How did Ligo Sardines Remain Relevant Amid the Coronavirus Crisis?

In today’s health crisis, companies are thinking of ways to make their products and services relevant despite the limitations and barriers due to CoViD-19 Pandemic. Companies use different public relations strategies to maintain their corporate image and brand reputation.

Public relations (PR) is “a decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organizations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods.” (International Public Relations Association, 2019)

Ligo Sardines, a product of Tung Chingco Trading for the past 65 years, is a “market leader in the canned fish industry.” (Philippine Star, 2019). “It is so well-loved that it has become a “klasik”—an icon and a staple in Pinoy homes.” (Philippine Star, 2019)

The canned sardines brand is one of the products that actively expressed their views through their official Facebook account. It made witty social media posts such as “No Special Powers Needed”, “Social Distancing Please”, “Transparency”, and “Quality Testing” which many Filipinos perceived as their way to throw “shade” against government’s actions during the enhance community quarantine (ECQ).

However, on April 4, 2020, the hashtag “#boycottligosardines” was one of the trending topics on Twitter. It followed the remarks of Ligo Sardines’ Vice President for Operations Mikko Laurence Tung that their company will donate directly to hospitals and non-government organizations as Ligo Sardines’ contribution to the fight against CoViD-19.

The question now is how did Ligo Sardines act during this time of crisis using social media platforms like Facebook.

Did Ligo Sardines remain relevant during the CoViD-19 Pandemic in the Philippines and the declaration of the ECQ, and the extended ECQ from March 17 to May 15, 2020, based on the Corporate Relevance Model?

W2O “is an independent network of complementary digitally-oriented marketing and communications firms focused on integrated business solutions to drive change and growth for the world’s leading brands and organizations” (W2O, 2020)

The Corporate Relevance Model suggests “companies that are relevant behave differently and solicit different stakeholder engagement.” (W2O, 2020) Remaining relevant amidst a global health and economic crisis is a challenge to many companies.

5W Public Relations (5WPR), a leading public relations company in New York, USA, said PR “is about sending the right messages to the right place and the right people, creating a stronger brand reputation.” “Most have a vague understanding of what public relations mean, and many even have a slight idea of what goes into it and the benefits it offers businesses. Very few, however, understand the true impact it has” (5WPR, 2020).

The PR company came up with “four ways PR is shaping the marketing world in 2020”.

These are:

    1. PR increases brand credibility,
    2. PR increases profits, sales, and leads,
    3. PR changes the way people think about a business, and
    4. PR enhances online presence.

Lerbinger (1997) categorized eight (8) types of crises: Natural disasters, technological emergencies, confrontations, malevolence, organizational misdeeds, workplace violence, rumors, and human-made failures. For example, the CoViD-19 Pandemic is a source of confrontations, misdeeds, rumors, and human-made failures. It presented an intricate problem that needs special crisis planning and response measures.

While we know what a crisis is, there is a need to evaluate the behaviors along with the messages the organization sends. This evaluation of behaviors and messages is why experts in public relations have significant responsibilities to create crisis communication plans, provide information, and prevent negative public opinion about the institution and its leaders.

The W2O CoViD-19 Corporate Relevance Model is used “for discerning relevance at the corporate level and a roadmap for improving relevance in essential dimensions important to a business” (W2O, 2020).

The Model “begins with a comprehensive understanding of an organization’s audience reality and then dissects interests, networks, communities, and topics into a relatable data set that can be assimilated and acted upon in real-time” (W2O, 2020). It has six (6) essential elements Sensitivity, Empathy, and Action; Organizational Confidence; Collaboration; Timing; and Reinforcing Employee value in a virtual workplace. This Model provides “a decision-making protocol to marketers and communicators seeking to connect consistently and authentically on multiple levels with critical audiences” (W2O, 2020).

How did Ligo Sardines maintain a connection with critical stakeholders breaking through and engaging the right behaviors using the Relevance Model? The Model integrates vital digital signals (e.g., interest, engagement, and amplification) with key stakeholders in the ecosystem (e.g., customers, employees, the financial community, policymakers) to determine how connected and engaged brands are with their markets.

Using the media narratives (PR campaigns) and engagements (reactions, comments, and shares) from the official Facebook account of Ligo Sardines-Philippine from March 13 to April 30, 2020, we can find the following:

Ligo Sardines Public relations study
Ligo Sardines’”No special powers needed” campaign, March 23, 2020, earned 44,107 shares

Brands’ Use of Social Media during CoViD-19

Ligo Sardines’ content creators succeeded in using a mixture of paid media, earned media, and owned media in their public relations campaign during the height of the Pandemic by looking at the measurement of impressions is through emojis (reactions), shares, and comments on their high-impact, visual social content.

The study measured impressions through emojis (reactions), shares, and comments on Ligo Sardines’ high-impact, visual social content based on Smith (2014). Smith suggests the use of the following formula to compute the total media value of engagements or impact of social media content:

In this case, Total Media Value (TMV) and Return on Investment (ROI) for Ligo Sardines’ one (1) stakeholder share on Facebook post is:

TMV = No. of Engagement x (Dollar/Peso Value Assigned to Each Engagement + Standard Media and Content Production Cost

TMV = No. of Shares x Dollar (Peso) assigned to each engagement + GMA 7 primetime rate for a 30-seconder ad + Daily wage of in house social media unit staff

= 1 x 54.11 + [500,000.00 + 537]

= 54.11 x 500,537.00

TMV    = 27,084,057.00

ROI = TMV – Investment / Investment

= 27,084,057 – 500,537 / 500,537

= 53.10%

PR Issues during the CoViD-19 Pandemic

PR issues arise during the Pandemic, such as empathy, exploitation, and humor. The brand’s official statements dated March 22 and April 3, 2020, respectively, gained positive reception and sentiments concerning the issue of promoting content with empathy. Ligo Sardines posted public relations materials that show balance.

The brand delivered a mix of top quality content and essential information about the coronavirus. It engaged its audience while remaining sensitive in content and approach.

On the issue of exploitation or taking advantage of the current situation to benefit the business, Ligo Sardines, based on data, was not perceived by customers as one that exploits their feelings during this most vulnerable period. Current audiences did not receive the posts as foul based on the number of comments. For example, 7,041 consumers discussed the official statement dated April 3, 2020. Consumers also commented on Transparency (4,295 comments) and Special Powers (3,778 comments), among others.

Lastly, is the use of humor during the Pandemic. While people look for ‘breaks’ or ‘softer’ stories for comfort and distraction, PR teams shall find the right tone. A business cannot resort to humor as anxiety runs an all-time high now. The post on Sardines in Green Tea dated April 1, 2020, a post related to the celebration of April Fool’s Day, made it to the list of most-clicked posts in terms of Reactions with 25,191 emojis.

Unlike other posts, the Sardines in Green Tea campaign is not directly related to CoViD-19. However, its posting date falls under the study period, and we deem it part of the research. Experts say, “even the most well-placed humor runs the risk of poking at an open wound.” Nevertheless, Ligo Sardines used humor correctly on the said post. The brand capitalized on the use of timing and humor.

Corporate Relevance Model

In the Corporate Relevance Model, the primary elements of sensitivity, empathy, and action are essential. Ligo Sardines presented their content in line with the sub-topics of CoViD-19 in the Philippines. These sub-topics are Special Powers (incidentally touches on Bayanihan to Heal as One Act that granted special powers to the President) with 44,107 shares, and Quality Testing (indirectly relates to mass testing as a means to flatten the curve) with 20,058 shares. Other sub-topics are Transparency (unwittingly about the use of funds of the local and national governments) with 34,000 shares, and Donation to the Office of the Vice President (OVP) of the Philippines (referencing the assistance provided by Ligo Sardines to the second-highest office in the government) with 3,172 shares.

The said socially-relevant and politically-inclined messages on Facebook were the most thought about, talked about, and believed in posts based on audience engagement and reach.

Based on the Corporate Relevance Model, the elements of trust and confidence are equally essential to make companies relevant, especially in the Pandemic.

The posts on the brand’s official statement declaring the reallocation of its entire advertising budget for 2020 notably to support non-government organizations, charities and independent groups’ relief and response efforts, and official statement of support to the initiatives of the national and local government and the most vulnerable sectors of society build trust and confidence of stakeholders including the Donation to OVP of at least 20,000 cans of sardines.

Relevant brands are balancing engagement. “Brands are weighing the opportunity cost for when the right moment or what the right approach will be to re-engage consumers. Those that are tapping into the current social and cultural urgency while being sensitive to the current environment are connecting more strongly” (W2O, 2020).

According to the Corporate Relevance Model, timing is an element that can also be explored by brands to be relevant in the CoViD-19 Pandemic. The “Sardines in Green Tea” campaign is an example of timing that made the brand relevant.

The other elements of the Corporate Relevance Model are collaboration and employee value. The co-branding and partnership with Angkas show an example of external collaboration and earned for Ligo Sardines 4,475 shares. There was no post related to employee value found on Ligo’s Facebook page. However, there was a Twitter post dated March 26, 2020, expressing recognition for its employees’ work and creation. The post credited the employees’ role in the production of infographics and messages that feature the brand.

“Brands that can assess, adapt and act are gaining relevance: Brands that are finding ways to assess needs quickly and how they can contribute, adapting their existing business model to meet the need, and then moving to action are demonstrating growing relevance” (W2O, 2020).

Based on the Corporate Relevance Model, “COVID-19 continues to dominate the media narrative generating 187 million shares, a 222% increase, and eclipsing everything else. Only 7.5% of sharing during this period was unrelated to COVID-19)” (W2O, 2020).

Ligo Sardines took advantage of the current cultural and socio-political situations and other indicators of relevance. The number of shares it generated for its top five (5) social media campaigns was high. Overall, stakeholders patronized their social media content. W2O’s Corporate Relevance Model used shares “as a measure of what is capturing attention and what people feel strongly enough about to amplify” (W2O, 2020).

The W2O study claims, “as the Pandemic evolves, new topics emerge.” These sub-topics are Containment-Stay-at-Home Orders, Cancellations, & Closures; Prevention-Social Distancing & Best Practices; Treatments, Trials, & Testing; and Healthcare System-Response & Shortages are most shared topics from January 1, 2020 –April 10, 2020, 135000 articles, 449 million shares on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit”. The said emerging topics made it to the media outlet white list of 150 US publications (W2O, 2020). These are CoViD-19 Pandemic new topics that Ligo Sardines’ related to in their Facebook posts.

Ligo Sardines was top of mind during the Pandemic. It used emerging topics as anchors of its public relations campaigns in social media. Those activities earned for the brand significant media value captured the attention and built a secure connection with its stakeholders. W2O noted that local engagement is needed more than ever in this crisis. “Increasingly, local relevance is on the rise, and local outlets are driving engagement” (W2O, 2020).

Ligo Sardines performed well in the ways companies leverage local engagement to drive relevance. Its media narratives and engagement in social media and the Internet got the attention of its stakeholders. Nevertheless, there were instances such as the personal statement of one of its Vice Presidents and the statement of the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights-Philippines on alleged violations of labor laws, rules, and regulations, when the brand received an equal amount of hate and outbursts from some sectors of its stakeholders’ groups.

Overall, Ligo Sardines’ public relations strategies, media narratives, and engagements have most of the attributes or anatomy of relevant companies during COVID-19. The brand displayed relevance in its social media narratives and engagements, particularly on Facebook.

Ligo Sardines’ social media engagement based on reactions, comments, and shares reflects the customers’ sentiments and emotions. Particularly on the massive number of shares, its Facebook posts gained significant engagement for the period covered. The reactions and comments were also high. The Corporate Governance Model states that “relevance maps and closes the gap between what companies need to say, want to say, and are saying, and what stakeholders want from, and are saying about, the company.”

The brand’s media narratives and engagements using Facebook created a unique connection with stakeholders by authentically and swiftly helping to solve a problem, garnered attention in social conversations, and earned positive reception and sentiment from the public in general, and its stakeholders’ group, in particular.

In sum, Ligo Sardines achieved its public relations goals during the time of the Pandemic. The brand adhered to the Corporate Relevance Model and remained relevant during the CoViD-19 Pandemic in the Philippines.

*Alexander Rosete is the General Manager of Pitch & Reach Pro Public Relations, Media and Communication Professionals, a communication management consulting and professional services company. He also teaches Strategic and Corporate Communication, and Crisis, Risk and Emergency Communication at the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication Graduate School and Holy Angel University Graduate School-Master in Communication Program.

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May 12, 2020, Manila, Philippines