Balancing long-term and short-term priorities; it’s never easy for SMEs especially in a pandemic

Small- and medium-size business are the backbone of economies, accounting for the majority of businesses worldwide and employing half of the global workforce. Yet SMEs have also been the hardest hit by the pandemic as reduced revenues coupled with limited liquidity have forced many to make tough decisions about where they focus their time and money.

Even in normal circumstances, SMEs have limited capital to spend on marketing and communications. In the current situation where many are struggling to stay afloat, SMEs may feel that any remaining budget should be funneled towards activity directly linked to immediate sales. I don’t disagree, yet there are still ways to be smart with communications, build trust with stakeholders and emerge from this crisis with greater resilience.  

Don’t underestimate the value of good PR

If we’ve learnt anything over the last six months, it’s the value of clear communications in a crisis. From political leaders to global CEOs, consistent messages delivered in a relatable and empathetic way have won the trust of audiences worldwide.

These lessons shouldn’t be lost on SMEs. In the midst of a crisis, good communication can help businesses support employees and develop meaningful relationships with customers, in turn reinforcing the workforce and protecting sales.

Establishing trust in a crisis

Even before the pandemic hit, it was apparent that consumers have become more interested in the values of the businesses and brands they use. The pandemic has only heightened this sentiment. People today want to know what actions companies are taking and how ethically they are managing the unfolding situation. SMEs, with their close ties to the communities in which they operate, have found themselves under the microscope.

Some businesses have been able to channel their energy into transformation, reinventing their products and services in line with changing consumer behaviours. From shuttered restaurants that modified their meals to become food delivery providers to gyms that delivered equipment to members and connected trainers to clients via Zoom, some SMEs have managed to pivot to the needs of their customers and workers. In these instances, the positive publicity has boosted revenue and reputation whilst also building a bank of positive equity for the future.

Delivering difficult news

Unfortunately, the majority of SMEs have been forced to make difficult decisions, from reducing or cancelling services to laying off workers. The sobering developments require empathy and humility whether businesses are communicating to employees, customers or other stakeholders.

Regardless of the size of the business, the way in which it delivers difficult news defines how it’s perceived in the future. SMEs may not have the same budgets as large businesses, however they can ensure that they give these communication challenges the attention and time they deserve in order to deliver their updates in a direct and transparent way.

Maintaining trust for the long term

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, people grant their trust based on two attributes: competence (delivering on promises) and ethical behaviour (doing the right thing and working to improve society).

SMEs that have not invested in PR should view this year as an opportunity to put a stake in the ground. What does the business stand for and how does it connect with its audiences? How is it managing the pandemic? What services are in development to answer new customer needs? Businesses need to be able to communicate how their actions in the present will impact the future.

For SMEs with limited budgets struggling to identify where to focus their attention, I would offer the following suggestions:

  • Identify your story. Your business has no doubt been on a journey to get to this point, and has overcome hurdles to survive the pandemic. Authentically communicating your story and your direction for the future will build trust amongst your customers as well as showing employees that they work for a business they can believe in.
  • Be purpose-led. In testing times, revenue will be the main driver for your business, but what values give you direction? Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. How does your business have a positive impact on your employees and the people you serve?
  • Understand your stakeholders. Unlike large MNCs, SMEs have the benefit of being close to the communities they serve, whether through their employees or their customers. Listen to the voices around you and be clear about the role you play within your community. Consider how you can support the issues that matter to those around you.
  • Communicate with your stakeholders in ways that are meaningful to them. This need not be expensive. Make good use of LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, WeChat or any other platform that will help you talk to your stakeholders and explain what is happening. And expand on that with email and other forms of communication. The key is to keep communicating and letting people know how your business is doing.

Customers, media and stakeholders are all keen to hear about innovation and transformation happening within SMEs, so now is the time to connect with them. This is an ongoing dialogue that businesses need to enter mindfully, but there’s also never been more to talk about.