COVID-19: Three communications responses (Part II)

July 31, 2020

Norihito Atari
Dentsu Public Relation


In only a few short months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses around the world to reassess the way they operate. In the first installment in this series examining the response of Japan’s communications sector, we identified three key points for companies and PR professionals to be aware of in the present moment. Here I would like to explore these in more detail.


1.) Internal communications attuned to the concerns of employees

First let us consider messaging from top management to employees during Japan’s state of emergency and beyond.

On a biennial basis, Dentsu PR’s internal think tank, the Corporate Communication Strategic Studies Institute (CSI), conducts the Corporate PR Capability Survey. This study seeks responses from a broad range of businesses, and these are analyzed using CSI’s proprietary Octopus Model, providing a snapshot of Japan’s corporate public relations landscape that can be used to identify common challenges.

The results of the 2018 survey showed an increase in the degree to which businesses identified employees among their key stakeholders. This can be seen in the context of Japan’s shrinking workforce and the resulting challenges in securing and retaining appropriate personnel. And in response, many businesses have sought to improve employee engagement and retention by distancing themselves from Japan’s once-grueling, male-dominated workplace culture.

As a result, measures aimed at improving employee wellbeing and work-life balance have been accompanied by initiatives focused on diversity and gender equality. The pandemic has cast this trend into even sharper focus, with unavoidable disruption to working practices prompting widespread unease among staff.

In the tourism sector, which has been hit particularly hard by the present crisis, the CEO of one high-end hotel operator went to the media with an impassioned address. “It is at times like this that we must show our true strength as a business,” he exhorted, adding: “This is not the time to be disheartened.” It seems likely that this message was aimed as much at employees as consumers, designed to boost pride, motivation, and engagement among staff on the front line.

Moving forward, messaging and initiatives that display a keen awareness of social concerns can become a key means of boosting solidarity within an organization, and as such should be a key element of PR strategy.


2.) Corporate messaging that works with the practical limitations of the present moment

This second point speaks to one of the questions that inspired this article: Amid the national mood of jishuku, or “self-restraint,” should corporations refrain from proactive communications? The answer has to be an emphatic “no.”

As a matter of fact, particularly for listed businesses, this is precisely the time to steadily highlight their corporate mission and key activities as an expression of the main social challenges they are seeking to address.

Furthermore, at moments such as this, it is also particularly important to be open with market players and other stakeholders regarding internal matters such as planned changes in management or managerial structure.

At the same time, in order to reduce the risk of viral transmission by avoiding the “three Cs” laid out by the Japanese authorities (closed spaces, crowding, and close-contact settings), it is important to engage with the emerging trend of conducting important announcements online.

However, during an online announcement, factors such as connectivity issues or background noise can adversely impact the ease with which your message is received. For that reason, it is important for participants to speak 20–30% more slowly than they would at a conventional press conference staged at a hotel or conference hall. This in turn demands concise, elegant speechwriting, and the core message should be distilled down to its purest essence.

To further aid viewer comprehension, prior rehearsal is also a must, both in terms of the technical elements and factors such as speakers’ eye contact with the camera.

Another point that is coming to light is a heightened need for speakers to impart a degree of personal, emotional resonance, without which the viewer’s concentration is likely to wander. The abovementioned message by the luxury hotel chain CEO was effective precisely because it contained a frank expression of the CEO’s own sentiments.


3.) An emphasis on social contribution through CSR/SDGs

Finally, let us consider the CSR activities that are an essential part of any modern business portfolio. We are now seeing a wave of CSR- and SDG-related initiatives informed by the present pandemic.

In February and March, after schools across Japan were officially instructed to close but before most firms had implemented widespread work-from-home measures, there was a prominent trend of corporations donating essential supplies to facilities providing after-school care for elementary school children.

And as the increasing number of COVID-19 infections began to place strain on medical services, we saw more and more messaging and practical support aimed at front-line medical professionals.

Even firms with no ostensible connections to healthcare began to examine how their core business activities could be leveraged to make a social contribution appropriate to the present moment.

For example, one budget hotel chain became the first hospitality provider to offer its services to those wanting to self isolate with mild COVID-19 symptoms, attracting a favorable response from social media users. Meanwhile, employees at businesses that have publicly provided support for medical workers have also expressed their pride upon seeing their companies’ actions reported in the media. While there have, of course, been some negative responses, these have not been enough to incur any lasting reputational damage.

Moving forward, CSR activities that engage wholeheartedly with social issues seem likely to reap surefire benefits––in terms of both employee engagement, and steady enhancement of corporate reputation.

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About the author


Photo: Norihito Atari, Corporate Communication Strategic Studies Institute (CSI), Dentsu Public RelationsNorihito Atari
Dentsu Public Relations
Director, Corporate Communications Division
Corporate Communication Strategic Studies Institute (CSI)
Specialist in communications surveys, providing interview training, message development, and other quantitative research-based corporate communications support in the field of issue management to clients in sectors including infrastructure, manufacturing, BtoC business, and both national and local government.


This article was adapted from original Japanese content published by Dentsu-Ho, May 15, 2020 (view original article)

Banner image by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash




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