How brand managers can show authenticity on COVID-19

It’s important to show you care, without seeming to be opportunistic. Here are some tips for striking a balance.


How are organizations showing empathy for their consumers and employees—without coming off as opportunists looking for a headline?

We asked Dustin York, director of undergraduate and graduate communications at Maryville University, to share his insights on brand managers that were using the right tone and sharing clear and effective messages.

One brand that York takes a close look at is UberEats, the food delivery wing of Uber that is seeing increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Is Uber getting it right? Here’s what York has to say:

Ragan: When it comes to efforts by UberEats, are they striking the right tone amid COVID-19?

York: I’d say yes, for the most part. A lot of large brands are doing really well. Through crisis communication and outreach, UberEats specifically is being very specific on what they’re doing to support communities.

The big play is that they’re waiving fees for local restaurants, showing community support. They’re trying to position themselves as the outlet for you to support your local community, and I think that’s a really interesting angle—and they are doing it very genuinely.

Also, the idea of waiving fees for medical employees working in the medical field is fantastic. The only way that that would backfire is if they’re doing interviews about it, but not actually spending money or resources to advertise directly towards those health workers.

The best play would be to make sure that you are spending those ad dollars and getting into the right outlet so the medical providers know that they can get UberEats.

Ragan: How should companies attempt to offer charitable services and goods? What makes an offer seem disingenuous?

York: …You have to look at your employees first before you help the community.  The organization’s first goal must be their employees. How are they supporting their employees? How are they supporting hourly employees? How are those people inhouse being supported? You can’t really help people outside your home before you help people inside your home.

After that, it’s looking at how to be charitable. How can you genuinely be a part of this? Donating and handing over a check is great, but [these efforts] should have the same goals as any time before [this crisis] when you were writing a check. Ultimately, you won’t be writing a press release or pushing media, you just write the check. You should not assume that anyone is going to cover it, but if they do then awesome, that is an added bonus.

At the end of the day, being genuine is worth more.


Ragan: Who’s doing a really good job on CSR?

York: I think there’s a lot of organizations that are hitting it on the base level (ads). There are even commercials pushing the message of social distancing. I think that’s fantastic… In some areas of the country that people don’t believe it’s as big of a deal as it is because it hasn’t hit them yet, them spending ad dollars to promote simply social distancing is really good.

…We should be hearing it from big brands like McDonald’s and the beer companies, but there are others who are being creative about it and those who are, will ultimately attract more eyeballs, more brand engagement and more long-term loyalty than a traditional commercial.

For example, one that I came across that I used in class as an example was Behr. They had a fantastic idea. They came up with a gallery of Zoom backgrounds, of nice-looking office spaces—a timber office space, traditional office space, etc. …They decided to make all of these Zoom backgrounds free, giving the user a  gallery, so they can flip through them very easily, and stop Google-searching backgrounds.

At the same time, they’re going to put that little bitty Behr logo in the bottom right or left of the Zoom background, so there is still branding associated with it.


Ragan: How can brand managers protect their reputation during the current crisis?

York: …The biggest and most tactical thing is how you communicate with employees. If you don’t do anything external, but you crush internally, you’re going to come away from this in a much better light than anyone else.

If you’re focused only on the external and thinking, “What commercial are we going to come out with?” and your employees aren’t communicated to effectively, then you’re going to lose this battle. So, the first step in any crisis situation is regular communication with employees.

Keep them updated, even if you don’t have new information. Let them know that they’re still a leader in the organization and that the organization is moving forward and keeping an eye on everything.


Ragan: What are some important lessons that we should learn from this current crisis?

York: A lot of organizations have mediocre crisis communication preps beforehand. But for most people that didn’t have one, this is shedding light on things that they should have prepared for. After COVID-19, these things are probably going to be part of future crisis plans—things like IT…For example, can you get people remote? Can you bring in media trainers? Do you need media trainers during crisis communication?

During this situation, you had to figure out how to do that remotely. For example, I’ve done media training for crisis management with one organization that was not prepared and they weren’t able to Zoom or utilize teleconferencing very easily, so that was a hurdle in order to get the media training that they needed.

…After this is all over, this will show that organizations must invest in remote crisis control options.


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