Reputation Success and Disasters in the age of COVID-19

We are now nearly two months into the COVID-19 pandemic and, we can now start to take stock of some of the most notable reputation successes and disasters.

Businesses have adapted to the new state of play with varying degrees of success – particularly when it comes to their reputation management and how they have treated their key stakeholders, such as customers and employees.

Over the years, how a business treats its customers and staff has become an increasingly important aspect of their employer brand, corporate profile and company reputation amongst today’s ethically-concious consumer base, and the public has been quick to make its voice heard on companies they feel have fallen short in this regard. This is particularly damaging in today’s social media-driven age, wherein we all now have the ability to declare our outrage instantly to a wide audience, rather than just our immediate friends and family.

Indeed, many consumers have pledged to vote with their wallets and boycott brands they feel have left ethics by the wayside during this crisis, and COVID-19 “blacklists” of offending businesses have quickly become a regular occurrence on social media.

On a day to day basis we advise clients on reputation management, employer brand activity and corporate profiling, so let’s take a look at some of the brands getting this crucial area right during COVID-19 and who – unfortunately – we’ve seen miss the mark so far.

Good reputation examples – who is getting it right?

Hotel Football – Football themed hotel close to Old Trafford

While the football industry has so far had a mixed public response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Manchester United legends Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville were quick to demonstrate how top footballers can turn their wealth and resources to a good cause.

Not only did the pair pledge to keep all staff on full pay throughout the pandemic, they have also opened up their Hotel Football and Stock Exchange hotels in Manchester city centre to key workers free of charge, opening up 176 beds for key NHS staff. As well as creating an extremely positive public reaction and an example for the rest of the industry to follow, the move generated blanket positive media coverage with the likes of the BBC and Sky News.

Home Bargains

As the pandemic escalated in March, value retail chain Home Bargains reacted rapidly, announcing a £30 million fund to support staff who needed to self-isolate during COVID-19, as well as setting aside the first hour of trading each day specifically for the elderly and vulnerable. The business also employed clever quick-win tactics to generate further positive brand sentiment, such as temporarily rebranding to (Stay at Home) Bargains on its social media channels, to encourage adherence to social distancing measures.

These initial moves were received extremely positively, generating widespread media coverage both regionally and nationally, and competing brands were also quick to adopt similar measures – such as dedicated shopping hours for the vulnerable – in the following weeks.

Reputation disasters – who has missed the mark (so far…)

Sports Direct

Following Boris Johnson’s original order to begin a nationwide lockdown, Sports Direct remained open, requiring its staff to continue working throughout the pandemic by using the argument that the need to exercise in lockdown make it an “essential” business (while introducing price hikes on home gym equipment of up to 50% to match).

This move certainly did not go down well with the public, who were quick to denounce the brand and pledge to take their money elsewhere moving forwards. The move even generated negative publicity nationally, with Piers Morgan being quoted on Good Morning Britain saying: “We will remember the companies who stepped up to care for their employees and customers and we’ll remember those who abused their employees”, in reference to the brand’s actions. If you’ve managed to outrage this particular professional controversialist, you’ve obviously done something truly out of step.

Despite a quick U-turn and public apology from CEO Mike Ashley, the reputational damage was already done – a testimonial to the importance of getting these sensitive communications right first time.

You can even see how brand sentiment changed virtually overnight via a quick Google Trends search – on March 24th (the day Sports Direct announced it would be defying lockdown measures), interest in the search term “Sports Direct boycott” skyrocketed, as evidenced by the below graph:


Millionaire Wetherspoons boss, Tim Martin – often a divisive public figure – came under fire after telling his workers across the country that they would only be paid up until the date that the pubs were last open, until the government was able to fulfil its pledge to pay 80% of their wages.

In an attempt to repair the reputational damage that stemmed from this initial announcement, Martin then, like a man returning to a wasp nest for further stinging, exacerbated the negative response. Through a recorded video message to his staff, rather than taking measures to set the minds of his 40,000+ workforce at rest, he instead suggested that his people look to apply for jobs at the supermarket Tesco, generating a fresh wave of negative publicity across both traditional and social media channels.

It should be noted that the business recently made a screeching U-Turn on this and agreed to begin paying its workers weekly, however the reputational damge of this initial mishandling of stakeholder communications cannot be understated.

Virgin Atlantic

Perhaps the most topical corporate PR example currently given billionaire CEO Richard Branson’s very public bailout plea, Virgin Atlantic recently came under fire after asking staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave due to a raft of flight cancellations, and falling demand levels, created by the virus. While this was of course before the government’s job retention scheme was announced to protect businesses from situations like this, the announcement from the multi-billion pound company generated a great deal of negative publicity for the brand.

Once again, this move generated significant backlash, with #boycottvirgin becoming a trending topic across social media and shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald publically condemning Branson’s actions.

While the full extent of the damage to both Virgin Atlantic and Richard Branson’s personal brand is yet to be seen, it is likely to be significant if public opinion is anything to go by. Indeed, an online petition for Branson and Virgin to be excluded from Government funding until private assets are sold has generated over 600,000 signatures at the time of writing – an extremely public outcry against a businessman that usually enjoys a positive public profile.

Others who have adapted ludicrously well to the ‘extremely wealthy pleading poverty and not observing lockdown properly’ model include a raft of Premier League football club owners – with Spurs’ Daniel Levy to the fore – Amazon head Jeff Bezos and Manchester City’s Kyle Walker who, in an an unprecedented situation facing the world, managed to scrape the barrel so lowly, he’s likely to have assured himself a place on the self-inflicted PR disaster lists for all time.

PR fails vs good reputation management – what can we take from this?

In these uncertain times, it’s very easy to make a snap, short-term decision in the interest of protecting your business. However, given that the consquences of these decisions are likely to be felt long after life has begun to return to normal, it’s arguably never been more important to take a step back and consider the wider stakeholder impact of any decision made. 

If you’re wondering where to begin when it comes to assessing your business reputation, our OneEval Reputation platform is specifically built to help businesses ascertain exactly where they stand, as well as the areas in which they can begin to improve it.

Predating and now incorporating an extended version of the AMEC Measurement Framework, OneEval Reputation is our award-winning reputational tool that starts with a Reputation Audit to prioritise your PR and marketing, then tells you both where and how you can tell your story better and the pressure that needs to be applied to positively influence perceptions. Subsequently, you can better focus on the areas that matter, supporting you in both maintaining and even improving your business reputation as we continue to grapple with the realities of COVID-19.

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