Staying Connected During COVID-19: Communicating Through Crisis

Insight

by Mark DeVito, 3.18.2020

COVID-19 is here. And along with it comes an unprecedented uncertainty that will affect…everyone. It’s bigger. It’s world-wide, and no business, brand or person is immune. Businesses and their brands can and should lead, especially here in the U.S. with government and other leadership in flux, the brands that we respect and support can lead the way. So, what can you learn from brand strategists and creative marketers during this time?

It’s true, your brand and uncertainty don’t typically belong together (a major part of what we do is to guide our clients to avoid this), but it’s interesting how during a time like this, they not only co-exist, but need the same strategy. The goal is to have the ability to communicate your brand at any time, especially when it matters most. You can learn a lot about how the world perceives you and what your brand stands for in uncertain times.  

And, we’re seeing even more communication right now, especially from some that you don’t typically hear much from. Some are reacting, some are innovating and developing new ideas (I’m always amazed at how a change in routine can let the creative out of the bag…when things change, our perspective often goes with it —  positively), and some are doing nothing.  

As a strategy and creative agency, we teach and navigate our clients through the fast current of today’s communication world. They (and us) need to be a lot of things to a lot of people. And there’s no way you can apply one approach or methodology to all. We all (hopefully) threw that out the window a long time ago. Every engagement, every nuance is different — and that’s the approach with your message when in crisis, or going through any major change.

So, here are a few things that we know a lot about — and know that they apply today:

Internal vs. the External

First start with your employees followed by the outside world, your customers. Your employees need to be working from the same playbook. Similar to how we start with internal alignment for developing a company’s brand strategy first, the same goes during a crisis. Your brand needs to speak with one central voice to stay as effective as possible. Your communications need to be in-tune with your tone and voice as well — keep the consistency. If your tone is playful, then dial that back and perhaps dial up another brand component, like empathy, or connectivity. Always consider the crisis and how it interrelates to the core credibility of your organization. Regardless of the focus throughout the week, now is the time to show how you care and what you stand for. 

Knight your Committee

It doesn’t have to be the usual suspects at your company, but bring together a small committee of 4-5 people. Consider including a mix of team members from the c-suite, communications and strategy teams, and a brand ambassador, someone who can centrally focus on the brand messaging. This committee is given the duty to communicate what’s important to stakeholders and other central audiences, they are given the right to make decisions related to this, while taking cues and influence from the company as a whole. I like to formulate a small group for big impact when we launch a new client relationship (especially when it comes to a brand shift).  Small teams that work well together can accomplish a lot and have the ability to be nimble. But, they have to be given that power, and others have to let go. The trust that you want your customer base to have with you starts with the trust for your team.

Reactive?

One of the more important things to avoid is being reactive. Early last week we saw a small number of emails from companies talking about what they were going to do during this coronavirus pandemic, while many of us stood by and wondered, “should we be doing that?” Then came Thursday and Friday, and we realized, “we should absolutely be doing that.” But, at what point during the drill do people stop listening? How important is it to be on the edge of that communication tsunami to get to your core constituency first? Well, it’s actually very important. About as important as going to market with a differentiated approach to your brand. This crisis is a microcosm of your brand launch, but it’s similar, it’s all about authenticity and transparency.  The more you show that you care, and aren’t just going through the motions, the more impact it’ll have. Confident brands are not reactive.

Your Flow

When it comes to your messaging during these times, controlling the cadence of your communications is paramount. What has your audience expected from you in the past with your communications, and what have you consistently delivered? Adding 20% more here from a content marketing stream makes sense, as your audience has become accustomed to that communication strategy.  But conversely, 80% more does not. You need to not only stay in control of your message, but also control the ‘when’.

Empathy

This may be a difficult thing to think about while you’re in the middle of a crisis, but it’s very important to put yourself in the shoes of your members, your customers, your clients. We serve clients that have potentially lost large sums — mostly through the events that they were driving and now had to cancel or postpone. It’s important that we are seeing the world through their eyes. For many, this is the culmination of a year or more’s worth of work to prepare for this event or launch. And now, it may be postponed indefinitely or until it comes around again next year. Uncertainty can have a lasting effect. Talk to your customers about what they are going through and how your expertise or just a helping hand can support them during this phase.

Your Knowledge

You don’t have to have all the answers. We live in a society that fears people without an immediate solution. Sometimes the best solution is to admit that you don’t have one and that you’re open and honest about what you need to do next. Your customers will appreciate that, but of course ensure them that what they are reliant on from your brand, you will continue to deliver, even better, in this not so perfect environment. This is what we’ve seen from restaurants and other food and transportation services. The ones who we feel are winning are those that not only talk about what they’re doing to course-correct their teams, but that they are paying attention. This is where their smart, relevant decisions are going to come from. Stay tuned in, focus on reliable sources and add to the conversation offering something that you can do well.

Many of us at Beyond Definition have this history and experience — working with brands large and small through times (sort of) like this — and we derive a lot from that experience. For years I worked with Johnson & Johnson who established a set of best practices for communicating in a crisis, that included early communication and typically directly with the customers themselves.  Their demeanor was transparent and calm, and when their company faced a crisis with their products, they were able to stop the crisis from growing, which allowed the company to regain 95% of market share within a few months, and interestingly enough, in the end enhanced the company’s reputation.

So what have we learned?  Stay calm, stay collected, stay awake, stay connected to your brand and most of all just be real with your audience. We’ll all get through this — I’m very hopeful, but it will take all of us.

Stay tuned for my next blog, which will focus on the power of unification.

As COVID-19 pushes teams into remote, virtual workspaces, our “Staying Connected During COVID-19” series is here to help. Let’s commit to keeping ourselves, our families, and our communities safe, one step at a time. Follow us for tips on how we can further your mission together.

Mark DeVito

Mark DeVito

As a three-time Emmy Award winning brand strategist and creative director, our President Mark DeVito spearheads effective brand-centric strategic initiatives and creative marketing campaigns for our clients.

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