Marketing during a pandemic: Are you crossing the line?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that my health and wellbeing is the most important thing to the companies I do business with. (And by that I mean, Josh, the consumer, not Josh, part of The Hodges Partnership.) Like you, I’ve received dozens of emails from retailers and travel companies marketing during a pandemic, from my bank and dry cleaner, and even my barber shop, all of whom want me to know what a high priority they place on my safety. 

At a time of such limited personal interaction, it’s comforting to know that somebody out there cares. 

I don’t mean to sound cynical. Heck, as a PR professional, I’ve been on the creating end of such emails. Most businesses recognize that, in times like these, it’s especially important to stay connected to our various touchstones – coworkers and clients, friends and, yes I suppose, even barbers. After all, we’re all in this together.

A couple things strike me about these COVID-related emails. First, I’m not sure that most of the emailers know exactly what to say, except for the obligatory message that they care immensely about me. They encourage me to follow their employees’ lead and wash my hands often to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” that I should use hand sanitizer and that I should practice what girls in my high school used to employ around me – i.e. “social distancing.” Many are taking steps to sanitize their facilities and are making accommodations for employees to work at home (as we are at Hodges). And where appropriate, they want me to know that they have taken steps to work around the impact of the pandemic. 

Nothing untoward about any of that.  But then there are the emails that feel like they are trying to use the crisis as a marketing opportunity. Consider the headline of an email I got just recently: “Bouncing Back from the Coronavirus: How Direct Mail Will Save Your Business.” I can forgive the hyperbole perhaps but not the timing. I understand that direct mail is inherently safer than going to trade shows and conferences, which was the point of the email if you were inclined to read further. But does the company need to tie in the virus so directly – and so awkwardly – to its offer? It feels uncomfortably exploitative.

Then there was this very nice email I received from Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, a publication I have tremendous respect for.  Mr. Baron’s “Dear reader” letter opened by proudly noting the paper’s role in COVID-19 coverage from as far back as early January, lauding its reporters in China and the subsequent teams throughout the newsroom who are bringing readers in-depth coronavirus coverage. And then came this uneasy pivot, with the executive editor of The Washington Post wanting “to make me aware of our current introductory rate” of subscriptions to the paper for just eight cents a day or $29 a year. Believe me, I understand the financial pressures that newspapers are under right now, but hawking subscriptions on the back of encomiums about its pandemic coverage seemed a bit tone deaf.

Compare that solicitation to The New York Times’ announcement that it was providing coverage of the virus for free. (In fairness to the Post, the paper does have a free coronavirus newsletter.) Locally, The Richmond Times-Dispatch also said it was taking down its paywall so that readers can access important COVID-19 coverage.)

All of this is not to suggest that companies should stop marketing. Not in the least. All of us should endeavor to do business as best we can at pre-virus levels. That’s only healthy. But let’s guard against mixing one objective with another. Let’s not muddle concern for our customers with a pitch for their business. 

Many public relations professionals learned a similar lesson post-9/11 when they continued to pitch the media with stories about their clients’ products, as if the fall of the Twin Towers had not changed the world and oblivious to the fact that virtually every reporter was refocused on how the tragedy had impacted coverage. 

So, keep washing your hands, keep working from home and for goodness sake keep marketing. Just keep it all in perspective. 

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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