being callous? Is simply referring to it in our comms enough to accuse us of piggybacking on it? By fully embracing it head on are we undermining the seriousness of it? By mocking it are we being too flippant? Is that ok? Is this blog ok? Where does serious concern cross the line to become cynical exploitation?

Let’s look at a few examples, consider where we’re at right now, and then explore how we can address the topic moving forward.

Shock Value

We have already witnessed the unedifying videos of supermarket trolley wars with ‘ladies who shop’ fighting over anti-bac hand gel and toilet rolls. Not Britain’s finest hour.

Whilst the media may see this as an opportunity to highlight the worst side of human nature, some companies have called out the newly dubbed phenomena of ‘price gouging’.

Kudos to Amazon for suspending the account of a man in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who had stockpiled 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer in the hopes of re-selling the bottles on Amazon has donated his inventory, and was ‘shamed’ into donating supplies to church charities.

Real Reporting Vs. Being Relevant

Such unscrupulous behaviour can’t go unreported. But, again, do we trust media outlets enough to give us the full story?

Even the most credible statistics can run contrary to what we see happening around us. Case in point, Brexit, social media bubbles, and the silent majority.

Guess what? They’re back.

According to a report in the Evening Standard, ‘many Britons’ think Boris is doing a good job in handling the pandemic here in the UK.

Look closer, and yup, it’s a poll by uber-credible market research giant, Ipsos MORI. But look again and you’ll see it’s a poll of just over 1,000 people.

It’s always questionable when a minority is positioned as holding a majority view like this. However, just as worrying is when we learn that the upshot of being embroiled in a pandemic lockdown is the fact we’re still vulnerable to other malevolent forces too.

Consider how malicious hackers are trying to use the outbreak to steal or ransom victims’ data, as reported by Fortune magazine.

Several recent attacks have attempted to leverage the coronavirus by getting people to click on links in messages about the illness.

The Fortune article references a report by cybersecurity firm Nocturnus — spotlighting that hackers have also tried to use the influx of people working at home because of the virus to their advantage.

Cut The BS

Surely stories like this are valuable?

Positioned in this way, we can well believe there’s a need for better IT security. But doesn’t the referred to ‘report’ essentially reinforce the cybersecurity firm’s own need to be noticed? Could they be accused of profiting unscrupulously too?

An article published on Social Media Today, penned by Gartner VP, Augie Ray, has probably the most balanced perspective on these issues we’ve seen so far.

In addition to basically saying that brands need to stop chiming in on coronavirus (or words to that effect), he bemoans how many continue to practice that art of ‘virtue signalling’ describing this as ‘when your brand conspicuously expresses its values without actually taking actions to live by those values’.

It makes sense. Inboxes across the world are chock-full of such vacuous fluffery from online shops they once bought something from three years ago. And while (for some) it might be ‘nice’ to know they’re trying to show concern/be relevant in these troubled times; the proverbial straws are starting to break these camels’ backs.

Wheat From The Chaff

Most of us have seen enough now. We get it. We’re on it. So are our friends and families. Brands don’t need to remind us too. But that doesn’t mean they should stick their heads in the sand either.

We live in a time of fake news, 24 hour news coverage, content marketing, PR-ready experts, and thousands of armchair pundits. We know we can’t believe everything we read — even when it looks or sounds legitimate.

What we can do however, as marketers, is endeavour to get the balance right. This means being mindful of the ensuing uncertainty and doing what we can to provide both useful information and offers to customers where possible.

We need to take products and services out of the equation right now and focus on providing both immediate and long-term value for customers in any way we can. We need to think creatively and credibly — and avoid being reactionary.

Promote The Positive

As readers and consumers of media, well, we can only question the source of what we’re reading.

For example, a screenshot of an untraceable Sunday Sport article accusing Albanian street gangs of providing their own ‘alternative’ hand sanitiser (don’t ask…) is arguably less credible than ‘what the man in the pub said’. Plus it blatantly stirs the embers of xenophobia, giving those inclined towards it even more hate fodder.

Conversely, a BBC report on kindness and community action or ‘caremongering’ gives us both a credible story and hope that we can overcome this with support from friends and neighbours, and that we have people who care around us.

That’s the message we need to hear more of from brands. They can become part of our peripheral support networks — but their efforts need to be authentic; not fabricated for a quick win.

No-one said it was gonna be easy.

Co-written with Philip Hicks:

Philip is an independent consultant providing Board-level/C-suite counsel, strategy and execution including PR, crisis communications, stakeholder engagement.

Written by

Dave Barton

Creative copywriter with startup and blockchain savvy. Seduced by novelty. Nourished by variety. Sustained by irony.

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