Why we must sharpen our communication skills during crisis

As marketers, we always talk about the power of words and the need for brands to choose them wisely. But as the world shifts into crisis mode with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, words and their consumer impact are heightened and being felt more intensely. And as operations leaders turn their focus towards implementing organizational shifts to enable remote workers, marketers will need to carry the load creating measured communications to their most important constituents – customers and business partners. But what does that mean for your organization and how should you go about building what is already a nuanced message remotely? We’ve come up with several considerations for marketers.

Know who you are

Organizational branding runs the gamut – anywhere from a light touch with a simple name, logo and mission to a more thoroughly expressed identity with brand guidelines that include set typography, color families and clearly defined values and employee behaviors. Regardless of what your organization has in place, the common thread among organizations that effectively communicate is that they know what they do well, and they have a set of core phrases they use consistently to convey their value. And those descriptors don’t stop at the what – the what is easy and often quite evident. Effective communicators focus on the why.

Think of the why as the roots system for an organization’s communications. When a wild wind (or pandemic) threatens to uproot the tree, its roots ground the message and serve the audience’s needs, reinforcing its value. Conversely, when we stray from what the audience needs and expects, the roots are unearthed and the message is more likely to be lost, because we didn’t provide that value.

Contextualize but Stay True to Who You Are

As COVID-19 expands indiscriminately, we are all feeling its impact. But simply because we’re all experiencing the same event doesn’t make us all experts. As organizations begin to contextualize their brand message for the current crisis and its impact on priority audiences, remember to stick to what you know, the areas where you excel and the information your audience has come to expect from you.

For instance, if you are a consumer brand that produces cleaning supplies, stick to your knowledge of the product and your organization’s why. Straying to related but tangential topics, for instance human tendencies surrounding hoarding of cleaning products in times of crisis, is not part of your wheelhouse and has the potential to fall flat, or even worse disappoint your audience. Preach what you know and lean into that…but try to avoid overstepping. It’s a fine line.

As you begin to find that fine line for your organization, be aware of your consumers’ sensitivity as they work through their own anxiety and figure out their new normal. While humor is oftentimes an incredibly effective tool, at least for the immediate future, it should be used with great care. Also, bear in mind that delivery is central to whether a joke lands or falls flat. It’s hard to show inflection through the written word and that may very well dampen your delivery, or worse yet, offend your audience.

Get Internal Alignment

Once you’ve reexamined your areas of excellence and the expectations of your audience, take the necessary time to socialize your thinking with senior leadership. Various key roles – the CEO, the COO, your people officers – will process this event from a different lens, so it’s helpful to collaborate and understanding the problem and its most affected audiences from various perspectives. After that exercise, develop a simple, focused message that reiterates your why, bridges the gap on how that may change during this crisis and identifies the means by which your audience can communicate with you in this new normal. Circle back with your team to ensure you’ve hit on the key messages, and then you’re ready for an external audience.

Lend a Human Element

There are several funny memes and a piece from the NY Times that talk about how extroverts are struggling with the isolation of social distancing.  And while they’re made in jest to help lighten the mood during these trying times, the message is important.  We will NEED each other in order to get through this mess.  And while that won’t be face to face for quite some time, brands owe it to themselves and their audience to take this time to develop real relationships and create ways in which to connect in meaningful ways.  That can be in the form of humanizing the people from your organization – giving a face to a voice people hear on a regular basis – or creating digital opportunities to operate as a community. Not only will these events strengthen your connection with your customers, but it will provide a real benefit to their peace of mind, something we can all use a little help with.

Organizations are still in the early days of navigating what it means to operate in a COVID-19 era. But as we turn the page on a second week of working from home, and prepare for what could be several more weeks of a digital-first interactions, it’s critical that we spend the time now, if we haven’t already done so, to make sure we communicate with care and lead with the needs of our audience, first and foremost.