Companies and brands have never behaved as well as they are right now. For the past few weeks, we’ve seen a level of compassion and caring from brands that is “Hall of Fame” worthy.

While this avalanche of good deeds and good intentions might be viewed as excessive by some, I’ve been impressed by the genuine way which brands have communicated during Covid-19.

Usually deemed as opportunistic, and even cynical, corporate communication has managed to avoid the pitfall of societal exploitation. In fact, the media and social networks are full of relevant initiatives. These actions are not only useful and generous, but they also legitimize the ever-so-challenged concepts of corporate purpose, social utility and CSR commitments. The total crisis induced by Covid-19 exacerbates the quest for meaning. It also reveals the desire to speak up and share, as well as the thirst for social connection. Ironically, social distancing has promoted proximity, and not in a false or disingenuous way. Rather, it has served as a litmus test between companies and their audiences which extends beyond marketing.

When the market and society reconcile around a social consensus

The urgency makes it possible to unite the market and society around a credible social consensus. This crisis, due to its unprecedented nature, gives companies and brands the opportunity to truly reveal the best of themselves. This is good news as corporate reputation is built on facts. The question is, how will this corporate behavior that restores communication credentials can be sustainably maintained? The crisis, no matter how strong, is a paroxysmal moment. This one will leave permanent marks for sure, but what will happen, once the shock has passed?

The word has replaced the message

Many bet on a pre- and a post-Covid. However, it is more likely to be “with”. So, in our new normal, will communicators be able to continue with this genuine and compassionate communication rather than returning to its old demons: self-centeredness, boasting and shamelessness?

This crisis has seen many brands return to the primary purpose of communications: educate, unite and mobilize. It works even better as the crisis has changed the posture, modifying the conditions of expression and admissibility of speeches. Businesses and brands will certainly not save the world but they can give a hand where needed. It works because they are responsible without boasting too much, show solidarity with humility, and contribute to a common project. The word has replaced the message.

We are all neighbors in the global village

By confronting society with its fragilities, the pandemic reminds us that we are all neighbors in the global village. For better or worse. The best, from companies and brands, is the solidarity they show towards their neighbors, whether local, regional or global. For example Royal Canin France, located near Montpellier, helps the Local Health Agency in Occitanie and the Nîmes Hospital, Coca Cola France is demonstrating responsibility by helping bars and restaurants get through the crisis by supporting the initiative #JaimeMonBistrot (#ILoveMyBistrot) which consists of keeping establishments’ cash flow by pre-ordering drinks. Endeavors make neighbors. These surges of generosity can only last for so long. Still, basing communication on good-neighborly relations is not only possible but also profitable. Covid-19 prevents large gatherings, of course, but relational communication formats have a future, whether physical or digital: tutorials online, pop-up stores in town, open doors at the factory, informal meetings with its community in real life… When the donation of masks is no longer necessary, it is the gift of an authentic relationship that companies and brands must continue to offer.

Ecosystemic neighborhood

If communication is about creating the conditions of fruitful and long-lasting relationships and, ultimately, obtaining social acceptability, then, for a company or a brand, it comes down to being a good neighbor: close, yet not intrusive, thoughtful yet not indiscreet, helpful yet not pushy. Proximity is not promiscuity: good neighborly relations require good manners!

Neighborhood is not only geographic, it is also ecosystemic. It is now an established fact that we live in a vulnerable world where everyone – every stakeholder – must take care of each other at the risk of causing devastating disasters. Good relations between neighbors imply that all stakeholders act in the interest of the common destiny to which they all belong. Now that the concept of “community” is the way to craft more and more relational communication strategies, one shall bring the concepts of neighborhood and corporate sociability into the communicators’ vocabulary.

Neighborhood is not only ethics (who would trust a dishonest neighbor?), but also a meaningful social dynamic, a reassuring, stimulating and even joyful co-existence… as long as the neighbor has a good sense of humor and a taste for entertainment! In this global pandemic, companies and brands were able to adopt the right attitude because they behaved like good neighbors. Let’s hope it lasts!

First published in French in trade media INfluencia on April 27, 2020

Stéphane Billiet
Stéphane Billiet
President - CEO, WE agency
Stéphane, CEO of We agency, brings more than 20 years of public relations experience. As a principal, he plays a strategic role in We agency’s accounts, especially regarding corporate matters and Issue and Crisis management. Before taking the reins of We agency, Stéphane was CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Paris from 2000 to 2012, counseling the world’s leading brands and companies. Prior to that, Stéphane served as Associate Manager in charge of the PR capacities of TBWACorporate. Stephane is a member of the board and past chairman of the French PR association Syntec Conseil en Relations Publics. He is also board director of Adetem, the first Association of Marketing professionals and an adjunct professor in the CELSA, a school of reference in the information and communication sciences within the University of Paris Sorbonne. He is a regular speaker and writer on matters related to public relations and reputation and published “Relations Publics, Refonder la confiance entre les entreprises, les marques et leurs publics” (Dunod). A father of two, Stéphane graduated from IAE Lyon III, a Business school. Outside of his professional life, he enjoys riding horses Sunday mornings.

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