COVID-19: Communicating in a crisis

Boris Johnson has called for ‘blitz spirit’ and Donald Trump has declared himself a ‘wartime president’, but how can your company comms keep up with all this fighting talk? Our tone of voice experts are here to help.

COVID-19: Communicating in a crisis

We are living – as many politicians (including the UK chancellor), journalists, CEOs and marketers have told us many times now – in unprecedented times.

Do you feel we’re at war? We wouldn’t blame you: during a recent public address, Emmanuel Macron repeatedly stated France is at war. Boris Johnson has called for ‘blitz spirit’ and Donald Trump has declared himself a ‘wartime president’.

It’s easy, against this kind of rhetorical backdrop from our leaders, to reach for such language ourselves. This language is likely to affect how we perceive and experience the COVID-19 pandemic. Already, NHS staff talk of feeling ‘on the front line’ and, due to a lack of supplies, like ‘cannon fodder’.

The effects of the current crisis have quickly become visibly evocative of a wartime mentality, in everything from school closures and stockpiling to the many posts you may have seen on social media about planting vegetable seeds and becoming more sustainable (‘Dig for victory!’). On the darker side, too, there are stories of shops hiking up prices and scams and hoaxes, calling to mind wartime spivs, profiteers and propagandists.

Our customers need to hear from us, but pitching our messages right is no easy task. In this shifting language landscape, what can you do to make sure you’re speaking appropriately to your customer? Here are our five top tips…

1. Make sure your content is meaningful and authentic 

Don’t join communication bandwagons that aren’t relevant to your company-customer relationship. We’ve all had numerous emails from various CEOs; how many of these went to recent customers, or those likely to need to know the CEO’s message?

Similarly, there’s no sense calling a customer base ‘a community’ if they last bought a single pair of trainers from you three years ago. Don’t pretend you have a level of relationship with customers that isn’t really there.

Understandably we’re all looking for the ‘new normal’. Irrelevant messaging, while always an occupational hazard of marketing even in normal times, will stick out like a sore thumb at a time like this.

2. Consider swapping humour with helpfulness

The emotional landscape is now much wider, more varied and far more difficult to predict.

In times not long past, we may not have thought twice about publishing a funny post or making light of current situations, but now we have to tread more carefully.

It’s impossible to know what your customers might be going through. They may well be coping with financial hardship, illness or even bereavement. An unfortunately-timed attempt at humour could come across as insensitive or tone deaf.

Humour can be an excellent way of bonding with your customer. In its place, offering practical help and advice wherever possible – whether it’s downloadable children’s activity packs or ideas for having an amazing staycation or monetary support such as a payment holiday – allows you to continue that bond in shared solidarity. Helpfulness can be fun too. 

A community isn’t something you hang a title on; it’s a feeling of support, network, and reassurance. It’s possible to make your customers feel they are part of your community by offering meaningful support.

3. Go for quiet seriousness

At a time like this, we’d suggest that your voice needs to dial up notes of reassurance, can-do confidence and empathy.

This means that you offer customers straightforward facts, get to the point quickly about things they need to know, ensure subject lines and posts are to the point, and that you publish required information accurately.

Where you need to refer to government guidelines or other authoritative text, include links that help your customers to feel reassured about factual accuracy.  

Overall, aim for copy that is concise, accurate and practically helpful, without too much heaviness or leaden attempts at humour.

4. Practicality is the new aspirational

As the country braces itself for what is likely to be the biggest recession since the second world war, it’s clear that practicality is likely to win out over aspiration.

It’s no longer about what the customer can be through your product, but what your product can do to help your customer do what they need to do.

Find ways to position what you offer sensitively and with respect to all – but particularly those most vulnerable and in need of assistance.

As Steven Forth advises in his blog Pricing in a Time of Uncertainty, values and morality matter in sales and marketing too: ‘People will remember the companies that make ethical choices and those that do not.’

If your company cannot adapt its factory and supply chain to produce hand sanitisers or ventilators, what can you do?? Can you share useful information or advice that speaks (from your area of expertise) to where people are at now, without secretly trying to sell them something at the same time? Can you say or make something that might just cheer people up?

5. Be absolutely clear

This is a confusing time of new terminology (‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’, ‘herd immunity’, ‘pandemic’, ‘viral load’) and unclear messaging (do we go to the park or stay at home?) – and all this adds to anxieties.

Bain & Company’s excellent article on How to be the Leader your People Need Right Now explores how our primary responses to a threat – flight, fight or freeze – and the genetic makeup of our brains informs our response to this pandemic.

Primarily, it means that we must communicate clearly, efficiently and effectively. Where you need to ask your customers to do something, be very clear about what it is they need to do, how, and any information about what they can expect next.

Content strategists: top things you should be doing right now

  1. Check your content is searchable
  2. Make sure it’s up to date, particularly with recent government announcements.
  3. Check the tone of voice and adjust where necessary.
  4. Identify areas that could be better conveyed through the use of different formats – video and infographics, for example,
  5. Reflect on what your brand could meaningfully contribute.