News and Insights

The New Communications Playbook for Philanthropic Efforts During the Pandemic

April 29, 2020

There are a few steps organizations can take to avoid having their communications and marketing efforts labeled COVID washing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some of the darkest days for many, while at the same time teaching us about the human condition and unearthing incredible acts of selflessness and charitable giving.

It has also completely changed the communications and marketing landscape, causing some organizations to come under fire for promoting altruistic efforts that appear to have alternative motives.

Even the best-intentioned announcements, tweets or donations have come under scrutiny for being thinly veiled marketing ploys. In fact, social media has even coined a new term for these efforts: COVID washing—when a business or brand tries to capitalize or exploit the coronavirus for their own gain.

Perhaps the most publicized example of a brand being accused of COVID washing for philanthropic efforts gone awry is the dress debacle involving fashion brand Draper James, founded by the popular actress Reese Witherspoon.

In a series of social media posts and morning show media mentions, the brand was touted for its plans to give away its coveted and expensive dresses to teachers. What the brand failed to mention is that there was only a limited number of dresses to give away; 250 to be exact. As the New York Times reported, “By the close of the application period, Draper James had almost one million requests—which was approximately seven times the total number of dresses they had sold in 2019.”

Unfortunately, by the time the company tried to rectify the issue it was too late. And the missteps only persisted as the brand continued to email applicants marketing promotions even after the giveaway had ended, infuriating their potential customer base further.

While the Draper James disaster is just one example of well-intentioned CSR marketing campaign gone wrong, it certainly is not the only organization experiencing PR and marketing gaffes amid the crisis. Indeed, the crisis has highlighted the need for a new communications playbook for PR professionals in the pandemic.

Luckily, there are a few steps organizations can take to avoid having their communications and marketing efforts labeled COVID washing.

First, assess the industry (and your assets). In this critical time of need, anything we can do to help one another is a step in the right direction. However, there have been incredible stories of businesses leveraging the assets they had on hand to help in the fight against COVID-19. Fashion brands shifted production to create face masks, fragrance companies used their resources to make additional hand sanitizer, and tech businesses have used their infrastructure solutions to help build and equip additional hospitals. If your business is struggling to find ways to help, look no further than your industry peers and the assets within your own organization for inspiration. But before promoting any efforts externally, communications teams should asses any unintended consequences of these efforts and how they stack up against similar industry peers to avoid negative feedback or consumer sentiment.

Second, know your audience. During this time, it is imperative for organizations to acknowledge the social, financial and personal realities of the pandemic. All communications should empathize with people’s circumstances and offer practical and useful solutions or information to core audiences. For example, setting up a relief fund and offering employee matching programs sounds like an excellent endeavor, unless you are also furloughing, laying off or reducing the salaries of the staff you are asking to contribute to the fund.

Finally, remove (marketing) barriers. As exhibited by the Draper James blunder, sending promotional emails or requiring contact information as a barrier to entry for COVID resources is not always the most sensitive way to provide access to goods and services. It can be perceived as tone-deaf and alienate customers or partners in the process.

A blog post I recently read on PR Daily summed it up well for PR professionals trying to communicate on behalf of businesses right now: “Get creative but be honest with yourself about the value you [or your business] can really bring to the table. If you create genuinely useful and interesting campaigns to help others make it through this incredibly tough period, those who follow your brand will remember for years to come.”

While the pandemic has created global anxiety, one thing is abundantly clear: how businesses address the challenges of today will shape our world for years to come. As communicators, we have an important role to play in helping navigate through this crisis by making our audience, whether that be colleagues or customers, aware of the valuable resources available to those who need them most, and not just look for marketing leads or the next big campaign idea.