It’s hard to believe that, only a few weeks ago, coronavirus was thought of as a localised problem contained in the sprawling, far away city of Wuhan in China, writes Mike Berry.
Now (17 April), there are very few places left on earth that remain untouched by the pandemic and the UK is in a state of extended lockdown. It’s quite an overwhelming situation to process for the vast majority of us. It truly feels like we are living through one of those moments in history which will colour the lens of how we view everything for many years to come.
Times of crisis call for swift and decisive action from those that lead. That is true for our political leaders, but also those that lead across the worlds of industry and commerce. During this crisis, the need for those two groups to communicate quickly and effectively has never been greater.
In normal times, UKHospitality’s role is to speak to Government clearly with one voice to tell them what the industry needs. In abnormal times, that role becomes increasingly urgent and vital. The group represents and speaks for businesses in a sector that employs in excess of 3 million people, so has huge economic and social importance. But it’s also been the so-called ‘canary in the coalmine’; this sector felt the impact of coronavirus before others, as visitor numbers and footfall to the UK’s key tourism destinations started to slow at the start of the year. For example, visitor numbers to Borough Market near London Bridge (and our office) started to fall away in January.
Having the ear of Government during that early period really helped get the message across on the urgent need for support. Hospitality was most likely a couple of weeks ahead of retail and other sectors in sounding that economic alarm.
Since then, UKH has been front and centre in shaping the Government’s response and the subsequent package of economic support it delivered. The number of times the Chancellor or senior ministers have spoken about the unique importance of hospitality during this crisis, and how the Government is supporting the sector’s diversity of businesses, has been unprecedented and it has genuinely felt like hospitality has been at the front of the business queue. Members have undoubtedly had good value from the dedicated and hard-working UKH team over the past few weeks as this has unfolded.
It has been an intense period of crisis comms and focused on the need to create noise, accompanied by persistent lobbying of supportive MPs to put pressure on ministers – at the right time and focused on the right priorities.
From a comms perspective, there have been a number of things which, through our close partnership with UKH as a client, we have seen help make an impact and lead to meaningful policy support.
- Getting ahead of the pack – UKH through its effective public affairs function and established MP relationships, sounded the alarm early to Government that coronavirus was going to have a very serious impact on the sector, and likely be an economic catastrophe as well as a public health crisis
- Targeted approach – working with specific news outlets and individual business journalists to develop storylines that work for them has proved effective, be that relating to a specific operator or business issue
- Amplifying the human story – media are interested in the real-life impact this crisis is having on businesses, particularly those that operate well-known brands. Having a bank of senior sector operators to call upon for media interviews to articulate their experiences has proved invaluable
- Leveraging data – this has been key in forming a narrative on the impact of the virus and consistently achieving cut through… quickly harnessing the expertise of businesses like Wireless Social and CGA to track the rapid decline in footfall and trade that operators were suffering, and then packaging up for various national and trade media outlets. We still need more of this
- Message discipline – it’s been important in all our output that we are speaking to Government as the primary audience, focusing on the sector’s top priorities and the proposed solutions being brought to the table. The thinking is you can work through the finer detail afterwards
- Saying thank you – remembering to be empathetic and remembering to say thank you, particularly to government, which is having to act decisively at breakneck pace, has been a cornerstone. See also, the messaging regarding landlords – we understand they have bills to pay too.
- Working at pace – clearly, it’s a fast-moving news environment and it’s been hugely challenging jumping on every reactive opportunity, but the whole team has been focused on responding quickly to every request for comment, as well as utilising every broadcast and print media interview opportunity
So, what’s next for the sector?
There is still more to be done on smoothing the process for businesses to access the various Government funding schemes – and for more firms to be able to get hold of that cash quickly. UKH lobbying means the loan guarantee scheme will be open to mid-sized firms that were in danger of being left out.
There needs to be concerted pressure on insurers as some are still being slow to payout or rejecting claims from those businesses that are eligible for compensation.
Finally, when it comes to commercial leases and property, an economy-wide moratorium on debt enforcement to give firms the breathing space they require. The sector is uniting behind a call for a national ‘time out’, which includes a nine-month rent-free period for businesses forced to close because of the coronavirus outbreak. The proposal will also seek to ensure that landlords don’t lose out, and highlight that each lease would then be extended by nine months.
The road back to normality – or whatever the new version of normality might look like – will be bumpy and not all businesses will survive. Indeed, there have been some high-profile casualties already. With hospitality venues most likely to be among the last to (fully) reopen once lockdown restrictions are relaxed, the focus now turns to ensuring that the sector is properly supported in the long term as part of the Government’s exit strategy and desired economic bounceback. The fight goes on.
Mike Berry is FSC’s Head of Content