Communities all over the country are going through a period of grief, chaos, and confusion that may last months or even years.
Business owners are not exempt from the feelings of uncertainty. Neither are employees.
Most consumers know that even during the wake of a pandemic and widespread civil unrest, business must still go on—the key is having empathy for those impacted, being sensitive to community needs, and remaining respectful and authentic during these hard, sad times.
It may seem strange to think about marketing during so much chaos, but small businesses often become a hub of activity and resurgence in related communities.
Your business reopening helps your customers and community feel a return to normalcy.
Having said that, in the immediate aftermath of all of these disruptions, it’s not a great idea to rush a return to “business as usual” and it is a mistake to pretend to move forward as if nothing has changed.
Now would be an easy time for a well-intended business to make a misstep that make them appear insensitive… or worse, as though they are ignoring or capitalizing on a tragedy.
It wasn’t that long ago that Pepsi pulled a controversial ad a day after its release which critics had said attempted to capitalize on a social movement and, in the process, appeared to trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement. PepsiCo learned the hard way that trying to capitalize on a social movement is a bad idea.
The issue wasn’t that they saw a problem and wanted to help out—it’s that they seemed to want nothing more than profit, and there was no visible connection between the product they were selling and the cause they were leveraging. A little compassion goes a long way—but so does a little greed.
While raising money to help people in need may generate new business for you, giving the appearance of doing things for the wrong reason can backfire and hurt sales.
Here’s another example of a company that did the wrong thing around a tragedy. This time, it was Hurricane Sandy:
Obviously, referencing a disaster and then changing the subject to be focused on something trivial like online shopping rubbed people the wrong way and is a big no-no during an event like a hurricane.
To keep your company out of the dog house, here are some best practices you can use to promote your business during disaster respectfully:
Tips for Marketing Your Products and Services During Sensitive Times
1. Remain focused on three simple types of content.
It is important that you put your comedy acts and sales-y pushes on a shelf for now. Instead, just focus on straightforward messaging that is aimed at one of these three goals: business continuation, adding value, or building community.
2. Be Authentic.
If you genuinely don’t care about a topic, if it doesn’t align with your core values, or if you don’t feel that you understand it enough to be helpful, it may be better not to jump in to help until that changes. We say it a lot around here—when in doubt, sit it out.
Your employees, and maybe even your customers will eventually find out if you’re only providing assistance for good PR (for example, see the GAP ad above).
On the other hand, if you do feel ready and compelled to act on behalf of your brand, then find a way to help out and go at it. You will build trust and create loyal customers as you throw yourself into doing good.
3. Don’t Take Advantage.
This should probably go without saying, but taking advantage of people or their situation during a crisis will leave a bad taste in the mouths of your customers and community.
In the wake of a disaster, bad actors can make a lot of money by hiking up the prices on essentials or staging half-hearted charitable efforts, but you don’t want to be one of those companies.
4. Be Generous.
Find ways to be generous and support the community that supports you in better times.
5. Be Creative.
During the economic crisis of the early 200’s, many companies had to lay off their workers in order to match the declining demand for services.
At Honeywell, leadership recognized that they had a commitment not only to shareholders, but also to employees and stakeholders. So, instead of demanding layoffs, they initiated a policy of rolling unpaid vacation.
As a result, the company was able to keep going, employees kept their jobs, and many became even more loyal to the company and to each other, as some volunteered for more time off so that coworkers who experienced a more profound loss could earn the money they required to take care of their families.
6. Plan Ahead.
Your company, regardless of the industry, can build corporate social responsibility (CSR) into its strategy so that your business is used to raising money for causes and can do so from a proactive standpoint rather than a reactive one.
7. Carefully Weigh Returning to “Business as Usual.”
If your customers are affected by a tragedy, it’s important to acknowledge it, even if you decide not to assist.
This acknowledgment can be in the form of a blog or social media post, a banner on your website, or some other type of statement. But it is essential to acknowledge what your stakeholders are experiencing in an appropriate way. The caveat is that your statement must align with everything else we’ve covered in this article.
If you come across as disingenuous, it is better to do and say nothing and fly below the radar, keeping to business as usual.
The best rule of thumb?
If you’re calling attention to a disaster, make sure you’re doing something about it and not trying to capitalize on the misfortunes of others.
The company MOZ saw this social media post backfire after the Ferguson tragedy.
In this case, they would have been better not to post anything at all.
A) their company and products aren’t directly tied to the Ferguson tragedy, and B) even though they weren’t posting anything to social media that day, they also weren’t doing anything to provide aid or assistance to the tragedy.
If they wanted to be less distractionary to the conversations happening on social media as a brand, perhaps they should have let the conversations occur without offering their input.
8. Be a Value-Add.
You can use your social media after a tragedy to raise funds, provide guidance and tips, or offer access to free, helpful resources. This concept works best when you have a strong local presence, and people already look to your social media for similar content (for example, if you’re a chamber of commerce, or other region-oriented operation). Check out how the Vans Warped Tour promotes blood drives for the Red Cross:
9. Use Local Resources if Your Business is Hurting
The events of the past few months have impacted more than just customers, the community and economy has obviously taken a hit causing businesses to shift their strategies out of necessity. In the event that your company has fallen on hard times, make sure you are communicating effectively with your community.
Focus on your Google My Business listing and make sure that you provide regular updates as to your operations there as well as on social media channels like Facebook.
Reach out to your Chamber of Commerce or the Small Business Association to see if they are offering any form of aid to companies in your situation.
In summary, it is important to be a part of the response to tragedies where you’re able as a business. It is also important to remember that you have been through a lot in recent weeks–nobody expects you to have all of this figured out.
Remind yourself by saying aloud “I am doing the best that I can,” then work to fulfill that promise.