• May 9, 2020
  • 4 minutes read

COVID-19: Crisis brings opportunity to fight fear with communicationUpdated: June 25, 2020

Here’s some irony. Just days before COVID-19 came on our radar, I was in the process of enrolling in a program at the Harvard School of Public Health called, “Applied Risk Communication for the 21st Century.” I wanted to learn how to manage communication through a public health crisis.

So, here I am doing it for real – trial by fire, if you will. As a long-time client said to me, “This is your time.”

While I wish my time was under different circumstances, I see crisis as an opportunity to help clients demonstrate leadership.

In this pandemic, the fundamentals, protocols and best practices of crisis communication still apply – with trust, empathy and action being more important than ever. But COVID-19 has introduced a novel element to crisis communication, and that is managing the psychology of a pandemic, namely, fear of the unknown.

While I can’t reveal specifics about my clients, I’ve counseled them that one way to manage fears among employees and customers is through risk communication, something companies often overlook or ignore because they don’t want to be vulnerable. However, I’ve told my clients there is power in vulnerability because it makes them relatable. And if they communicate from that position quickly, clearly and honestly, they can remove the unknown and create certainty for their community – even if the news is uncomfortable – allowing people to make informed decisions about their own health and future.

I’ve watched two companies communicate risk differently, one for the better and one for the worst. (Neither of them is my client).

Let’s start with the worst. Like other gyms, one fitness chain informed staff and members that is was closing its gyms “temporarily” to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In initial emails, the ownership told staff they would be paid through the temporary closure. However, in subsequent emails, the ownership announced it was closing the gyms permanently and terminating staff. What’s more, the ownership reneged on its commitment to pay employees during the temporary closure period, and has apparently filed for bankruptcy, which further puts staff compensation into question.

Ambiguous, confusing and contradictory communication amplifies fear and uncertainty, and the decisions of this chain will certainly lead to judicial actions against them.

On the other hand, Loblaws’ executive chairman, Galen Weston, has been a champion communicator through COVID-19. Loblaws owns grocery and drug stores, essential services used by all Canadians.

Weston has remained agile, continuing to assess risk, take appropriate action, and communicate to Canadians – taking us from the unknown to the known. In fact, even before Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, Weston calmed our worst fears. Using his company’s website and social media channels, Weston said:

“First and foremost. Do not worry. We are not running out of food or essential supplies. Our supply chain and store teams are responding to the spikes in volume and quickly getting the most important items back on the shelf.”

During no time in modern history have companies been required to be more informed, agile or communicative. I’ve been helping clients get over their resistance to “over communicate,” convincing them that right now, their community needs to hear from them in order to understand their own future and adapt accordingly.

Companies fear they make appear indecisive or misinformed if they change their messages, but the fact is, this is a dynamic situation that changes daily, and as such, messages must pivot to provide the best current view, without compromising the company legally.

The bottom line is how a company responds to its community today will preserve its reputation tomorrow.

As for me, once travels opens again, Harvard, here I come.

This article was first published in Business in Vancouver on April 7, 2020

#crisismanagement #COVID19 #riskcommunication

  • Jan 18, 2019
  • 4 minutes read

Nike, Pepsi & now Gillette: Why Did One Ad Work While Others Failed?Updated: June 25, 2020

Gillette Needs to Think Outside the Box When Doing Crisis Management

Only a few days into the new year and some experts already declared Gillette’s #MeToo-inspired ad the worst marketing move of 2019. In it, Gillette attempts to inspire men to be better – better with women, better with one another, and just better at being better.

Critics say the ad did nothing to inspire, but rather, shamed men

Playing off its slogan, The Best a Man Can Get, the ad shows various scenes: men barbequing, men belittling women, and boys engaging in school-yard fights. Part way through the ad, the tone changes and shows men encouraging other men to be better.

Some have complimented Gillette for continuing the #MeToo conversation. Most, however, have condemned the brand’s ad as stereotyping and patronizing of its main consumer group, sparking a public relations crisis for the long-time brand. Among those providing public opinion are celebrities like Piers Morgan who have boycotted Gillette’s products, calling the ad a “war on masculinity.”

This isn’t the first major brand to try tackling social justice issues. Nike and Pepsi recently used celebrities to engage in causes. For Nike, the returns were massive. For Pepsi, not so much.

In 2017, Pepsi created a crisis for itself when it used model Kendall Jenner in an ad encouraging unity and racial harmony. It failed grossly in calculating how it undermined the Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, the part where Jenner acts as peacemaker between civil rights activists and police when she hands an officer a Pepsi and he smiles.

In the words of the daughter of civil rights’ leader Martin Luther King: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.” Along with that comment, she tweeted a photo of her father being confronted by a police officer during a march.

In doing crisis management, Pepsi pulled the ad and made a public statement: “Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”

On the other hand, Nike used the star-power of Colin Kaepernick to sell shoes. As you likely know, Kaepernick is the football player who refused to stand during the American national anthem, his protest against the oppression of black people and others of colour.

Why did the Nike ad work, while Pepsi and Gillette failed?

An ad is a short story, and like a story, it has characters, a setting, theme, plot, conflict and resolution. Characters can be heroes or villains. Nike’s character is a hero to many, and the theme of boldness supported the brand’s long-time ethos, which has always appealed to customers. Pepsi used the wrong character – casting a white model as the hero bringing peace to civil unrest.

Gillette’s ad didn’t have one central character. Rather, the “character” is its very customer base cast, not as heroes, but villains.

Certainly, in the #MeToo movement, men are the villains and women largely their victims, but was this ad necessary or the right forum or marketing strategy?

Reaction to the ad is largely divided along gender. If Gillette were to engage in traditional crisis management by apologizing to those the ad offended, it may contradict the very point of its ad and dishonour women. However, if Gillette chooses to do nothing, it will continue to be bashed in the court of public opinion and lose more customers.

Gillette’s crisis management should strike a careful and honest balance, while demonstrating real action. Here’s a potential crisis statement: “With this ad, rather than focusing on negatives – and engaging in stereotyping and shaming – we should have focused on the awareness that has come from the #MeToo movement. While not minimizing that there is still a long way to go, perhaps we could have featured men engaging with women in positive scenarios, showing the kind of change that has come from the movement. Instead, we focused on the negatives and perpetuated male stereotypes. Stereotyping any gender, especially in an age of awareness, is wrong. For that, we apologize, and as such, we have removed the ad. This whole experience has brought gender bias to the forefront for us and we know that real change is required. We owe it to our customers to be better and lead by example As such, we apologize profusely for the so-called pink tax on our products for women and will be eliminating it immediately.”

Now, that’s action!

Let’s face it. Gillette’s ad is contrived and a bit of a delayed response to the #MeToo movement, so perhaps focusing on the here and now would have been the best approach.

# Gillette # Nike #Pepsi #CrisisManagement

  • Feb 6, 2018
  • 1 minute read

Lessons In Damage Control Reaped from United Airlines PR DisasterUpdated: May 3, 2022

Gillette Needs to Think Outside the Box When Doing Crisis Management

Crisis management in the new world

The gravity of a crisis is directly related to the public’s perception of it. Today, everybody owns a social media channel and a mob delivers swift, unforgiving justice without considering facts and without a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. No business, institution or public figure is immune, and few are prepared for the online onslaught.

Crisis communication in the court of public opinion can break a company’s bottom line, something United Airlines learned the hard way when it responded to why a passenger was dragged off of a flight bleeding.

Renu Bakshi wrote a column in Business in Vancouver newspaper on lessons in damage control and crisis management: Lessons in Damage Control

Renu Bakshi ( is a communications strategist who specializes in crisis management and media training.