“I’ve never seen so many businesses wasted so badly,” is no doubt how Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name would have summed up the months of economic damage wrought by global lockdown. But which corporate gunslingers rode off into the horizon with their reputation intact… and which were left scrabbling in the dust? We take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of lockdown communications and the vital lessons that can be learned from them.

Good

Admiral: The insurance industry came in for heavy flak during lockdown with some major firms refusing to pay out on seemingly legitimate business interruption claims. But Admiral bucked the trend. It garnered praise for refunding its 4.4million car and van insurance customers £25 each based on the fewer claims it expected during in lockdown. Cristina Nestares, chief executive of UK insurance at Admiral, linked the refund to the national mood, saying: “The Admiral Stay At Home Refund was launched to recognise the considerable efforts people are making by staying home as much as possible and as a result driving less.”

Comms lesson: Admiral was seen as fair and in touch with the public mood. Its move was praised by journalists and led to awkward questions for competitors as to whether they would follow suit.

British Land: In a tough time for commercial property, British Land – owner of the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield – got on the front foot. CEO Chris Grigg gave an interview to The Telegraph’s Economics Editor Russell Lynch at the end of March and landed some powerful messages: British Land had “bent over backwards” to help small players because corporate reputation mattered to them; he wasn’t going to let the big supermarkets off the hook on rent; the business had breathing space due to its low gearing and strong balance sheet; and he quelled talk of succession in the business to show stability. Even though the business lost a significant chunk of its value due to factors out of its control, it fought a good comms game and protected its reputation.

Comms lesson: Show that your reputation matters to you. Even when the climate is unforgiving and there are difficult times ahead, talk about the positive initiatives your business is taking and your strengths compared to competitors.

McDonald’s: Craving the instant hit of a Big Mac became shorthand for the vision of life after lockdown. Salivating journalists wrote of the simple pleasures of “the magical golden arches” as McDonald’s came to symbolise the pleasures we were collectively being denied because of the pandemic. When the fast food chain opened 33 of its drive thru restaurants in late May, videos and pictures of snaking queues filled social media. A spokesperson explained that company was working with local authorities to ensure the queues didn’t cause traffic disruption. In the run up to lockdown, McDonald’s offered free hot drinks to all NHS, council and emergency service staff.

Comms lesson: McDonald’s position at the heart of UK culture is final proof of the success of its rebranding as a modern, clean, family restaurant. The queues don’t lie.

Bad

Dyson: It’s hard to believe you could be having a bad time of it when you have just been placed number one on the Sunday Times Rich List. But James Dyson’s frank admission in May that he had spent half a billion pounds developing an electric car which would never be made compounded the feeling that the middle of an economic crisis was not the time to be shouting about wealth. Dyson’s business then ordered its staff back into work against government guidelines, leading to widespread criticism and an inevitable U-turn.

Comms lesson: James Dyson couldn’t help the timing of the Rich List but his business’s heavy-handed treatment of employees added to a sense that he was out-of-touch.

Ovo: Energy challenger Ovo entered the big league when it bought SSE’s retail division at the start of the year. Pete Wishart, the local MP in Perth – home to bulk of the SSE workforce – was quoted as saying that he had been “reassured that all of the 8,000 staff will be transferred on existing terms and conditions and there will be no job losses.” Two months into lockdown, Ovo asked staff to apply for voluntary redundancy as it tried to shed 2,600 jobs, blaming the “new reality” of Covid-19. Unions described it as a “betrayal” with the pandemic being used as a convenient excuse.

Comms lesson: There is never a good time to communicate job losses. But Ovo left itself open to criticism and claims of opportunism by apparently giving reassurances to key stakeholders that roles were safe.

Ugly

Easyjet: The airline jettisoned its crisis communications manual at 35,000 feet and washed its dirty lifejackets in public. Founder and largest shareholder in the business Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. He stated that a multi-billion pound Airbus order was both a terrible deal and alleged it was the result of bribery. He said the deal should be cancelled – and for good measure tried to oust four key directors at an extraordinary company meeting. He failed, but Finance Director Andrew Findlay, one of his targets, resigned at the end of May. Days later, the airline announced it was cutting staff by up to 30 per cent.

Comms lesson: Keep your disagreements behind closed doors and speak with a unified voice. Try to keep vocal founders and activist shareholders inside the tent.

Hammerson: Unlike competitor British Land, commercial property giant Hammerson suffered a dreadful lockdown. The owner of North London’s Brent Cross and Birmingham’s Bullring had gone into the pandemic on the back of two bad calls. The first in December

2017 was an attempt to pay £3.4bn for rival Intu, which was scrapped thanks to an investor revolt. Intu – also having a terrible pandemic – has since seen its value collapse to around £60million with £4billion of debt. Shortly after the Intu deal fell apart, Hammerson refused to engage with a bid approach of 635p-a-share from French rival Klépierre. As its value plunged at the start of the year, it announced a £400million deal to sell seven retail parks to a private equity firm – but that collapsed thanks to the pandemic. CEO David Atkins came in for severe media criticism, not least from The Times’s business commentator Alistair Osborne. When Atkins finally announced his departure at the end of May – with the share price down to 74½p – Osborne’s stinging commentary was headlined “Hammerson horror lurches to climax”.

Comms lesson: PR can’t make bad decisions look good. But you should engage with your fiercest critics and make your best case