By now, most of us are learning to adapt to CDC guidelines and shelter-in-place orders issued by public health departments to help stop the spread of Covid-19. Such unprecedented and uneasy times! No doubt, your inbox has been chock-full of messages from businesses far and wide informing us of changes in the way they are complying, while helping us cope with the symptoms of retail, entertainment, and travel withdrawal. I find myself paying close attention to how different companies have been talking in those emails – what they choose to say and not say; how they say it; and, most important, how I feel when I’m finished reading it.
As a business these days, your content is the only link between you and your customers. At the same time, consumers are forced to recognize how much your success as part of the economic big picture really does secure their personal wellbeing – from sanitizing products to financial investments. If business can ever get personal, never has it been moreso than in this moment when people are cut off from it. How your content reaches out to customers will make or break how your business comes through this crisis.
So how do you reach out to them? The opportunity here is to make your message count for more than due diligence about how you’re complying with state and federal directives. Now more than ever, it’s not what you say that matters so much to your readers, it’s what they hear.
How your content reaches out to customers will make or break how your business comes through this crisis.
What a reader “hears” when absorbing content depends on how the message relates to his or her emotional experience. Well, the limbic system inside the brain of every consumer on the planet is working overtime right now, increasing emotional leverage to every decision and behavior related to their wellbeing. Every one of us is facing heightened stress, if not for our health then for our checking accounts. We’re worried. We’re scared. We’re angry. We’re painfully hopeful. While we stubbornly struggle to make sense of so much that can’t be known, we continue to look for any hint that we will be all right.
Like soldiers, not victims
So, what do your customers need to hear from inside their sterile chambers, reading your emails, your social media posts, and your website content? In an episode of my all-time favorite TV show, The West Wing, press secretary C.J. Cregg advises leaders dealing with a national emergency, “In a crisis, people need to feel like soldiers, not victims.” Your customers need to feel like soldiers.
The history of crisis communications has taught us some important lessons that can guide how we connect well with our constituents during this time. Here are seven important rules illustrated in the some of the emails in my inbox:
Rule #1. Acknowledge the problem. In a world where people are exposed to 34 gigabits of information every day, it’s naive to think you can minimize a real crisis or its effects on your business or your customers health, let alone avoid it or cover it up. The elephant is a health threat, and the room is the planet. Avoiding it will only make you look foolish, callous, or insensitive. In fact, it will likely backfire and lead to public relations trouble later on. It doesn’t matter if your company directly serves health needs, every business has a stake in the COVID-19 crisis, as does every customer.
That said, when you state the problem, make sure it’s the right one. A travel company that had my deposit for a trip to Italy I was supposed to take demonstrated what happens when you try to manipulate your audience with the wrong problem. “Many family businesses, passionate local producers, small hotels and bespoke DMCs, just like us, can be severely affected by your decision (to cancel your travel plans).” (In other words, please don’t cancel your trip because we need your money more than you need your health???)
Rule #2. Acknowledge the fear. During a crisis, people are able to manage the fear of what they can see and seemingly control. In this case, an illness and our own hysteria surrounding it. What’s harder to manage is the fear of the unknowns. When suddenly no one can say how fast and strong the virus spreads, how long it will last, what measures will protect us, who is most vulnerable, or what’s contaminated and what’s not, how can anyone decide on the strategies we need to cope? You don’t have to have answers, but before people can hear any advice or protective procedures from you, they need to know you understand their fears, and naming them makes the unknown feel more known.
AMC Theaters managed this eloquently in their CEO’s first communique to land in my inbox after the outbreak: “The challenge that this outbreak represents to you, and to your family, friends and community is likely not similar to anything you have seen before. All of us currently find ourselves having to process our way through uncertainty, understandable anxiety and heightened risk.”
Rule #3. State the facts, but don’t overstate them. Once you acknowledge their fears, people are ready to become informed. As a business, it’s your responsibility to share only information that comes from official sources. Read the actual public health order, the law. At the same time, don’t overshare. If you sell bottled water for example, tell your readers about the measures you are taking to ensure a safe product and a healthy supply chain; stay away from the latest update on a possible vaccine. Bottom line: when it comes to your content, talk the actual facts, but remember your place, and talk only the ones relevant to it.
REI’s first coronovirus related email does a great job of stating all of the facts relevant to their relationship with me, using language that reflects civic responsibility at the same time: After a great deal of careful consideration, we are temporarily closing our 162 retail stores nationwide starting tomorrow, March 16, until March 27. I believe that is the right thing for our community. In fact, I believe it is our duty—to do all we can to help keep one another safe in this unprecedented moment.
It goes on to tell me that all of their employees will be paid during the temporary closure, and it details how I can continue to do business with them online, including free shipping and a way to contact them with questions.
Rule #4. Use appropriate language. Hailed by the owner of a plant nursery: “We’re open because our fruit trees make us an essential business, so come on down! Buy some edible perennials that will feed you and your family for years to come!” Exclamation points and all. It came across as defensive, cheesy, and mercenary. That’s three-strikes-you’re-out in content-land.
Especially at a time like this, there’s a fine line between choosing the right tone and sounding out of touch. You don’t want your content to be so dark it pushes your readers closer to the edge. You also don’t want to wear it like a chicken suit. Before you reach out to customers, establish the right mindset. These days, I like to imagine I’m wearing a white coat and a stethoscope to inspire good bedside manners. That is, my content has to balance both a stoic respect for the pain and an encouraging spirit that contributes to the healing. Something like, “What is most important now is that you stay safe and healthy.
At a time like this, there’s a fine line between choosing the right tone and sounding out of touch.
Rule #5. Once first, always first. REI was one of the first companies in the U.S. to voluntarily close all of its storefronts, and it wrote to tell me why. In marketing, positioning is key. Enough case studies demonstrate that, even if your product is far better than the one that got there first, first usually ranks #1 in consumers’ minds. Anyone who does business with REI will hold them up not only for doing the right thing first, but also for doing voluntarily instead of under a public health order.
Rule #6. Be transparent. Say what you know, and be ready to say what you don’t know. Tell customers what measures you’re taking to consider their health and safety, as well as employees/staff and vendors. (It goes without saying, I hope, that you’re actually taking them.) Because things change by the hour in a crisis, also acknowledge that what you say today might not apply tomorrow. Be ready to address it again when things do change. Then address it.
AMC scored big on this one too. “To that end, here is what AMC is doing to help ensure the safety and health of our moviegoers and theatre teams.” It then goes on to detail not only sanitizing measures, but also their decision to cap tticket sales to 50 percent of theater capacity to allow people to practice social distancing. A few days later, AMC followed up with another email announcing they closed all theaters to comply withstate, local and federal health guidelines. Not first to close their doors entirely, but first to demonstrate meaningful sacrifice while balancing the fact that customers were still showing up at the movies.
Rule #7. Be encouraging. As critical as rules #1 through #6 are, encouragement and optimism are just as essential to supporting customer needs. Be positive, but be humble about expressing it. You don’t want to overreach here, for the same reasons stated in rule #2. A local garden center opened its first coronavirus-related email like this: Gardens are places of relaxation and joy. Finding moments to unwind and connect with plants keeps us centered. Please know that we will continue taking all measures to keep our nursery safe, relaxing, and inspiring.”
A yoga teacher reached out to remind her students that, “Your years of practice have prepared you for this uncomfortable moment.”
AMC’s CEO offered this: “At some point though, hopefully sooner rather than later, the world will return to normal. Throughout history, people have always risen to meet whatever challenges have been thrown their way — usually emerging stronger than ever.
Just enough, not too much, to make me feel like a soldier. I won’t forget it.