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Who is responsible for protecting communities facing the impacts of COVID-19?

Two John Molson researchers look at how businesses and policymakers altered their messaging to consumers early in the pandemic
November 18, 2020
Young, smiling, woman with short, dark hair, standing in an outdoor setting.
Zeynep Arsel: “Do not wait for government or organizational directives to try and ‘act right.’”

"We understand these are unprecedented times. We are here for you."

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an overwhelming number of communications from businesses that began with this sentiment. "We are in this together. We care."

However, as John Molson School of Business researchers Zeynep Arsel and Aya Aboelenien have discovered, this tendency was fairly short-lived.

“We can all relate to having received emails from countless companies telling us how much they cared about us when the pandemic was just beginning. Even companies we hadn’t interacted with for years were reaching out to show us they care,” Arsel says. “This lasted about a month before their tones changed.”

The two Department of Marketing faculty and fellow researcher Charles Cho from York University’s Schulich School of Business recently published the article “Passing the Buck vs. Sharing Responsibility: The Roles of Government, Firms and Consumers in Marketplace Risks during COVID-19” in The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. In it, they note that “care” reached a ceiling — and, eventually, the responsibility to limit the impacts of the virus shifted from organizations to consumers.

Young smiling woman with long dark hair and a red top. Aya Aboelenien: "There is a lot to learn from public consciousness."

‘Everyone has a role to play’

The research shows that at the start of the pandemic many organizations and policymakers did the minimum to protect consumers, and their messaging in relation to the virus inadvertently downplayed its severity.

“By initially emphasizing that vulnerable people were more likely to be affected, it created a sense of invulnerability,” explains Aboelenien, who is also currently an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at HEC Montréal. As a result, consumers were slow to change their behaviours and practices.

When the reality of the pandemic was better understood, organizations shifted their messaging to show they were taking the virus more seriously. They assumed the responsibility of managing risk by putting health and safety measures in place and sent their “care” messages, hoping to mitigate concerns about product shortages and safety.

However, as their efforts reached the ceiling, their messages quickly shifted from empathy and ownership to placing the responsibility on consumers to follow their new directives.

Telling consumers they must comply to help limit the spread of the virus introduces the concept of multi-stakeholder “responsibilization,” that is, passing along the responsibility.

“Everyone has a role to play in order for society to make strides in combating the virus,” Arsel notes. “And it’s imperative that this be included in messaging from the beginning. Otherwise, consumers don’t see themselves as part of the solution.”

Key takeaways

“There is a lot to learn from public consciousness,” Aboelenien adds, referring to the massive number of emails and newspaper and various articles related to transferring responsibility at the start of the pandemic. The researchers analyzed more than 150,000 documents to look at how risk levels were managed, how the virus was presented, who was deemed vulnerable, the safety measures instated by organizations and the subsequent shift in responsibility to the consumer.

The research findings reveal that when there is ambiguity of scientific knowledge, such as with COVID-19, organizations should not await clarity but instead assume responsibility from the start and act accordingly. “Do not wait for government or organizational directives to try and ‘act right,’” Arsel says.

And, she adds, there is no such thing as being too cautious; optimism during a crisis is not the best approach.

To make these strategies more effective, the researchers recommend that organizations take the initiative and own the responsibility, be reflexive about the limitations of scientific discoveries on previously unknown risks and ensure that young and healthy people understand the risks to themselves — and their role of spreading the virus — instead of discussing the virus as threatening only at-risk populations.

“As the second wave is hitting Canada, politicians need the collaboration of everyone to protect us all,” Arsel adds. “It might be a good idea to look at societies who did better than us and not be overly confident about our ability to control a virus that we still do not know much about.”

Read the cited article: “Passing the Buck vs. Sharing Responsibility: The Roles of Government, Firms and Consumers in Marketplace Risks during COVID-19.”



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