In times of crisis, public media sponsorships provide unique value in brand marketing

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Every person on this planet is living with a stark, new reality as the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, travels from nation to nation, to almost every community we know.

At the time of this writing, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports there are nearly 190,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States. Many more people are becoming ill. Others are losing their jobs as companies cut back and governments at every level struggle to respond.

If you’re a public media salesperson like the ten account executives I work with at WAMU in Washington, D.C., you’re seeing clients cancel their marketing schedules, or hesitate to commit to new ones due to economic uncertainties. You might be wondering, “Is it even ‘okay’ to present my station’s marketing solutions during this crisis?”

I think so. In fact, as many professionals must now work from home, making a “sales” call is an opportunity for connection. Your clients will appreciate hearing from you. When you handle these calls well, everybody wins — stations and their listeners, brands and their customers. This is especially true given the affinities that public media and quality podcast listeners have for brands that support the content they rely on daily.

According to NPR’s “State of Sponsorship Survey,” completed by Lightspeed Research in March 2019, 75% of NPR listeners hold a more positive opinion of the sponsors that support NPR, and 69% of NPR listeners prefer to buy products or services from those sponsors. By having corporate sponsorship conversations with marketers today, you can help their businesses.

There are three ways that companies can reinforce their brand values with strong messaging during this time.

1. Demonstrating leadership

In a recent blog post, Twitter branding executives Alex Josephson and Eimear Lambe write: “In times of crisis, people look to leaders and institutions for guidance, reassurance and information. Increasingly, they also look to businesses.”

Josephson and Lambe cite Olive Garden as an example. The national restaurant chain announced March 9 that all its hourly employees will receive permanent, paid sick leave benefits to help them through the coronavirus health crisis.

Responding to Olive Garden’s announcement, Rachel Mercer, of business consulting firm R/GA, tweeted:  

She meant how brands behave, and she’s right. This is where public media salespeople can shine. Brands need to get messages out about how they’re behaving well.

Twitter executives also point to corporate messages by JetBlue and British Airways about elimination of flight cancellation and change fees, and by Slack on how it is wrestling with managing its own work from home business model.

2. Communicating responses to the crisis

“If you have useful and reliable information that might help people navigate the uncertainty, or keep people calm, you should share it,” Josephson and Lambe write.

At WAMU, local account executives Sarah Cumbie and Emily Morrison recently helped two sponsors use their on-air messages in this way.

Cumbie reached out to nationally known bookstore Politics and Prose. After demonstrating that WAMU’s average quarter-hour share grew by 11% since NPR’s coverage of the spread of COVID-19 began, she convinced her client to share how the bookstore is helping their customers and employees during the crisis.

Here is the message copy she crafted for them:

Support for WAMU comes from Politics and Prose. During this unprecedented time, Politics and Prose is taking steps to keep their customers and staff safe, including delivery, curbside pickup and virtual events.

And Morrison worked with a local business improvement district for a D.C. neighborhood on this message:

… Van Ness Main Street, funded by DSLBD. Working to assist small businesses in Van Ness and Forest Hills affected by the public health crisis. The Van Ness Main Street growth fund helps them continue their work.

Working creatively, these two sales professionals helped their clients pivot intelligently in unprecedented times — while also helping to preserve the corporate support WAMU relies upon.

3. Building brands

Mark Ritson, a columnist for the London-based trade publication Marketing Week, estimates that during the global health crisis brands may face cuts of up to a 50%  in their marketing budgets.

While brand managers feel pressure to engage in promotional tactics and lead generation in the short term, Ritson writes, “The smarter play is to actually focus [a budget] on the longer-term brand-building mission.”

What might that mean for a brand? First, avoid communications about COVID-19. Let the scientists, doctors and public health professionals handle that. They’re the experts after all. A brand can’t deliver value talking about things it has no business talking about.

Instead, brands should consider their own expertise, their own value propositions and what it is they do best — then let customers in on it. As Twitter’s Josephson and Lambe put it: “It’s about understanding the unique role your brand plays in people’s lives, how that has changed, and how your brand can help or be useful during this crisis.”

Ritson also applauds Uber Eats for doing it right. The food delivery service “made significant changes to its app with a new protocol that allows consumers to request a delivery at the doorstep rather than in person,” he writes in another recent column. Competitor DoorDash also began “no-contact” delivery in response to COVID-19.

To follow Ritson’s advice, public media sponsorship folks could propose that their clients air messages that add real and authentic value to their customers’ lives during the pandemic — stemming from what those businesses normally do every day. That’s brand-building.

Public media builds brands

Think of the FCC guidelines for public media sponsorship messages. Calls-to-action and lead generation campaigns aren’t allowed due to our noncommercial mission. That means our sponsorships are all about branding.

Even before the coronavirus upended the economy, I used recently aired copy many times for the proposals I built for WAMU’s corporate support team.  Most messaging ends with a tag to visit a brand’s website address as in “More at” However, the carmaker Honda simply shared a message about its research and development, closing with: “Honda: We’re here, helping you stay on the move.” The message copy that we routinely develop with sponsors dovetails perfectly with the brand-building tactic Ritson suggests.

For salespeople in public media, the marketing solutions we offer remain valuable and strong. Our audiences are educated, affluent, community-minded, culturally active and influential — all characteristics most marketers seek in the targets of their campaigns.

As long as a brand is “thoughtful with copy and tone,” it can contribute to the conversation happening around COVID-19, Twitter’s Josephson and Lambe conclude.

And Ritson has a great way of putting it: “The coronavirus crisis will test us all, but marketers need to think long-term and keep building their brands.”

Matching your clients’ marketing initiatives and unique value propositions with public media’s desirable audience is an effective way to move sponsors toward ‘yes’ in these uncertain times.

As an integrated media specialist with Market Enginuity, Michael Jortner writes marketing communications for WAMU’s corporate sponsorship team.

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