We Are in Unprecedented Times
COVID-19 is transforming the way billions of people live, work, buy, and relate to one another, and the changes seem to come by the minute. This unchartered territory of a global pandemic has inspired both fear and hope; shuttering commerce while stimulating innovation; forcing us to keep our distance while at the same time bringing us closer together.
In the midst of fear, confusion, and anxiety, companies emerging as leaders are those that recognize the fundamental truth that it is not the time to abandon corporate citizenship. It’s time to double down.
As many companies turn inward, the ones reaching out to care for their customers, employees, and communities are rising above their competitors, inspiring confidence and cultivating loyalty. In addition to growing brand affinity and strengthening corporate reputation, companies creatively meeting the needs of internal and external stakeholders are unlocking new business opportunities, channels for customer acquisition and market segments. We are seeing, in action, that corporate citizenship is, at its core, a performance strategy.
When it comes to COVID-19 corporate citizenship efforts, taking the right approach and tone is essential. We’ve included guiding principles to help companies respond as corporate citizens to COVID-19 in a way that demonstrates empathy, offers meaningful help and leaves a lasting impact. We’ve also captured examples of how leading companies are stepping up their corporate citizenship efforts to help meet critical needs during this challenging time.
Doing The Right Thing, The Right Way
Consider Your Core Competencies:
What problem is your company uniquely equipped to help solve? What resources, logistics, equipment or personnel can you mobilize that others cannot? What is within your power to control? Consider your core competencies and be creative with how you leverage them. For example, perfumeries and distilleries are converting their facilities to produce hand sanitizer. Technology equipment manufacturers are now making surgical masks. Service providers are waiving late fees, expanding free services and canceling shutoffs. Grocery stores are creating a safe space for the elderly and vulnerable. Contemplate unexpected ways to ease the pain for employees and customers while demonstrating your unique capabilities.
Begin in Your Backyard:
While scale is often an asset in corporate citizenship efforts, COVID-19 is an opportunity to care for the local communities you call home. Small businesses and local non-profits also tend to experience the greatest need. Without the safety net of support from broader networks, they are the most vulnerable – and all the more most appreciative of the support. Consider the community in which you are headquartered as a starting point, like Amazon (Seattle), Microsoft (Seattle) and Google (Silicon Valley). Think about ways to stimulate the local economy, support small businesses, increase employment opportunities for residents or support students and families.
Don’t Act Before You’re Ready:
In an environment where companies are announcing ambitious initiatives and relief efforts every day, it’s easy to feel pressure to make commitments before you’re ready. Don’t give in to panic. If current projections are accurate, the needs created by COVID-19 will only increase with time, so there will be plenty of opportunities to help. Begin developing a strategy now that will allow you to sustain your commitments long-term and be prepared to evolve and expand efforts over time.
Identify the Right Partners:
Delivering meaningful assistance depends on finding the right partner. Consider supporting non- profits that provide direct services to your priority populations. Don’t give how you’d like to give – understand your partners’ greatest needs and meet them. While financial support is necessary, it may not be sufficient; think about providing in-kind or pro bono support. Beyond non-profits, consider pre-competitive collaboration with other companies. Demonstrating a willingness to partner with other companies – especially competitors – for the common good is both powerful and authenticating. Be willing to think outside the box and grow with your partners over time.
Right now, it’s not about you. And if consumers or employees get the sense that you are being inauthentic or promotional, your efforts will backfire. Keep communication simple, succinct and focused on the objective – providing assistance. In the words of MIT Sloan Management Review, “Let others know what you’ve done” but “don’t boast.” Share helpful information but limit the volume to only what is essential. Integrate it seamlessly into any other communication around what you are doing to operate responsibly as a business during this time. Don’t aggrandize the impact of contributions. To the extent possible, use communication to uplift and inspire; weave in stories of hope and humanity as you share the steps you’re taking to speed collective recovery efforts.
COVID-19 Corporate Citizenship in Action
Medical Workers Are Facing Supply Shortages
The COVID-19 outbreak has significantly impacted the supply chain for medical products around the world, prompting shortages of certain critical supplies, tools, and medications in the U.S. and increased market demand/supply challenges for others. In response, corporations, including some pharma giants, are donating and funding the donation of critically-needed medical products.
- Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted that Apple is donating “millions of masks to health professionals in the U.S. and Europe.”
- H&M announced that it is using its global supply chain to produce “personal protective equipment” for hospitals and healthcare workers such as masks, gloves and aprons.
- 3M Chairman and CEO Mike Roman said the company will supply New York and Seattle with a half-million N95 respirator masks to address the ongoing shortage of health care equipment.
- Amazon donated more than one million items to healthcare professionals in China, including medical-grade protective masks, isolation suits, and disposable gloves.
- The UPS Foundation has provided free air transportation for more than four million respirator masks and hundreds of thousands of protective gowns and other personal protection supplies to China.
- Pfizer has made cash contributions to its global non-profit partners who have shipped supplies to hospitals in China. The Pfizer Foundation has provided $500K in grants to support the provision of urgently needed aid and supplies to front-line healthcare workers.
- Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, donated one million surgical masks, as well as goggles, protective suits, thermometers and respirators to impacted areas in China.
People Are Struggling to Pay Their Bills
The spread of COVID-19 has caused many businesses to temporarily reduce hours or shut down altogether. This change, coupled with increased time away from work to care for kids who are facing school closures, has left many Americans fearful they will not be able to make ends meet. To ease their financial burden, cities across the U.S. are beginning to enact moratoriums on evictions, and a variety of companies across industries are implementing support services such as suspended service shutoffs, waived late fees, and deferred bill collection.
- Netflix created a $100 million fund to help with hardship in the creative community, $15 million of which will go to third parties and non-profits providing emergency relief to out-of-work crew and cast.
- Many energy and utility companies are suspending service disconnections
and shutoffs for non-payment for the foreseeable future, including California Water Service, PG&E, Southern California Edison, American Electric Power, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, and NRG.
- Telecommunications firms such as Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Charter, AlticeUSA and T-Mobile have signed onto the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) “Keep Americans Connected” pledge through which they have committed to continuing service for customers who can’t pay their bills due to the outbreak.
- Ford Credit, the automaker’s lending arm, is offering relief to customers affected by COVID-19, including payment delays.
Food Insecurity is Increasing
The closure of schools and businesses has exacerbated food insecurity and shortages as low-income Americans struggle to find their next meal. Supermarkets, restaurant chains, and other businesses are working with non-profits such as the American Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, Feeding America and No Kid Hungry to combat hunger and provide emergency food supplies.
- Wells Fargo is donating $175M to help communities deal with COVID-19, $1M of which will go to Feeding America.
- Kraft Heinz is donating $12M to ensure people around the world have access to food. As part of this commitment, the company is giving $1.9M in cash and $4.7M in products to Feeding America.
- Texas grocer H-E-B donated $3M to provide food for the needy (through the support of food banks throughout the state) and fund a local research project to battle the spread of the virus.
- Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation is committing $3M to be distributed between Feeding America and No Kid Hungry. The funding will support local food banks nationwide and initiatives that ensure children still have access to meals while schools are closed.
- Major League Baseball (MLB) is donating $1M to Feeding America and Meals on Wheels to help fight hunger as a result of school closures and quarantines.
- Other companies are specifically supporting healthcare workers, with Uber giving away free meals to healthcare workers and first responders and salad chain Sweetgreen delivering free meals to hospitals in the cities in which it operates.
Vulnerable Groups Are Struggling to Access Essential Supplies
The practice of “panic shopping” has left store shelves empty and made it difficult for at-risk groups, including seniors, to get food and other necessary supplies. Even when stores are fully stocked, some members of vulnerable populations refuse to shop, out of fear of being near others who may be infected with the virus. In response, supermarkets, pharmacies, and other stores are setting aside time for their most vulnerable customers to shop safely.
- Walmart is introducing a senior shopping hour for customers 60 and older. The designated hour will start before its U.S. stores open and continue every Tuesday from March 24 until April 28.
- Whole Foods Market is servicing customers 60 and older one hour before opening to the general public at all U.S. and U.K. locations.
- Target is reserving the first hour of shopping each Wednesday to support vulnerable guests, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
Small Businesses Are Suffering
Local U.S. economies are in danger, as small businesses lose revenue due to social distancing mandates and widespread closures of bars, restaurants, gyms and other retail establishments, along with stay- at-home orders in states such as California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. In fact, small business confidence ratings plunged in March to nearly the lowest levels in the past seven years, according to The Wall Street Journal. Larger companies – especially technology giants – have been stepping in to support small businesses, especially those serving the communities in which they operate.
- Billionaire entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban invited small businesses and entrepreneurs to ask him questions via LinkedIn about how to keep their companies afloat and avoid layoffs.
- Amazon is creating a $5M “Neighborhood Small Relief Fund” to provide cash grants to Seattle small businesses in need. The company, along with Microsoft, is also donating $1M to a fund designed to mitigate the economic loss felt in the Seattle area.
- Following the cancellation of its annual Google Cloud Next conference, Google is donating to local organizations in the Mountain View, California area, partially to support small businesses.
- Facebook recently announced a $100M grant program for small businesses impacted by the spread of the virus across 30 countries.
- Citi issued a statement that for 30 days, small business customers will be eligible to have their monthly service fees and early CD withdrawal penalties waived.
- Per the aforementioned “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, many telecom companies have pledged to waive late fees for, and not terminate service to, small business customers.
Americans Are Facing a “Digital Divide”
The disruptions brought about by COVID-19 are amplifying the effects of the U.S. digital divide – the “historically hard-to-erase gap between those who have speedy, modern-day Web connections and those who do not.” Students and corporate employees are being forced to rely on digital technology and Wi-Fi connections to remain up-to-date on classes and work. However, not everyone has the luxury of functioning broadband – more than 21 million Americans do not have access to high-speed internet. According to Geoffrey Starks, Commissioner of the FCC, the COVID-19 pandemic is “going to exacerbate the haves and have nots for who’s digitally connected.” To help bridge the gap, some businesses, namely telecom providers, are offering free expanded service.
- Charter Communications is providing free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who don’t already have a Spectrum subscription.
- Comcast is opening its Xfinity Wi-Fi network for free across the country. The company is also offering new customers 60 days of its complimentary “Internet Essentials” service for qualifying low- income households.
- T-Mobile is increasing the data allowance for free to schools and students using its EmpowerED digital learning program to ensure each participant has access to at least 20GB of data per month for the next 60 days, as well as providing customers with extra free data up to 5GB per month. The company is also, in some cases, providing hotspots to families without internet service at home.
- Per the aforementioned “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, many telecom companies are committing to open their Wi-Fi hotspots to any American that needs them, for free.
Students and Teachers Are Navigating Closures
As of March 22, 46 states have shut down their public schools, leaving teachers unsure of how to facilitate remote learning and parents “terrified of the unknown.” In response, education organizations across the country are supporting teachers and families as they work to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of online learning. At the same time, more than 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. have locked down campuses, canceled activities and moved learning to virtual classrooms, leaving students “scrambling” to move out of their dorms. While some students can drive or perhaps fly home, for others, it’s not that easy. College closings are especially hurting low-income and international students who have to cover the unexpected costs of vacating their dorms and returning home, so companies are pitching in to make their transition process easier and more affordable.
- U-Haul is offering 30-day free self-storage to students being forced to move out of their dorms.
- Rental car service Enterprise is reducing the minimum age for renting a car through May 31 “to make it easier for students to get home to their families.”
- Kahoot!, a game-based learning platform, is offering free access to its “Premium” online learning features, such as advanced reports used to adjust instruction based on student performance, to support distance learning in schools affected by the outbreak.
- Videoconferencing software provider Zoom is offering unlimited videoconferencing capabilities to schools in China, the U.S., Japan and Italy for free – with more countries being added as the situation evolves.
- Scholastic, a publisher and educational resource company, has set up a “Learn From Home” website for grades PreK to 6+, filled with one week of online learning resources, such as articles, stories, videos, and fun learning challenges – with additional days of content on the way.
- Google is rolling out free access to “advanced” Hangouts Meet videoconferencing features to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers globally through July 1 to support remote learning.
- Microsoft is offering its premium version of Teams for free for six months and has lifted existing user limits on its free version.
- AT&T is underwriting the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA)’s Coalition for eLearning. The coalition will compile and provide resources on eLearning for state education agencies and school districts at no cost.
Hill+Knowlton Strategies is here to help companies communicate effectively and authentically during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Senior Vice President
H+K U.S. Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Practice Leader
H+K U.S. Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Practice
H+K U.S. Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Practice