The Global Pandemic Calls on Companies to Communicate. But How, When and How Often?

As social distancing is now an essential way of life, everyone, personally and professionally, has turned to communicating with stakeholders via virtual channels to try and express concern and maintain as much connectivity as possible. This new normal has presented both opportunities and challenges. Here’s what we have observed thus far.

1. Words can magnify – in both frequency and tone

Now more than ever, each outreach can extend much further beyond the constituency for which it was intended and the messages contained within are heavily scrutinized. Against this backdrop, every individual communication should be viewed through a broad lens. Below is a quick list of questions to consider asking and answering before sending any communication:

  • What does everyone need to hear?
  • Who do they need to hear it from?
  • Who do I need to communicate with directly?
  • Who else might be listening?
  • Do I have answers to the most pressing questions or a process and timeline to get them answered?
  • Am I writing just because I want to express concern or is there something new to say?

Tone is as important as the message being conveyed. It is easy to inadvertently heighten the severity of our language when faced with something unknown and disruptive. But in any crisis, and particularly now, audiences are looking for signs of leadership and reassurance. That said, the facts must be true, relevant and unchanging. Therefore, we often advise clients to “answer the first question.” This means that until the question that is top of mind is answered, there will be limited appetite to hear more facts. If needed, qualify statements with: “Here is what we know today and we will let you know if that changes,” rather than speculating or cheerleading. This can be a matter of striking the right balance between empathy and business facts and goals.

2. Instead of asking “What can I do?” ask “What do you need?”

In a crisis that affects all of us, it is natural to infer that we know how others are feeling. For example, “You must be feeling so confined.” In this situation and others, we recommend turning around the question to – “What do you need?” or “How are you feeling today?” It may be that a customer, an employee or a co-worker wishes to express how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting them, but they may also welcome the occasion to speak about something else and perhaps convey other thoughts and wants. Offering stakeholders an opportunity to express an exact need or discuss an individual issue can go a long way to keeping customers, a workforce and a community engaged and working together towards a common goal.

3. Communicate directly and through a multi-channel approach

In previous major global crises, we did not have the benefit of mass technology such as social media or even email. These tools can be miraculous in their reach and speed. At the same time, we must remember that they may not carry the same weight or fill the same void as personal conversations; there also is risk that messages could be misconstrued without the benefit of a dialogue or face-to-face discussion.

We also now have generations who are accustomed to “living online.” Often in crisis situations we see that customers or employees turn to social media with a mentality of “everyone should know.” Information, and misinformation, can spread by social media at the speed of light and extend the “life” of an inaccurate narrative. When a need involving an individual issue or immediate concern arises on social media, work toward a reaching a resolution quickly and directly with the constituency affected to avoid the matter from escalating. Consider using a multi-channel approach and supplementing social media communications with video and/or phone calls to avoid engaging in an online debate for the whole world to see. Since social media and video communications can be easily shared, the safest and often most effective communications is to take a matter out of social media and as close as possible to face-to-face communication with succinct and meaningful messages that are received in the way they were intended.

In our experience, invested audiences, particularly employees and customers, have an innate sense of what is authentic and what is perhaps driven by an agenda. In a fluid and rapidly evolving situation such as COVID-19, companies should be mindful of the information they provide as it can soon be out of date or perhaps worse still, proven wrong. As counterintuitive as it is in our time of pervasive instant technology, since COVID-19 continues to present so many unknowns each and every day, thoughtful and careful watching, and sometimes waiting, can be the best path.

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