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Practical Marketing Responses to 8 Likely Questions about COVID-19

We’re quickly approaching the knee of the COVID-19 infection curve in the US, with several thousand confirmed infections likely to be announced by week’s end (the date of this writing is March 9, 2020). This will most likely mean a marked increase in the public’s concern for their own and others’ safety, and the associated media and political attention to this crisis.

And it will mean both challenges as well as opportunities for marketing departments as they will most likely be the ones on the visible frontline of most organizations’ external (and internal) responses to this growing epidemic. Our research suggests that there is little in the way of available guidance out there for marketers, and thus we decided to publish a list of planning steps and information resources grouped around eight key questions you will probably be asked. We homed in on sources of practical information and advice for marketing practitioners so they can stay ahead as this evolves.

1) How bad is it really?

As you’re being asked to craft your organization’s response to COVID-19, it is important to separate the ongoing media event, sadly served up with too much sensationalizing and fake news, from the facts around this epidemic, as well as from personal / employee health risks and estimates of likely business and economic impact. Here are some useful resources grouped in those four categories of information:

  • Public health data: This Wikipedia page contains daily information and further links.
  • Personal / employee health risks: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers guidance for communications and precautions for employees.
  • Economic / business impact: McKinsey & Company is maintaining a regularly updated analysis of the virus’s economic implications and the likely business impact.
  • News and media fact-checking: A good source is FactCheck.org; enter “coronavirus” here.

2) How bad will it get?

To put the volume of media coverage in perspective, it’s useful to know a bit about how epidemics like the Coronavirus go viral, so to speak. For that, it helps to understand the mathematical propagation models that are quite good at forecasting growth rates, and that also allows modeling the impact of various containment techniques (e.g., quarantine, isolating infected folks, hygiene, etc.).

The links below lead to some beneficial models that you can peruse to deepen your understanding in 30 mins or less, which will help when you’ll be asked the inevitable question of “how bad will it get?”:

3) What about us? – Revise your growth forecasts to estimate business impact

Now that you know more about how bad the virus epidemic already is and likely will still get, and you have your hands on the pulse of a few, fact-based sources of information, you should partner with sales to see what changes there might need to be made to your short- and medium-term forecast for Q2 and 2020. Here are some considerations:

  • Model delayed sales velocity
    Past economic data from similar crises have shown that demand doesn’t necessarily go away and can rebound later. Now, that’s of course not the case for, say. Service industries (an unsold airline ticket can never be sold again), but for software purchases, for example, this crisis may only spell a delay in sales, not a complete cancellation.
  • Not attending events
    Events are getting canceled, or attendees are choosing to stay away. It’s prudent to model the compensatory lead generation activities you should launch to make up for lost events leads. For example, how can you make up the difference using, say, online ads, a stronger social media presence, free promotions, or an increase in email marketing?
  • Model supply constraints
    Even if you are not producing hardware and you might not be directly impacted (e.g., your team can work from home without loss of productivity), business models that require people to gather will most likely be impacted, some severely (like the travel and hospitality industries). So, if your vendors might be impacted, you should take that into consideration in your updated forecasts, as well.

4) How should we respond externally?

  • We’ve been watching the number of COVID-19 related ads and offers increase. The good ones provide advice, and many additional discounts or offer to accommodate delayed closes in anticipation of their customers wanting to conserve cash during the anticipated economic slowdown.
  • However, there is a fine line between well-intentioned advertisements, esp. those with meaningful offers, and “ambulance chasing.” This is a difficult time for many, esp. those who caught the virus and being seen as trying to profit from these problems can backfire. As can overt callousness, which now also seems to be on public display.
  • Offer to help: People remember those that helped them when times were hard, and so if it’d be meaningful to your organization or those you support to offer assistance, now is the time to do it. Be that shipping needed goods like masks or sanitizer, volunteering, or donating money to worthwhile initiatives, the recipients of your support will be grateful, and one day may even reciprocate or tell others about your generous support.
  • Provide guidance to PR about your internal and external response to COVID-19. For some ideas on how to steer your PR team, this link contains useful suggestions. This also means including your PR Crisis Communications team in any external communications about the company, e.g., about the impact of canceling (or not) of live events.
  • You might need to replace team members that have to stay home or, worse, are infected, and so it’s useful to line up replacement resources, e.g., contractors that can pinch-hit, as needed.

5) What are liabilities and legal issues we should be aware of?

  • Partner with HR and the executive team on consistent communications regarding employee travel, the need or the ability to work from home, or if any quarantine might be needed. Marketing and sales tend to be the teams in an organization traveling the most, and thus having clear and agreed to answers is essential to manage legal risks and potential exposures.
  • Liaise with your employment counsel and HR to review employee protections and employer rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as it relates to COVID-19 (i.e., actual or suspected diagnosis)
  • Also include your privacy counsel, as well, to be sure you are in compliance with national and regional employee privacy laws as far as what you can ask or reveal about the situation within the workforce.
  • Conduct a review of key contracts in your department to ensure each parties’ ability to meet obligations/timelines (e.g. support, product & service delivery, etc.). What are related termination rights? Find out if COVID-19 can fall under Force Majeure clauses.
    • Ensure communication with customers to let them plan and mitigate potential liability on their end
    • Touch base with vendors to see if their ability to provide you services or products will be impacted
  • Check your corporate liability insurance; many carriers are dropping coverage of COVID-19, and you want to avoid counting on the coverage when none is available.

(A big shoutout to the Adaptive Legal Group for their contribution to this section)

6) What are our HR and IT policies?

  • You should ask HR to publish guidance similar to this link if they have not already done so regarding travel, large meetings, working from home guidelines, and the availability of remote working infrastructure.
  • Publish and set up a real-time newsfeed, esp. maps of areas with many outbreaks.
  • If your teams are working remotely, ask IT to set up VPNs for your team so you can share sensitive information.

7) Who is most at risk?

  • Large teams, large office settings: The more people that work in physical proximity either at the office or at an event, the higher the likelihood they can be infected or, if they already are infected, can pass on their infection. A 3-person company runs a lower risk of passing on the virus than a campus where thousands of employees intermingle. So, the larger your company, the more urgent the need to manage the potential risk of spreading the infection.
  • Mortality risk goes up for persons over 50, esp. if they have other health issues such as weakened immune systems and can’t accommodate a risk of infection. The mortality risk of people over 80 is 100 times higher than for kids below ten years of age.
  • Facts around mortality rates are at this Slate article “COVID-19 Isn’t As Deadly As We Think.

8) What personal conduct and precautions should we suggest to our teams?

Don’t just think about avoiding your infection, also think about not passing it on (e.g., avoid passing around cash, don’t touch surfaces, don’t shake hands).

And, of course, advise staff to take the much-published precautions: Hygiene, don’t shake hands, maintain a distance, avoid crowds – “What You Can Do Right Now About the Coronavirus.

And finally

Some say that COVID-19 is nothing more than another flu and that it is being hyped by the media. We beg to differ (not to say that much coverage doesn’t do much more than adding to the collective anxieties): Any epidemic that can cost thousands of people’s lives should be taken seriously, and even if the eventual spread can be contained soon, the economic damage that will be done will likely be significant.

Most importantly: The more we do now in the way of prevention, the shorter the outbreak will be. Part of what can and should be done in the form of external communications can and should fall on the shoulders of marketing. Hence this outline of concrete steps marketers can initiate.

Hopefully, you will find this helpful.

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