This article was written by Stella, one of our Account Executives. Stella joined Liz Lean PR early this year, and has a background in marketing communications.  

Corporate social responsibility, or doing the right thing?

With Pret A Manger giving away free drinks to the NHS and Burberry repurposing its factories to make PPE, it begs the question, are brands using the COVID-19 outbreak as a CSR opportunity, or are companies just doing their bit to help out?

The truth is, the pandemic has given businesses a chance to demonstrate the human aspect of their brand. As community has recently taken on a new meaning, businesses have been able to show that they are not just able to engage with communities for their own benefit; but that ‘giving back’ is now a critical part of their business strategy.

It is crucial for a brand’s survival that they operate efficiently during times of austerity, but it’s also essential that brands respond in an ethical manner to this crisis, playing their role in helping the wider community. PR Week’s Danny Rogers captures this perfectly, describing business leaders as walking a “tricky tightrope”. The business must strike the right balance between serving self-interests and helping others during this time, and communications will play an important part.

During times of crisis, audiences appreciate clear and consistent communication. If a business is planning to help the community, the gesture should be genuine, rather than an attempt to gain media attention. A consumer should be able to walk away (or more likely scroll away) with a clear picture of how the business is navigating the new environment, understanding the logic behind decisions which have been made.

It is important for a company’s reputation to share good news stories – in fact, it is a fundamental element of my day job. There is a real appetite for positive news stories amongst the media. If the offer to help their community stems from a genuine place, the company stands to gain reputationally. However, if the gesture is empty and more of an attempt to ride on the coat tails of this pandemic, consumers are savvy enough to recognise this, and the business’s reputation stands at risk.

Pret A Manger

From both a professional and consumer point of view, I appreciate the comms which Pret has been putting out. From the start, the brand led with a human-centric approach, asking themselves “how can we help?”. All subsequent decisions, complete with justification, were then clearly communicated across their social channels. In early stages, the brand made clear to consumers through a short video why it made the decision to reopen 10 stores, with reasoning rooted in their proximity to the new NHS Nightingale hospitals.

It’s admirable that Pret has been able to reopen a further 71 stores across the UK, and this decision has been well received by its audiences. Messaging was well explained and rooted in CSR reasoning. Pret’s CEO explained that by gradually reopening their shops, they can do more work with their homeless charity partners across the UK. This is a perfect example of a company putting out relevant communication which is both sensitive and business sense checked. This approach and method to communication will serve the brand well not just during, but after this crisis has finished.

Hall & Woodhouse

Despite being in an industry which has gone cold, the company took action to warm up the local communities in which it operates. Faced with a surplus of stock, teams worked hard to donate food to local charities in need whilst chefs cooked meals to fuel essential NHS workers. The company also decided to open their Community Chest funding scheme early, providing crucial support to charities. By responding quickly, the brand was able to adapt its standard practices to support local communities – despite, for the first time in the business’s nearly 250 year history, no pub doors being allowed to open.

These efforts have not gone unrecognised by both local and national media, as the brand received a high amount of media attention on its response to the COVID-19 environment. It is the clear generosity of Hall & Woodhouse’s actions which will position the brand at the heart of the community, as pubs have always been. They’ve demonstrated that despite facing huge challenges in their industry, a business can still be seen to do the right thing, which will provide a solid foundation for their reputation in the long term.

Burberry

By repurposing its factories to make PPE for the NHS, the high-end fashion brand moved to active assembly of facemasks for the nation’s key workers. Economic stresses, limited social interaction and financial uncertainty have seen a shift in consumer priorities – with the need for high ticket fashion items being low on that list. By adjusting its business practices in the short term, reflecting the public sentiment and national crisis, Burberry has positioned itself as a true British brand, here to support its country in a time of need. The business’s understated shift in production received recognition from both the Government and the media, with efforts being noted by its current and future consumer base.

During this time businesses should not forget that their consumer base are watching how brand are responding to this crisis. Burberry demonstrates how a business can adapt to its new background, whilst also servicing the wider community, doing what they can to help.

Despite spanning different sectors, locations and scale, all three examples have one thing in common: practicality. They add real value to people who need it, providing help during a time when help has never been needed more.

At a time like this, communication specialists also have a part to play. In my view, PR is not about quick wins, it’s about building a longstanding, lasting reputation which in turn builds customer affinity to a brand. It would be difficult to do this if company activities have no depth to them. Efforts do not need to be costly, and most of the time even the smallest acts can hold reputational value, as long as the actions of a business align to their normal branding values.  

Although the spotlight is not necessarily directed at brands right now, how a brand behaves throughout this pandemic will be remembered for years to come. We know reputation is essential, and recently certain brands have really shone through with their reaction and approach. Through a careful utilization of both internal and external comms, brands have an opportunity to prove to consumers they are more than just another brand – and have an essential part to play in helping their local communities.

I will leave you with one final question.

What will your business be remembered for?

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