Communicating during COVID-19: How Georgia-Pacific quickly developed a response strategy when bath tissue started flying off the shelves

There was this escalation very quickly from a hundred overnight to an average of 360 messages per day for a month straight. Rebecca Glassman
On Monday, March 9, Georgia-Pacific Senior Communications Manager Rebecca Glassman saw a handful of messages and mentions come through around their Quilted Northern and Angel Soft bath tissue brands from consumers who were having difficulty finding the brands at stores. The next morning, March 10, there were about a hundred messages.

Then, it started to snowball. Over the next month, the team saw 11,000 messages flood all six of their key consumer brands, with 8,500 of those on Quilted Northern and Angel Soft. “There was this escalation very quickly from a hundred overnight to an average of 360 messages per day for a month straight,” said Rebecca.

On the corporate side, Rebecca's social media team co-lead, Senior Communications Manager Brooke Lujano, saw almost 2,800 mentions. That left the six-person social team to manage 13,786 mentions in 30 days.

Consumers were wanting to know how to find toilet paper, because it was no longer on shelves — and Brooke and Rebecca had to hatch a strategy to effectively communicate with them.

“There was a lot of concern around product availability, and even questions on topics like where our products are made,” said Rebecca. “The first goal on the consumer side was to provide empathetic and reassuring updates on supply, as well as to provide answers to those other questions.”

“We had a whole different set of challenges on our corporate channels,” said Brooke. “The main goal on the corporate side was to transparently communicate with employees, their families and the communities we operate in, as well as with consumers, customers, and the media.”

They got to work immediately to efficiently launch some initial messaging.

We had a whole different set of challenges on our corporate channels. Brooke Lujano
Two days after they saw the initial surge of mentions, the toilet paper brands paused all their paid social campaigns. Then, by the afternoon of the 12th, Brooke and Rebecca had connected with stakeholders in legal and on the brand teams to recommend official statements around the issues, which went live on social and other touchpoints by the afternoon of the 13th.

“That was more than 72 hours before any of our major competitors,” Rebecca said.

As they worked to develop and deploy their response strategy, Brooke and Rebecca partnered with their legal, brand, and communications teams.

Rebecca said they'd put a lot of effort into building a close relationship with their legal team — and that partnership was a big asset for their COVID-19 response.

Our legal team has done a good job informing and educating themselves on how quick the expectation is from consumers to be able to respond to escalating situations. Rebecca Glassman
“We're in constant dialogue with them,” she said. “Our legal team has done a good job informing and educating themselves on how quick the expectation is from consumers to be able to respond to escalating situations. They do everything in their power to get back to us quickly.”

On the communications side, Brooke said it was a priority for them to have consistent messaging across both corporate and the brand platforms — and that ended up carrying over to other external media as well.

“Everything we're saying externally on social, we're putting onto our response page on our website,” said Brooke. “So, everything had to be communicated and worked through together.”

The social media team itself is part of corporate communications, so they had an advantage because everything could be coordinated easily between corporate and between brands, Brooke said.

From the brand side, Rebecca said one of their top priorities was communicating consistently across their brand accounts.

The consistency of messaging across both the corporate platforms and the brand platforms was a critical component of how we were measuring what success should look like. Brooke Lujano
For example, she said Georgia-Pacific's paper towel brands weren't initially experiencing the same demand as their bath tissue brands were — but they were getting questions about whether people could replace bath tissue with paper towels.

“We would not advise that, as paper towels aren't designed to be flushable,” said Rebecca. “So, we had coordinated statements that went out from all the brands, but we would adjust based on what the consumers were asking in that space. Each brand has its own purpose and its own voice. We want to take all that into account as well.”

On the corporate side, Brooke worked hand in hand with internal teams and the brand talking points to position an overarching corporate message.

“The consistency of messaging across both the corporate platforms and the brand platforms was a critical component of how we were measuring what success should look like,” Brooke said.

Now that they've got a consistent strategy across their channels, Rebecca said everything they're doing is with the current pandemic in mind.

We're not doing anything that's 'business as usual' on the brand side. Rebecca Glassman
“Content should be relevant given the current situation and sensitive to it,” she said. “We're not doing anything that's ‘business as usual' on the brand side.”

Alongside this content change, Rebecca said the ways consumers are finding and engaging with their channels has changed.

“Normally our paid strategy is paramount in our day-to-day social media strategy, and organic isn’t as central. In normal circumstances, not many people organically seek out what a toilet paper brand is posting on Instagram, but now consumers are actively seeking out information from us and coming to our channels and looking for it,” she said.

According to Brooke and Rebecca, much of the content they're currently putting out is designed to educate and reassure consumers.

According to Rebecca, that educational and inspirational content takes different forms depending on the brand. For example, Brawny has a new campaign they were planning pre-COVID-19 called “Giants Take Action” about people making a difference or showing strength and resilience in their communities.

It was definitely a lot harder 25 days ago than it is today. The team feels good about what we've accomplished so far. Brooke Lujano
“Brawny was able to pivot a lot of those plans to naturally fit into our COVID-19 strategy,” said Rebecca. “Now, one thing they are doing is spotlighting and supporting Giants who are taking action in their communities to help others in light of COVID-19.”

Brooke said they're prioritizing helpful and educational content from the corporate side, as well.

“We're using LinkedIn to speak directly to our employees and share some of the executive visibility posts we've been working on with our CEO,” she said. “Facebook and Twitter are being used to educate consumers and highlight our partners on what we're doing to support COVID-19 relief efforts — in addition to answering questions in real time.”

Throughout this process, Rebecca and Brooke said the biggest challenges were adapting to the situation and tackling their increased volume.

“This situation, especially early on, truly changed every day,” said Rebecca. “We had to be adaptable and flexible with our plans every step of the way.”

Brooke added that having to work around the clock, especially at the beginning of the crisis, was a big challenge.

“Everyone has done a great job, but we're all exhausted,” she said. “But, it was definitely a lot harder 25 days ago than it is today. The team feels good about what we've accomplished so far.”

Rebecca said they've been fortunate to see a largely positive response to their efforts.

Transparency and authenticity are always paramount, but getting ahead of the curve with that messaging was a major win for us. Rebecca Glassman
“We got a lot of praise early on from our consumers for being the first brands to acknowledge what was happening and to empathize and acknowledge their frustrations,” she said. “We tend to see a lot of positive conversations and encouragement — especially for our employees.”

On the corporate side, Brooke said they're seeing more employees and families of employees coming to them with concerns around safety for essential workers.

“Giving them a thoughtful, empathetic answer makes them feel heard,” she said. “You can quickly turn a situation positive by just acknowledging them and giving them more information.”

According to Rebecca, their quick action, internal support, and authentic messaging helped make their response successful.

“Transparency and authenticity are always paramount, but getting ahead of the curve with that messaging was a major win for us,” she said. “But, we're not done. The messaging is going to be updated as the situation with COVID-19 continues to evolve. And, internally, everybody's got to be on the same page about that.”

You want to be the same brand to your consumer, no matter where they meet you. Rebecca Glassman
Brooke added that they've been fortunate to have the full support of their leadership team backing them up. “Georgia-Pacific is a principles-based organization,” she said. “So, people at all levels of the company are open to thinking about things and trying to put themselves in the consumer's shoes, and it helps us make decisions faster.”

For anyone formulating a response like this, they said getting out good, helpful information fast is more important than having every piece of content be perfect.

“Aim for 85% perfection, because if you try to make sure everything you say is absolutely perfect, you won't have time to get things out as quickly as you need to,” said Rebecca. “Had we aimed for absolute perfection, we never would have been as fast. There's always room to iterate and get better as a situation progresses.”

She also said it's crucial to think about the entire consumer journey across every touch point, not just social media.

“At the same time we were launching coordinated messages on social, those messages were launching on our website and in email messaging,” said Rebecca. “You want to be the same brand to your consumer, no matter where they meet you.”

Rebecca Glassman and Brooke Lujano have been members of SocialMedia.org since 2015. You can connect with Rebecca and Brooke on LinkedIn.