How to manage Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis through Social Media for SMEs

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

👋 Hello everyone, I hope you are all safe at home and healthy.

Before you start reading the blog to clarify a few things:

  • This blog is not about analyzing Coronavirus itself. There are experts in the medical field that can do this better. More reliable sources right now can be the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or Public Health Emergency. Ensure you're getting information from reliable sources to avoid spreading misinformation.

  • I wasn't very confident about writing this topic, but friends, colleagues, and clients urged me to do. No one knows what's the best thing to do right now in business, but considering public health and human life, I am pretty sure that we will make the best decisions.

  • As an academic professional too, I have done my research on topics like social media learning behavior, social media crisis, and consumer panic with a sociological perspective. I will start with a brief literature review and continue to practical tips and guidelines.

My goal for this blog is to inform everyone that has a business (either online or offline) how they can handle this crisis. Before continuing with this article, I want you to take a deep breath and relax.

Consumer Panic: a Sociological Perspective

People tend to panic when something threatens their everyday life, including adverse weather conditions, strikes, natural disasters, pandemics, and changes in government policies. And it is something natural I could say. More specifically, extreme quarantine measures, including sealing off large cities, closing borders, and locking down people to their homes, are critical to stemming the spread of the virus, just like in the case of COVID-19. This can also cause consumer panic and emergency purchases.

However, this is not the first time in history that we are witnessing similar behavior. Over the past decade, there had been many panic & emergency purchases occurred along with many crisis events, the most representative including food and drug panic purchase during the SARS period in 2003, the water panic purchase caused by water pollution at Harbin in 2005, the garlic snapping during the H1N1 influenza virus period in 2009; the salt snapping caused by Japan nuclear radiation in 2011.

In the situation of panic buying, consumers’ purchase decisions are often influenced by their peers’ choices. Take consumers’ panic buying of food before a severe snowstorm hit New YorkCity in 2015, for example. Asked about the reason for stockpiling, some consumers said that, upon seeing the long queues of hoarders in front of the supermarkets and the panic buying news on the Internet. This demonstrates the impact of social learning (SL) on consumers’ panic buying decisions, under which consumers update their belief about future supply shortage rates based on observation of their peers’ stockpiling choices. This behavior will further influence the total social welfare. So, what can we learn from that? Panic is probably inevitable. However, we can influence social behavior with the help of social media. It is the responsibility of all of us (individuals, businesses, organizations, authorities, etc.) to minimize this panic behavior.

Most of the research on crisis emotions is based on the work of Lazarus (1991), who argued that a crisis triggers an appraisal about one’s well-being and options for coping. Crisis studies commonly focus on Lazarus’ six negative emotions: anger, fright or fear, anxiety, sadness, guilt, and shame. Research has also examined positive emotions like hope, relief, and sympathy, with the latter as the most likely positive emotion to emerge from a crisis. Despite emergency purchases, some people will seek to feel-good purchases. So, we have to question ourselves: What can we do as members of society to increase positive emotions and decrease the negatives? Don't forget that companies play an essential role in communities!

I also came across a very interesting study about developing pandemic communication strategies when there is a pandemic. One research suggested that in the early stages of a pandemic, communications should focus on increasing awareness of the disease and communicating important but simple, protective behaviors to reduce the risk of transmission. In later stages of a pandemic, communication campaigns need to effectively communicate the key messages for each stage of pandemic and motivate the public to engage in the correct preventive actions without engendering unnecessary panic in the community. The research was focused only on the communication between the people and the government. However, this is not the case today. Everyone can share anything that can be visible by anyone on the internet. Good or wrong at this point, it doesn't matter. It is essential though, to take our responsibilities as members of the online community too. Self-quarantine will make people increase their time online, which means increased communication between individuals, businesses, influencers, etc. So, there are questions popping up in business owners' minds, like:

  • So, what can I do? Should I keep posting about my brand or not?

  • Should I stop advertising online or stop for a while?

  • Is my responsibility to inform my followers/ consumers about the prevention of this pandemic?

Don't worry, I will try to answer all those questions later on.

The dynamic role of social media during a crisis

Despite the innovative features of social media (and other technologies) and with the power to influence how the public receives information (especially in a crisis), social media provides tremendous opportunities as well as challenges and barriers to overcome. Social marketing is widely accepted to be a powerful and useful tool that, if utilized correctly, can bring about behavior change for the benefit of individuals, groups, and societies.

“Consumers of information are simultaneously contributors of information, thereby providing the basis for user-generated media. The news of a crisis can be shared and reshared, reaching millions of people without the intervening presence of journalists”. Word of mouth news often shared through social media, is tremendously influential and even perceived as more trustworthy than mainstream media in some instances. I guess this answers the question, "Is my responsibility to inform my followers/ consumers about the prevention of this pandemic?" - YES! Moreover, you are responsible for sharing information from ONLY reliable sources.

A relevant research study about H1N1 and the use of social media also makes the point that people are getting information from not just traditional news or even one source of information, but a wide range of different sources. From videos that appeared on YouTube to updates on Twitter to specific individual blogs – people are sharing information with others virtually from multiple outlets, which is the main point of social media. Virtual dialog among organizations and individuals is a fundamental aspect of social media. Vieweg, Palen, Liu, Hughes, and Sutton (2008) discussed the possible risks that organizations can have if they communicated false information to stakeholders in a time of crisis. Some of the organization's stakeholders are becoming influential in their own right thanks to social media. These individuals have their online presence and have the influence to motivate others to act or behave in a certain way – and can be conceptualized as being social media influencers.

Professionals of social marketing campaigns will face several challenges, including the need to raise awareness and concern about COVID-19 to a level that motivates consumers to respond but not to a level that causes public panic; the need to ensure that control measures are identified to the public before and during the COVID-19 outbreak; and the need to convince persons that they need to comply with all of the recommended control measures, not just those that they feel are important.

Another study I found helps fill in the gaps in social media message distribution following a crisis presented by theories like the Social-Mediated Crisis Communication (SMCC) model. This study’s results provide insight on social media behavior beyond the nature of the sender (i.e. influencers, creators, and followers). A major proposition of SMCC is that people will engage social media amidst crisis for one of three reasons: issue relevance, information-seeking and sharing, and emotional support. In the case of self-quarantine people will also seek distractions and helpful tips online!

All crises have the potential to cause emotional, physical, financial, and environmental damage to the stakeholders involved. Your social media actions will not be about making a profit now. So what you need to do is

  • Join the conversation #stayhome

  • Determine the best channels to reach segmented publics

  • Check all information for accuracy and respond honestly to questions

  • Follow and share messages with credible sources

  • Propose crisis coping activities

  • Develop a virtual dialogue on social media

How social media can help businesses during Coronavirus crisis

I know it's tough. I have never created a social media post about my clients with a message "We have to close down for a few days...", and I am sure neither you did. No one was ready for something like that. There are big companies that can practically help this situation with donations and by providing their online tools for free. However, there are SMEs that are merely trying to survive right now. And the following tips are mostly for them.

However, with the research I have done so far and the social monitoring I am doing for the last few days, I can propose the following. I have divided the guidelines based on the phase a business can be during the outbreak of the virus:

  1. Have shut down their business - Without the capability to sell/offer/work online

  2. Have shut down their business - With the capability of online transactions

  3. Still operating - Without the capability to sell/offer/work online

  4. Still operating - With the capability of online transactions

Now, let's take each category individually and give some examples to make things clear. The guidelines can be for both business owners as well as for marketing managers.

Category No. 1 | Have shut down their business - Without the capability to sell/offer/work online

If you fall into this category, you are probably very stressed. I totally respect that. Apart from giving you advice on what to do through social media, I will provide you with some further guidance 😃. You may have a spa, a hair salon, or a dance studio, and your business is closed for everyone's safety.

1. Be transparent

You should use your social media accounts to make public the reasons you have shut down your business. Make sure that you will update all your accounts, with nothing too much (use Canva for quick posts), and make sure that this information is on top (with Facebook pinned posts, Twitter pinned tweets, Instagram highlights, etc.). Reassure your followers that you will update them as soon as you have any news about your business situation.

2. Don't lose contact