Shreyas Kulkarni
Points of View

Social media during a pandemic: what approach should brands take?

Brands are being forced to choose between business-as-usual, falling silent or playing the Good Samaritan.

A couple of days ago, streaming giant Netflix released the season five part two trailer of its hit TV show ‘Lucifer’. It’s a show based on a DC Comics character where the devil, after doling out punishment to sinners for billions of years, gets bored and moves to Los Angeles, where he now runs Lux, a piano bar.

I am what you’d call a cult fan of this show. Right after I watched the trailer, I wanted to share it on my social media accounts. But when I was about to click on the ‘share’ button, something stopped me. It didn’t feel right.

How could I share something on social media at a time when the world around me is crumbling because of the Coronavirus? It felt wrong and insensitive on multiple levels.

It’s a question that has cropped in our minds in the last two weeks. Last Sunday (May 2), Hindustan Times’ Sunday magazine ‘Brunch’ asked two influencers to post, or not to post, as people sought help on social media. There was a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answer.

Last year, social media conversations were about following COVID-preventive measures. This year, it is all about amplifying people’s calls for medicines, ICU beds, oxygen cylinders, and even crematorium contacts.

As social media transforms into an SOS network, what should brands’ handles do? It’s a testing time for them. Should they stay silent and take a break from posting anything at all - like a dignified social media hiatus during a time when 'buy from us' type messages can come across as insensitive? Should they carry on with their regular messaging, regardless of how tone-deaf it may sound in the larger social context? Or, should they hop onto the popular public narrative and amplify citizens' calls for help, by offering help of their own, to the extent possible? We posed these questions to four industry experts.

For instance, while a Durex India Twitter account has laid dormant for over six months now, the Pepsi India and Coca-Cola India Twitter accounts have referenced the pandemic but concentrated mainly on their regular messaging. Adding to this, an OYO Twitter handle references the pandemic and vaccinations frequently and Dunzo has only amplified people’s needs in the last few weeks.

Edited excerpts:

Sai Ganesh, marketing lead, Dunzo

Sai Ganesh
Sai Ganesh

There is a crisis taking place right now. The moment it started happening, we (Dunzo) had an internal discussion that we should use our reach to help people, who are crying out for help.

People aren’t finding support from established systems that are supposed to help them. So, they have now started asking cricketers and film stars to amplify (their needs/messages) and help them. It is the need of the hour right now.

In March last year, when the pandemic struck, we saw that people weren’t engaging with a brand’s post, so to speak. During a crisis like this, consumers don’t want to see a post that’s talking about selling a brand, or service. Even if you try, they won’t care about your product, or service, especially at the beginning.

If you look at our engagement numbers during March and April last year, people were only focused on sharing content that informed them about safety measures. A post we did on washing hands and using sanitisers did extremely well, as compared to other posts.

Consumers are willing to engage with branded posts if they’re in the space of the information they want. One of the things with social media is that intent becomes very clear. Consumers respect honest intent and can actually see through when the intent is incorrect.

In this hyper-connected two-way social media world, you can’t be tone-deaf because consumers will call you out. We’ve seen it happen with (various social media) handles and celebrities. People are a lot more aware and have a platform to make their voices heard.

To be very blunt, do what the consumers want.

Garima Khandelwal, chief creative officer, Mullen Lintas

Garima Khandelwal
Garima Khandelwal

Depending on the urgency to communicate, to sit and wait out the entire pandemic might be unreal. When things are as sombre as they are now, sensitivity needs to be key...

Currently, there is communication that has no context to the present scenario. I think now, there might be an influx of many brands being contextual. If the decision is to “hop” on the narrative, it needs to come from a real place of empathy and ability to drive change.

Jigal Bhanushali, social media head, Moneycontrol.com (former social media strategist at iProspect and Hungama)

Jigal Bhanushali
Jigal Bhanushali

The idea is to have a balanced approach. Don’t sell your product, or brand on the back of SOS helps and cries. Instead, offer it as a service you’re willing to do amid these turbulent times. Offer your platform as a place for people to reach out to and collaborate with NGOs that are really doing something good to help people.

Don’t completely ignore your product and brand. You can promote it in separate posts and from a PR point of view. You can use LinkedIn to push your narrative about your efforts, similar to how CRED is doing. Thus, while being sensitive to the times, you’re not diluting your brand value.

Rahul Gandhi, chief marketing officer, iD Fresh Food

Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi

There is a crisis happening around us and a brand’s tonality needs to be humane right now. It’s what you should expect from brands right now.

Every media outlet (I am calling a brand a media outlet) that reaches lakhs of people, is a potential source of critical information that can help with survival. It is how news channels report on hospitals running out of oxygen… Every brand should be actively doing it.