PR Manager at Monarch Air Group, overseeing the company’s reputation and brand awareness on the media.
Externalities can disrupt any business. Some can be prevented, especially when there is a historic record of events. Being proactive rather than reactive is a decision that can be made. Then a pandemic hits the world and suddenly you are playing catch-up, which is an uncomfortable and unfamiliar position for leading players in any industry. Projections for the year can be fully discarded, as well as long-term planning. Welcome, uncertainty.
Thankfully, companies have acknowledged throughout the years that having a seat for a PR expert at the decision-making table is key for business success, rather than only inviting them to brief management when a bad piece about the firm hits the media. During uncertain times, communications and PR professionals play potentially the most important role in a company: dissecting the perception held by the public, your target audience, clients, stakeholders — you choose the word.
During a pandemic, perception in an industry like private aviation answers the following question: How do you feel about flying today? Safety, my dear colleagues, is the most important aspect in the business, and if there is any indecision on that matter, then strategic messaging should be a priority. Before aligning your message and deciding on your channels, you need to do some digging about the state of your audience to uncover the perception, which will determine the success of your messaging.
Issue management means constantly monitoring what is happening in your neighborhood. Some mistakenly think that this is a strategy only to be used during crisis management; the truth is, however, that a thorough issue management plan will help prevent potential crises. Awareness of what is happening requires constant adaptation because the stakeholder environment for any industry is dynamic. Your stakeholder map today will look different in six months, impacted by diverse social, economic and political cycles. Imagine that exercise when a global pandemic hits. Back to the drawing board.
For my company and other leading players in the private jet industry, that awareness translated into acknowledging all of the new policies and procedures in place to secure the safety of passengers, who are scattered in different regions around the world. Adapting that information and translating it for the public to understand and make the best decisions is just one piece of the puzzle. Timing, as I will discuss in greater detail below, is the other key aspect of the message delivery process.
Back to awareness. Monitoring what updates the aviation authorities are sharing daily, what the media is communicating regarding travel measures in different countries and what decisions other companies are taking to cope with the pandemic, especially during the initial stages, is issue management at its finest. Translating all those pieces of data into an aligned message for your stakeholders will serve as the building block of your communication strategy.
Within this phase, the tone of your messaging also needs to take shape. Understand that during the initial phases of a pandemic or other crises, when nothing makes sense within all involved parties, it is no time for a sales call or to drive action to increase bookings. Firms must adapt their tone and demonstrate that they are aware of all the adversities of the moment. Again, taking the pulse of perception, fueled by issue management, will allow you to craft successful messaging. Now, when is it time to engage?
If you think about it, timing is the secret sauce, the special ingredient that gels everything together. Timing was key to the success of Airbnb and Uber, for instance, more so than the business model or initial capital. They both launched during an economic crisis when hosts and drivers could benefit from some extra income. Timing is just as important when deciding when to convey your message during uncertainty.
When timed well, communications can help stakeholders cope with uncertainty and serve as the word of reason, a source of trust within the chaos. At Monarch Air Group, we delivered simple and proactive messages, transmitting every new piece of information to our stakeholders for them to make the best decisions.
Frequency stems from timing. At the initial stages of the pandemic, when little made sense because there was no recent point of comparison for the public, frequency needed to be high. Overcommunicating should not be doubted. After acknowledging that the public’s perception has plateaued to an informed state of the situation, frequency can decrease.
Timing when to resume commercial messaging will depend on the perception held by your stakeholders. Remember, before this stage, communication served an informative purpose only. The timing and the tone will be key to driving your message and increasing action — bookings, in the case of a private jet charter company — without forgetting about the context (awareness). You can deliver a commercial message during a pandemic, sure, but it must resonate and show that the safety of all your passengers and crew is most important. With that basic starting point, you can restart your strategic messaging.
Finally, registering what was successful and what needs improvement is paramount. This will make all the difference for the next crisis or pandemic. The lack of historic data will no longer be a valid excuse for not knowing how to drive your communications strategy in times of uncertainty. Therefore, noting the perception held by your target audience and how they react and interact with your communications will provide crucial insights to incorporate into your crisis communications and business continuity plan. The next pandemic must not come as a “surprise” — probably the word that scares us most as communications professionals.