This blog is provided by the IPR Digital Media Research Center.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, without a doubt, brought countless changes to the way people interact with businesses, and nowhere has this shift been more prominent than on social media. The entire world stayed home for a year, and companies went to work handling the crisis while consumers closely watched their online and social presence. Even people who formerly shopped only at brick-and-mortar stores turned to social media to purchase products and investigate what companies were doing to keep their stakeholders safe and society afloat.

At the height of the pandemic, Dr. Marcia DiStaso and her doctoral student research team at the University of Florida, including Alexis Fitzsimmons, Eve Heffron, and Yufan “Sunny” Qin, conducted a survey of 1,065 respondents to explore their perceptions of companies’ various responses to the pandemic. At the end of the survey, they asked respondents an open-ended question: “What role do you think social media plays in your perception of how companies are handling COVID-19?”

The answer? A big one.

Social Media Held Companies Accountable During the Pandemic
Some respondents felt that social media played a large role in their perceptions of how companies handled COVID-19. These respondents felt that social media helped them examine the ethical decisions that companies were making while putting pressure on said companies to do the right thing. To these respondents, socially conscious behavior on and offline was important in determining their opinions about brands. As one respondent stated, “I think it puts pressure on these companies to do something. They’re now able to see mass amounts of people criticizing them for ignoring issues and employees. And with cancel culture happening, they know that there’s a possibility they will lose profits.”

Some Perceived Companies’ Social Media Posts as Ingenuine During the Pandemic
Respondents whose responses fell into this category generally described feeling as if companies posting about the pandemic on social media were acting out of concern for the company’s bottom line, trying to keep up with the competition, or being dishonest. Companies’ altruism, according to these respondents, was severely lacking in their social media posts. As one respondent explained, “I feel like companies are just competing for acknowledgment. I’m not really sure if they want to help.”

Consumers Looked to Companies’ Social Media for Information about the Pandemic
Other respondents felt that companies’ social media served more of an informational purpose during the pandemic, letting people know what was happening in the world. As one respondent said, “I think [these companies’] role is to make people aware of what is happening; be it good or bad.” Another said, “It is a source of information that I follow. With any source, you have to evaluate the information you get.” This caveat is important as several respondents noted that though they look to companies for information about current events like the pandemic, they are cautious of misinformation (that is, false or inaccurate information) in these posts.

A Small Number of Respondents said Social Media Played No Role in their Perception of How Companies Handled the Pandemic.
Some respondents did not think social media should be the place where consumers learn about companies or did not think social media impacted their perceptions of how companies handled the pandemic. As one respondent said, “Social media has nothing to do with the way businesses are run, to me.”

While these perspectives may be true for certain demographics, they are not the case for most stakeholders in the United States, according to other studies on the role of companies’ social media during COVID-19. For example, in a recent study titled “Social media marketing gains importance after COVID-19,” Mason et al. (2021) found that since the pandemic, consumers are using social media more often to identify unmet product needs, compare product alternatives, evaluate product risks and make purchases.

Additionally, the researchers stated that the rising use of social media has made consumers more likely to be socially influenced into purchasing and forming opinions about brands as they see others recommending specific companies online. In sum, social media is a powerful tool of influence for companies, especially since the pandemic, even if consumers do not recognize it.

Implications for Public Relations Professionals
With these responses in mind, here are three key takeaways for public relations professionals handling social media during a crisis:
1.) Have a concrete set of values and communicate them well through social media. During crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, companies can reflect on their values and explain to stakeholders via social media how they are acting on them, whether it be by taking care of employees, giving to communities, or offering assistance to customers. Research has shown that Gen Z (a generation that is gaining more and more purchasing power) makes purchase decisions based on values. This group doesn’t mind doing the research and paying more for products that support their convictions.
2.) Be authentic. It is possible during crises like a pandemic that stakeholders will perceive your social media posts as inauthentic. When possible, back your words with action to demonstrate that your company isn’t posting just for the sake of it.
3.) Get the facts right. Because misinformation is top of mind for some individuals as they scroll through social media, it can be harder for them to trust that your messages are genuine. With accurate, timely information, your stakeholders will be able to see that your company has an interest not only in selling products or services, but also in educating, updating, and informing its stakeholders.

Victoria French is a recent graduate from the University of Florida, where she majored in public relations with a minor and concentration in Spanish. 

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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