Covid-19, can we talk about something else?



Lot of sensitivity and empathy is needed to communicate in these weeks, together with the credibility that comes from purpose. The theory of the five stages of grief helps to understand key emotional waves.

If considering the Covid-19 pandemic from the publishers’ viewpoint, it looks like a paradox: while news interest is booming (preliminary data report +80% page views for mainstream online media and rocketing figures for TV and radio news), adv revenues are sinking.

In the last weeks companies have focused on crisis communication and reworked marketing plans, postponing all locked down activities (for instance, trade shows and events), cancelling or reshaping ongoing campaigns. This is quite common in the industries directly impacted by Covid-19 prevention measures, like tourism, restaurants or cultural services, but most brands have chosen to slow down their investments both for caution and fear of being inappropriate in an emergency with huge human, societal, economic and political consequences.

But is it really necessary to stop any marketing communication? We cannot pretend nothing is happening and bring on the usual storytelling without considering the scenario where the brand and its messages are received.

Keeping in mind today’s uncertainty and complexity, some companies are trying to stay close to their customers. Good examples are BMW, that used the hashtag #FlattenTheCurve to invite people to stay at home and leave the car in the garage, or Mc Donald’s, that revised its logo in Brazil by separating the two arches to recall social distancing measures.

Brands are credible if they can root communication in their purpose, using corporate values as guidance and first engaging employees and staff. Lot of sensitivity and empathy is needed, as well as the ability to understand the dynamics that Covid-19 is generating at collective level. 

Useful insights come from the theory of the five stages of grief by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Initially developed to support near-death patients, this model helps to recognize the emotional waves around Covid-19 and other similar crisis that deeply influence people and public opinion.

We lived a first stage of denial, when we protected ourselves from coronavirus by seeking reassurance in our certainties (did you see #MilanoNonSiFerma?) and feeding optimism (the enthusiam for smart working, home-managed flash mobs, #andràtuttobene initiatives). We went through the stage of anger, when the Covid-19 seriousness showed up with frightening medical bulletins and restrictive lock down measures. We got angry with ourselves and the others, pointing at those who are not respecting rules or authorities that cannot solve the issue at once.

We are now in the stage of bargaining, when we are urged to save what can be saved by leveraging our personal and family resources, also acknowledging the contributions of others – health professionals who are working hard, people managing essential public services and industries, companies that are safeguarding employees and their jobs.

We will experience the stage of depression and realise the real impact of this crisis. Then there will come the stage of acceptance, when we will give a meaning to the pandemic and will start what is being defined as “the post Covid-19 new normal”.

Companies and brands can communicate across all these stages. But they need to carefully balance their messages and tone of voice.