Crisis communications: Recent learnings from Indian startups

Here’s why communication plays a very important role in times like the current pandemic and what startup founders need to do to communicate effectively.

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you'll do things differently.” ― Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

Founders across the country continue to grapple with the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, and realign their model to make it more relevant to the current scenario. 

In the current scenario, the role played by communication cannot be emphasised enough. Here's a quick snapshot of how prominent Indian startups reacted in the wake of a crisis and our take on it. 

Early and proactive communication 

In March this year, PhonePe, one of India’s leading payment systems and digital wallet companies, found itself in the eye of the storm when its exclusive UPI bank partner was placed under a moratorium. This led to a halt in any form of transactions on the platform. 

To enable continued access, engineers at PhonePe would need to switch to a new banking partner. The company’s leadership and communications skills that followed in the next 24 hours helped convert a crisis into a means of developing an even stronger and deeper relationship with customers by communicating transparently, frequently, and proactively at regular intervals through the crisis.

The first step to successfully managing a crisis is the speed to response – the sooner you take charge of the situation, the higher your chances are to minimise its effects. PhonePe didn’t waste any time from when the crisis hit to initiate communications with their customers, providing them with clarity as well as relief, thereby preventing the crisis from snowballing into a larger problem. 

Highlights from its communication strategy: From outlining the issue at hand to detailing steps and measures being undertaken to resolve the issue, interim updates on their progress some of these directly coming from the founders themselves, along with updates continuing to stream in even after the crisis, on the plan for the way forward, relief measures, essentially keeping customers informed through every step of the way. 

Customers even took to social media to praise and appreciate how the company navigated the crisis, despite that their server was down for close to 24 hours — a situation that would have otherwise triggered trolls and endless complaints were it not for Phone Pe’s proactive outreach. 

Key learnings 

  1. Speed to response: customers need to hear it first from the company, not third-party sources
  2. Recognise and acknowledge that there’s a problem and you’re doing your best to solve for it and regain stakeholder trust.
  3. Frequent and proactive communication: consistent reassurance, even when you may not have any new information to share can help prevent negative posts/trolls from users demanding an explanation, or complaints on poor customer service.
  4. Identify the right communication channel to reach your audiences — be it social media, a newsletter, a video message on WhatsApp, a formal press release, or any other platform. Phone Pe took to social media, as one of its primary communication channels to alert customers of the crisis. 

Leadership and Empathy amidst a crisis

Ola, India's leading mobility platform, like others in the industry, was adversely affected by the lockdown. Apart from its daily operations being affected, the income of one of its key stakeholders — the driver-partner community — was severely impacted due to the lockdown, and the company felt the heat even more.

Ola used this opportunity to focus on easing the burden for the driver community and launched an initiative called #DrivetheDriverFund with the objective of offering relief to its driver-partners by providing essential supplies, as well as financial support for medical emergencies for them and their families. 

This was done through contributions from the Ola Group, investors, and through a crowdfunding platform for citizens and other institutions.

The fund was open to all cab, auto and taxi drivers across the country to benefit from, irrespective of whether or not they were associated with Ola. Tens of thousands of driver-families were positively impacted by the fund in these difficult times.

Separately, the company also worked with various state governments to launch “Ola Emergency” to provide transportation to and from hospitals for all non-COVID-19 medical trips.

Key learnings

a) An empathetic approach to a crisis can give your brand an opportunity to truly showcase your company’s culture and values. Going above and beyond for your key stakeholders, who are a vital asset to your business, in their time of need, speaks volumes about your brand, possibly more than any digital, social, and print campaign could ever convey and is testament to your leadership.

b) A sharp, focused, and succinct communication plan designed specifically to solve for your topmost priority/key focus area. In Ola’s case, looking after its driver-partners with medical and financial assistance trumped all other problems and it worked to solve for that as the single point agenda through the crisis.

The Aftermath

It is common for companies to focus on high engagement during the crisis and often lose momentum once the crisis has blown over. It’s just as important to keep your stakeholders continuously engaged even after a crisis; a constant and open stream of communication helps avoid potential disasters by apprising customers with details on the way forward.

Urban Company and Vogo Automotive, two prominent startups in the Indian ecosystem, have both been impacted in different ways due to the coronavirus crisis. With the relaxation of the lockdown being put in place, they’ve devised new ways to make themselves more relevant and more equipped to deal with the new normal keeping customers health and safety concerns as their top priorities.

Through social media, they voiced concerns that customers may have and took it head-on by launching new features and service offerings to mitigate each of those concerns, and quite literally put the words “customer is king” into action by doing so.

For instance, Urban Company used social media to inform its followers about the health and safety measures being incorporated for its service providers and customers benefit; it combined this with testimonial videos from clients to further emphasise on the precautions taken and answered any other doubts that customers could have through this series of videos.

Similarly, Vogo tweeted about its newly introduced “Vogo Keep”, an initiative that delivers sanitised scooters to your doorstep for long-term rental plans for essential travel – thereby allowing you to use it as your own personal vehicle, to meet with the new set of requirements in a post-COVID-19 world.

It’s important to adapt your model with new solutions or variants of existing services to serve your customers’ current requirements, and this can only be achieved through a pre-emptive communication strategy.

Key learning

Post-crisis communication is a crucial part of the process, as customers need to be in the know on how your product/service offering will be different after the crisis.

They need to understand what specific and tangible changes will be brought about, and how will the user experience change, what is the underlying objective for bringing out the changes, as well as details of open channels for feedback and customer FAQs.

Find that silver lining 

Tesla manufacturing ventilators during the COVID-19 outbreak, or closer home, Domino’s delivering Aashirwad aata in addition to pizzas to meet the shortage of daily essential grocery items, conveyed an understanding of the crisis, and showed customers how they're pivoting to adapt to a new environment while continuing to stay relevant. 

This is a great example of finding a way to reach and serve your customers even when your primary operations may be at a standstill. 

Key learning

Every crisis brings with it a set of opportunities. As a business owner, you need to find a way to positively participate in the crisis – how you handle a crisis truly defines your brand and shapes how people perceive you

Without being opportunistic, coming up with a solution that demonstrates your company values as well as provides customers with a modified version of your product/service that can meet the current need brought on by the crisis, helps create organic word-of-mouth that can hold your brand in good stead in the long run.

Media management

Most companies don’t publicise their PR strategy for obvious reasons, but effective media management is an instrumental piece of the crisis communication puzzle. 

Keeping a vigilant check on media coverage about your brand is paramount. For example, the consequences of COVID-19 extends to every industry in varying degrees, information disseminated about your company by the media to your customers is important to control to ensure factual and accurate information is being reported, in order to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. 

It's crucial to be cognizant of the changing media landscape with online and broadcast platforms exploding, with accurate identification of which form of media works best for your audiences. This also includes leveraging your own social handles/in-app communications to showcase authentic leadership. 

Measures to be undertaken

Here's what you can do to ensure effective crisis communication.

a) Put a crisis communications response team in place as your first line of defence. 

b) Preparedness is the most important part of crisis response; communicators should take the lead on ensuring preparedness by putting in place a crisis response plan along with a crisis template statement as a ready response for media queries. 

c) Crisis key messaging workshop for spokespeople – adapt your brands' key message if needed to make it more fitting to the situation at hand.

d) Tie up with appropriate brand ambassadors and influencers to help amplify and widen the reach of your crisis key message.

e) Lastly, implement a crisis communication playbook for the firm to follow across all communication touchpoints (internal and external), to ensure complete consistency and uniformity in your messaging.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta


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