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April 10, 2020 // Opinion  //       //  Opinion

Leadership and Solidarity: Leading the Covid-19 Battle in India

By: Pranav Kumar

As we enter the second half of the 21-day lockdown in India with hopes to ‘flatten the curve’ of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s a good time to examine some marketing and communications undercurrents shaping the new reality in India:

1. Clarity of communications underpins everything: Considering the velocity at which COVID-19 unraveled, this very basic tenet of crisis communications couldn’t be truer than now. Rallying 1.3 billion Indians to stay at home couldn’t have been possible without simple but creative messaging. These included: #JantaCurfew (meaning “people curfew” in Hindi), which served as a precursor to the larger lockdown or pivoting to the No. 21 with a simple rationale – If people didn’t follow the 21-day lockdown, the country could compromise 21 years of its progress. 21 days = 21 years became a compelling call to action from Prime Minster Narendra Modi. 

2. Command and control: We’ve seen some remarkable examples of brands leading by example, from moving beyond the shock of the pandemic, to establishing command and control in their communications and outreach efforts. Proactively communicating service disruptions and mitigation strategies meant that elaborate crisis frameworks and planning were mostly in place (though one couldn’t have predicted a scenario of such magnitude). Airlines, which typically have more crisis contingencies in place, were swift to manage proactive communications, such as India’s largest low-cost carrier IndiGo. The airline moved expediently to establish strong and preemptive communications flow on flight cancellations, eventual suspension of operations and address concerns about refunds from passengers.
Clearly, there will be lots to learn from a scenario-planning and management perspective in future crisis communications workshops.
3. Compassion: Organizations and their leaders need to be visible, authentic, have a guiding purpose to drive forward their businesses and serve the communities where they operate. At this crucial juncture of the lockdown in India, we have seen extraordinary compassion from companies to collect funds and feed the less privileged or those displaced. Notably, restaurant aggregator and food delivery start-up Zomato, with its ‘Zomato Feeding India Initiative’, collected more than $3 million to feed India’s migrant workers. Hotel chains, such as Indian Hotels Company (of Taj fame) Marriott to local operator Lemon Tree, now offer idle inventory as quarantine facilities, accommodating India’s healthcare professionals from the front lines and serving meals to the needy.
We have seen a paradigm shift in corporate social responsibility that will echo in the years to come.
4. PSA’s and marketing: The conversation on hygiene and washing hands to keep COVID-19 at bay has never been more important. Venerable brands Dettol and LifeBuoy have been quick to up the ante on the importance of handwashing and educate people at large. Apart from working with a range of India’s leading influencers, brands in India have leveraged short-form video platform TikTok. Dettol’s hand-wash challenge for example, notched up 8 billion views in just four days on TikTok. Expect more innovation there!
5. Uniting for greater good: It’s important for brands to come together and channelize their efforts for those in need as well as for business continuity. From Uber partnering with local eCommerce platforms Flipkart and Big Basket for delivering essentials to consumer goods major ITC partnering with pizza chain Dominos for deliver supplies – brands in India have clearly set the tone for unprecedented solidarity and care in unison.
6. Misinformation and misperceptions: Exacerbating the pandemic is the continuing streak of misinformation and fake news, which remain persistent problems whether in good times or bad. From alleged COVID-19 cures to rumors about shortages of essential goods and hoarding, the government and communities continue to grapple with this menace. Similarly, brands struggle with misinformation on their products’ safety and whether they’re carriers of the virus from plants in China. This is a significant challenge for communications teams.
7. Communications priorities: #stayathome campaigns are centerstage with brands doing their bits to encourage people to comply with the lockdown. In addition, employee engagement and customer outreach is a top priority, confirmed through a COVID-19 webinar survey by communications industry journal PRovoke in partnership with Asia Pacific Association of Communications Directors (APACD).
As we navigate these challenging times ahead, communications will play a vital role as clients navigate the new normal and manage disruptions in their businesses. As initial conversations around partial lifting of the lockdowns around the world start to begin, it’s important in equal measure, to start thinking of a limited or post-CVOID world to be ready for the ‘new normal’.

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Pranav Kumar leads Allison+Partners in India and works closely with its teams to provide client support across corporate reputation, business and brand communications remits. He brings nearly two decades of communications experience predominantly on the agency side a focus on crisis counsel, issues management, c-suite communications advisory and thought leadership. Public AffairsCorporate

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