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Strategic Communications in the Time of COVID-19

COVID-19 has overwhelmed our hospitals, halted our economy, and transformed our culture overnight.

It has also filled our inboxes, as seemingly every non-profit we’ve donated to, brand we’ve bought from, hotel we’ve visited, airline we’ve flown, and local business we’ve frequented has reached out since this pandemic erupted.

How can you ensure that your communications meet this complex and challenging moment?

Some of these messages have been powerfully moving. A greater percentage have made my eyes glaze over with generalities. And a few have been so tone-deaf as to make me wonder whether they were written by an actual human.

In the past three weeks — as we’ve counseled dozens of clients and friends, helping them reorient their communications approach through this unprecedented pandemic — a few principles for action have crystalized: compassion, authenticity, and vision.

Compassion: Effective communications will acknowledge and navigate emotional mix of shock, anxiety, fear, and loathing that everyone is now experiencing.

It is important to communicate both compassion and solidarity. Your audience needs to understand that you know what they are going through — and that you are in this moment right alongside them.

To really accomplish this, you must be specific.

Now’s the time to give up the corporate speak, euphemisms, and general clichés. Name the issues your intended audience is going through — try to say more than “we hope you are well.” Be open about the challenges or anxieties you and your organization are facing.

Speak in simple words and clear terms, directly addressing how you are managing during this crisis, as if you were talking to a friend. Tell them what’s really in your head — and in your heart.

It doesn’t matter if you have a small business or a Fortune 500 Company. One of my favorite restaurants (an incredible Indian take out spot located in a West L.A. gas station) accomplished this perfectly in an Instagram post announcing their temporary closure. Starting with the title text, “a small favor to ask,” the owners why they were closing, when they plan to reopen, and how they hope loyal customers will buy gift cards so they can retain their staff.

Even if the message you must deliver is uncomfortable or tough to swallow, people will be much more receptive if they feel like there is a living, breathing human being on the other end of the line.

Authenticity: This is a moment to channel and communicate your most authentic self. The odds are that the things which made you great before the crisis can make you even greater during it.

You should be asking the question: what can I (or my brand/organization) uniquely bring to the table right now to improve this situation we are all in?

How can I make people’s lives during this moment more meaningful, convenient, entertaining, or secure?

How can I empower my audience, customers, or employees to help?

Distilleries are making hand sanitizer. Lady Gaga is curating an online benefit concert for the Global Citizen to help the World Health Organization fight COVID globally. Tieks, a shoe company, is making masks (and offering customers gift cards if they sew masks at home). Now is the time for companies to get nimble.

Importantly, although every communication must be filtered through the lens of how it will be received in the context of COVID-19, every communication doesn’t have to be about COVID-19. In fact, most shouldn’t be.

In the past two weeks, we’ve helped numerous clients successfully launch entirely new programs — from webinars and online education program, to email and social campaigns, to multimedia content platforms — which are not focused on COVID. Yet, they all leveraged the fact that there is a new, available online audience that is looking to be engaged, inspired, educated, and connected in this unprecedented moment we are living through.

Vision: The best communicators in this moment won’t just address the current crisis. They will also give a vision of how they are going to lead, innovate, and drive change in the post-crisis world.

Whether you are thinking about messaging, media strategy, digital, or internal communications, you should be asking: how does my brand, cause, organization, or idea fit into a larger narrative about the future?

Our culture, our politics, our economy, our work habits, and our relationships are all going to change once this pandemic runs its course. How are you going to be uniquely positioned in this new reality?

Communicating this vision will be increasingly salient as the shock of quarantine wears off — and people begin anticipating what comes next.

Amid a profoundly uncertain time, presenting a vision for where you’d like to head — even if it’s a very rough draft — has extraordinary potential to engage, interest, and inspire. Ultimately, this will be the challenge and opportunity that every leader will face in the weeks ahead.