The biggest thing is the spread of misinformation” - Kate Hartley, Co-founder of Polpeo

Kate Hartley gives us an insight into how the world of crisis communications has changed this year and her judgement of what brands and communications professionals need to watch out for in the months ahead.

“There was a pretty heart-stopping moment towards the end of March”

“Our model is virtual anyway…most of our team work remotely. Our simulation technology is all online as well, but what was interesting is that we tended to run workshops where we would usually have people sitting in a room. Overnight that stopped. There was a pretty heart-stopping moment towards the end of March when we saw all our simulations being cancelled.”

“But we took a breath and realised that we could do the whole thing completely virtually. We slightly changed the delivery model and started delivering these simulations virtually.”

“People are realising that they don’t need to be in a room together”

“There were some surprising moments. When we started doing the simulations remotely, one of our big clients said that this would potentially open up more markets for us because we don’t have things like associated travel or hotel costs.”

“I’m usually quite an optimist, but I really struggled at the beginning of the pandemic. I’m an extrovert, I like to get my energy from people and to suddenly not do face to face meetings was very hard. I’m lucky that my co-founder is the most eternal optimist. When I was struggling, she really picked me up, and everyone needs that.”

“Interestingly, a lot of the business that was cancelled is now coming back for later on in the year. There are some industries where there’s going to be change. We were doing a lot of work in the travel sector, so clearly that’s not coming back any time soon. But we have found new business from markets that have been resilient. We’re doing a lot in Hong Kong and China at the moment. Initially, that area of the world was coming out of lockdown when we were at the beginning of it.”

On whether firms who want to reschedule simulations for later on in the year will want to be back in the office, Kate is surprised by the trends. “I assumed that people would want to come back to the office and do the simulation physically, but actually, a lot of people are planning to do it virtually. People are realising that they don’t need to be in a room together and that saves a huge amount of time and money.”

“What people will remember moving forward is how they were treated throughout this period”

On examples of how companies were dealing with the challenges of the lockdown period, Kate said: “There were some awful stories from the beginning. What people will remember moving forward is how they were treated throughout this period. I was talking to a tech consultant the other day who said their data showed that those suppliers who stuck by their clients through this difficult time, those who took fee cuts, will now be having their contracts renewed rather than being replaced. Brands are really respecting the fact that they stood by them at difficult times.”

“The brands who did well for me are the ones who really listened”

“Brands started to really listen to what people wanted. People wanted reassurance and information in a limited way, but they also wanted entertainment to break the horrible news up. The brands who did well for me are the ones who really listened, set up social listening and understood what their customers wanted. That right there is the key for communication in any sort of crisis. Companies tend to think from their own point of view in a crisis and what they should be thinking is what do people need to hear, what do they want from me?”

“We’re seeing huge levels of anxiety on a level larger than before, we’re seeing shaming behaviour in real life and on social media, eg. shaming people not wearing marks. And we’re seeing outrage and a spread of misinformation like we’ve never seen before on things that impact people’s physical health. These are all trends that we’ve been seeing over the past few years, but they are just ballooning now.”

“The biggest risk at the moment is the spread of misinformation.”

“People are anxious, they’re worried and frightened. Therefore, they’re going to listen to the information that confirms their own biases. Whether that’s political bias or, just plain fear-mongering. You see that in relation to coronavirus and also with other things. There’s the example with the brand Wayfair, a home furnishings company/ There was a rumour going around on social media, which saw Wayfair trending on Twitter, that they were using its own cupboards to traffic children. It was the most bizarre thing. Wayfair had to put out a statement saying this was not true and although that has nothing to do with COVID-19, I think it does because people are anxious, making them more susceptible to this kind of misinformation than ever before.”

“I think this is the time for us to shake up the industry”

“We will definitely be working virtually until the end of this year. I think we have two or three clients that want to do in-person simulations this year… out of hundreds. I think at some point we’ll go back to doing both.”

“The PR industry has had a tendency to do things the same way because that’s how they’ve always been done. I think this is the time for us to shake up the industry. I think we’re going to move towards value selling rather than hour selling and the need to innovate and productise what we do. We need to be really clear about the value that we’re bringing.”