Interview with Zohare Ali Shariff, CEO APR "Radio is a powerful medium for crisis communication during COVID-19"
As the world experiences one of the most debilitating and unprecedented health and economic crises of recent times, corporations have a tough task on their hands—how to continue to reach out to their customers and target audiences while keeping business afloat. BR Research sat down with Zohare Ali Shariff on a virtual Zoom call to discuss what communication challenges Pakistani businesses are facing today, how they are handling it and what strategies would work best to keep customer loyalty intact as the country collectively fights the COVID-19 plight. Zohare is a PR and communications professional who heads Asiatic Public Relations (APR) Network. Here are edited transcripts.
BR Research: Arguably, the government—at the Federal and the Provincial level—have one of the biggest communication obligations at the moment, not only to share progress updates with the people but to keep mass hysteria at bay. What messages does the government need to put out and what specific communication strategy measures would you suggest?
Zohare Ali Shariff: A communication strategy generally, and especially in a crisis, needs to do three things – inform, inspire, involve. In the present COVID-19 crisis, informing the people would entail sharing accurate and updated facts with the publics regularly, even daily, like the British and some other governments are doing through a daily media briefing, telecast live—headed by a key minister and more importantly, an epidemiologist and head of National Health Service as members. The daily update has to be honest, factual and without bombast or populist rhetoric. The second objective is to inspire. This should serve to motivate the public to be united as a nation, not as individual provinces, to fight this pandemic. And the third objective is to involve. The government should work to instill a deep sense of responsibility across society, so that every single individual feels it a sacred duty to strictly adhere to safety measures given and follow the rules, even as these are modified from time to time in line with the evolving ground realities.
In general, the government has to think about who its audience is, what the messages are and what medium should be used to widely reach these audiences. We know the target audience is very wide; but we also know a huge share of this—particularly those amongst the rural populations do not have access to television or newspapers. To my knowledge, radio is one of the most powerful mediums in reaching the wider audiences across urban as well as rural Pakistan. The government needs to utilize this medium. The second important factor to consider is language. A lot of Pakistani audiences do not speak or understand Urdu. Is the government communicating in different local languages? Taking these points in stock would really fine-tune government’s communication strategy.
BRR: Demand for non-essential goods and services has slumped around the world as well as in Pakistan. Companies are watching revenues plunge, many have had to lay off employees; others have raised prices to protect margins and so on. What is the best strategy moving forward for corporations?
ZAS: There cannot be one strategy or line of action for all in the corporate sector. Too many variables are at work—the nature of business of the company, its size, the number of its employees, financial strength and so forth. However, every business must consider laying off people only as the very last resort, and instead try to achieve savings in other operational costs. Some sectors like tourism, aviation and hospitality have seen their business and revenues plummet to absolute zero, and in such cases layoffs, or at least pay cuts may be inevitable. However, it is sad to see that some other businesses which have flourished for decades, who have presumably paid off the initial investment long time ago, and who have huge financial reserves or depth, have also resorted to lay-offs in the very first month of the crisis. Companies who are not laying off people and who are even ready to bear losses now, will find that once things are back to some state of normalcy, their employees will exhibit fierce loyalty and give much higher productivity to help their company make up for the losses.
BRR: How can corporations use these times to develop their brand or would brands in Pakistan rather not spend on brand building at the moment?
ZAS: This is obviously not the time for traditional brand building as consumers have cut back spending to only the essentials, besides being deeply stressed out. Companies should use these times to plan for the future and really delve into research and analysis of what consumers will need post COVID-19, and prepare for it. It is obvious that whenever the pandemic ends, the world will not be the same. There might be some initial euphoric consumer spending on all the things people have missed out on in the long months of the lockdown, but I think consumer habits and priorities will have changed post COVID-19 and things getting back to ‘normal’ will not be easy. To quote from the classic novel, The Plague by Nobel Laureate Albert Camus, ‘Destruction is an easier, speedier process than reconstruction.’ So the brands which can accurately predict what these new consumer wants will be, and have used these times to be prepared with new offerings to meet these wants will be the winners.
One thing to note here is that the world has started to change. The classical school of thought that businesses should only care about maximizing their profits and serving their shareholders has evolved. Customers do care about how companies act at different times. Corporations recognize now—especially in developed nations—that they have to create some kind of shared value in the society. They have to look after their employees, the community and the environment. This feeds directly into their brand policy and how they can accumulate brand equity.
BRR: Do you see growing social distancing, especially if it's prolonged to 8-12 months, will give strength to e-commerce? If so, then how would branding and marketing change in an increasing e-commerce world?
ZAS: Yes, definitely. E-commerce became a way of life in most developed countries several years ago already. Pakistan has been far behind in this for several reasons, including difficulty in making online payments (remember that only about 10 percent of the population has bank accounts), a culture of buying things like daily groceries on credit from the corner store, high level of illiteracy and so on. Things began changing when easy to use online payment systems like uPaisa were introduced. Also online marketing platforms like OLX gave a huge boost to e-commerce. Today, because of home isolation many more people who had never before tried out e-commerce, because of an apprehension of technology or whatever other reason, are getting into e-commerce. So as e-commerce becomes a habit in Pakistan too, brand marketing will almost certainly adapt to this new sales avenue by reaching online shoppers in more innovative ways.
BRR: How responsive do you think Pakistani corporations have been in relation to their communication with their customers so far in this crisis?
ZAS: Frankly I have not done any in-depth or specific study of this. My general impression is that there is always room to do more and do better. The key for companies and brands at this time is to avoid communications which even vaguely comes across as self-serving, and focus on communications which serves to reassure customers and consumers. People need reassurance more than anything else at this time.
BRR: In the age of misinformation how do you suggest corporations strategize themselves?
ZAS: Today there is both misinformation and an overload of information. So the challenge has two facets – how to counter negative propaganda and how to maintain recall and stand out from the crowd. One classic rule of PR and communications is that if you don’t talk about yourself, others will! So it is important that companies maintain continuity of communications with their defined target audiences. And beyond this they need to ensure their communication is credible and rooted in the needs and wants of the recipients. Unfortunately, some companies treat all communication with an advertising mindset, talking about how great they are or their products are. The public does not want this rhetoric, at least not all the time! Also when strategizing communications, it is vital to disseminate your messaging through multiple channels, the mix depending on who you wish to reach out to.