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Welcome to the Crisis Communications Master Class Sponsored by 2020

If issues management and crisis communications are your thing, 2020 has been a tour de force.

Initial reports of COVID-19 outbreak. Massive Australian bushfires. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announce they no longer wish to be “Royals.” President Trump faces an impeachment trial in the Senate. The United Kingdom drops out of the European Union. Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others die in a helicopter crash. An untested election app causes the Iowa primary results to be delayed for weeks. The NCAA cancels March Madness and sports leagues around the globe halt their seasons. The Dow Jones sets a record for the largest single-day stock market drop, then breaks that record just four days later, only to set new highs later in the year. Japan postpones the summer Olympic games. Schools close their doors and shift to online learning. Dozens of countries ban international travelers to slow the pandemic. Videotape of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparks massive Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world. Police chiefs in Portland, Richmond and Atlanta resign. Global economies contract and the U.S. GDP decline wipes out five years of growth. Northeastern states require travelers from other states to quarantine for 14 days. Communities across the South remove Confederate monuments under public pressure. Not wearing a face mask becomes a political statement. Executives at companies ranging from CrossFit to Bon Appetit and Adidas to Solid8 resign following racism allegations. High-profile Twitter accounts, including Bill Gates’, Jeff Bezos’ and Barack Obama’s, are hacked. More than 50 million Americans file first-time unemployment claims. Advertisers boycott Facebook and Instagram for allegedly not removing hate group content. “The Ellen Show” becomes the latest #MeToo flashpoint. The port and much of downtown Beirut are destroyed by a massive blast. Wildfires in several western states rage for weeks. President Trump tests positive for COVID-19. The FBI foils a plot by white supremacists to kidnap the governor of Michigan. The COVID-19 confirmed death toll tops 300,000 in the U.S. The Atlantic hurricane season sets a record for named storms. And, we just witnessed a presidential election unlike any we’ve ever experienced.

Without a doubt, 2020 is a Crisis Communications Master Class.

The torrent of damaged reputations, business disruptions, economic upheaval and public health uncertainty has made it impossible to execute communications plans, yet there are companies gaining credibility by taking stands and making the right calls on critical issues. Here are nine memorable ways brands responded during a year most of us will want to forget as soon as possible.

  1. Standing by Employees: Companies from Target and CVS to Darden Restaurants and REI stepped forward to maintain pay for workers even when retail locations were forced to close and revise paid sick policies so workers would not lose income if they became ill during the pandemic. All 30 Major League Baseball teams pledged to create funds of $1 million to pay stadium workers who would not get game-day income this season, and a number of players contributed to these funds. CEOs at Delta Airlines, Marriott Hotels and Texas Roadhouse Restaurants announced they would not take a salary or bonus during 2020 so those funds could go to paying frontline workers who might otherwise have been furloughed.
  2. Pivoting Priorities: Companies shifted to make needed medical equipment and supplies. Ford converted production lines to produce face shields for hospital workers as well as air-purifying respirators. Clorox went from marketing 450 SKUs of cleaning products to just 45, reducing what it was sending to retail outlets and focusing on the needs of hospitals, nursing homes and other caregivers. Alcoholic beverage makers from Woodford Reserve to Rogue Ales & Spirits made hand sanitizer. Prada produced hospital gowns, while Brooks Brothers made masks.
  3. Committing to Diversity and Inclusion: As Black Lives Matter protests grabbed worldwide attention, a host of brands took public stances, including Nike, Levi Strauss and Hennessey. Cash was donated for minority scholarships, to provide grants to Black-owned businesses hit by COVID-19 and to fund social justice initiatives. Companies made commitments to hiring goals, and some began disclosing minority staffing levels.
  4. Supporting Frontline Medical Staff: Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt, along with American Express, donated thousands of hotel room nights to medical workers around the country, giving them a place to stay and recharge between long shifts caring for COVID-19 patients. Iroquois Healthcare Association launched a new phase of the Caring Gene® campaign at the start of the pandemic to recruit frontline caregivers for long-term care and home healthcare organizations. Lufthansa Group allowed medically trained employees to take paid leaves so they could volunteer their services to healthcare facilities.
  5. Tackling Hunger: Rich Products made more than $2 million in food and financial donations worldwide, including grants targeting restaurant and grocery store workers hit by the pandemic. Publix Supermarkets developed a program to assist consumers who suddenly could not afford to feed their families and farmers who saw markets disappear when restaurants and schools closed. The company launched an initiative to buy millions of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and more than a half million gallons of milk, donating the products to food banks across the U.S. World Central Kitchen launched “Restaurants for the People” to buy meals directly from struggling restaurants and donate them to Americans in need. A coalition of chefs and restaurateurs in Westchester County, N.Y., joined to fight hunger for hospitality and food service workers with a “Million Gallon” soup challenge.
  6. Helping Teachers: With the shift to remote learning, teachers found themselves in need of tools. Logitech offered K-12 teachers free webcams and headsets. Zoom offered its products free to public schools and lifted its 40-minute limit. The New York Times made their online version available free to teachers and high school students.
  7. Addressing Economic Hardships: Most utilities stopped collections and shutoff activity, either by government mandate or voluntarily. Many went above and beyond to help struggling communities. National Grid proposed a $50 million COVID-19 relief fund to help vulnerable residential and business customers. The company donated $1 million across New York for hunger relief and provided economic development support to businesses producing critical pandemic supplies. The city of Charlotte launched an initiative throughout the city called StreetEats, closing roads to provide more space for outdoor dining opportunities to support local restaurants that have had their dining rooms closed during the ongoing pandemic.
  8. Responding to the Storms: When a hurricane hits the U.S., among the first to arrive with relief is the American Red Cross. They are backed by an army of volunteers and corporations making cash and in-kind donations. AVANGRID, Bank of America, Kroger, Mastercard and The Walt Disney Company are among the many companies that support this mission. Companies that serve utilities, infrastructure and building firms also needed to fill the supply chain with replacement parts and equipment. One example is how Prysmian Group ramped up production at three of its cable manufacturing plants, going into overtime mode to rapidly supply 1,300 miles of transmission cable to replace power lines wiped out along the Gulf Coast in just one storm, enabling utility crews to restore power to millions of residents.
  9. Raising Spirits: The Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa used a webcam perched on its roof and beach chairs to spell out inspirational messages, offering a dose of Florida sunshine to the world during the pandemic. The beach blurbs included “God Bless USA,” “Healthcare Heroes” and “TY 1st Responders”.

If 2020 teaches public relations executives anything, it must be that when events turn the news feed into a non-stop stream of negative stories, there is room for brands to stand out by being empathetic, intelligent and flexible. Hopefully, these lessons will stick. The 2021 class session is about to begin.