Any communications advisor will tell you that the rulebook has well and truly been thrown out with COVID-19. The reasons for this include the universality of the virus – almost everyone on earth is affected – and the varied level of impact, from literal life and death, to economic uncertainty, to localised inconvenience. So when, as a business owner, you consider communications with your clients and staff, keep the following guidelines in mind.
Uncertainty Is the Enemy
This is especially true for your staff. Team members have been let go, and then brought back on board following the JobKeeper subsidy announcement. However, many more (especially those casuals with less than 12 months tenure) are still facing an uncertain future.
Regardless of the nature of your relationships with team members, don’t assume that they have a complete understanding of what is going on. While it may be evident to you that you will endeavour to rehire everyone as soon as is reasonably possible, those outside your inner circle may feel uncertain. Their insecurity is likely to be compounded by friends and family who are sharing their own experiences and relating them to seemingly similar circumstances.
The cure to uncertainty is honesty
Don’t try to position things or paint a rosy picture unless it is the truth. You can tell people that you want to get everyone back on board, but that you don’t have any idea how long it might take. You might say that you will keep them up-to-date using emails or regular phone calls, or that you would like to get them involved with pre-planning once the crisis comes to an end.
Tell the truth. The clarity you offer will empower people to make decisions that are right for them.
Know What You Are Saying, Behind What You Are Saying
The term “tone-deaf” has been overused in the media lately. It is a phrase that means saying or doing something entirely inappropriate or at odds with the general public mood. Examples have included celebrities publically celebrating self-isolation in their multimillion-dollar mansions, and politicians arguing over trivialities as the virus continued to spread.
But you don’t need to be so blatant to be tone-deaf. As the crisis started and it was not apparent that the entire world would be affected, or that it would potentially last for months, many brands chose to completely ignore COVID-19. This was a reasonable response – you don’t want to be seen to be profiting from a crisis, or making light of it before the impact becomes apparent. But as the situation became clear, some continued with marketing initiatives, sales and standard promotions – all the while standing down staff and downgrading profit forecasts. These businesses, while not saying anything, are loudly proclaiming that they don’t care, or aren’t aware that the virus exists. Either way, it’s a tone-deaf response.
You can be positive, upbeat and motivational – but consider the impact on your audience. Are they suffering at the moment? Will you be seen as too casual? Communications – even mass communications – is a conversation between two people. Keep this in mind, and you are unlikely to miss the mark.
One of the core tenants of effective communication is that your message will have more resonance when you have rapport and trust before you start saying it. In the current climate, for the first time in decades, you have the opportunity to genuinely help people and businesses during an incredibly difficult time – without being seen as profiteering. This may sound somewhat cynical, but if you are sincerely using your external communications to assist others, then you will accidentally build trust at a fundamental level. Just as trustworthy people can be relied on in times of need, so too can trustworthy businesses be looked to when the world feels like it’s falling apart.
Don’t do the cheesy promotional messages that serve no purpose; think about how you can use the tools and resources at your disposal to genuinely make a difference. What do your clients and the other people in your industry need right now? What are they going through? How can you help guide them?
External Communications Is Not the Place to Vent
Keep your frustrations and annoyances away from anyone but your most trusted advisors. We are unlikely to experience a more unusual economic event in our lifetimes and with that comes high emotion. While harnessing this emotion may feel like honesty, it’s likely to have a destructive impact on your audience. You don’t need to, and shouldn’t be, emotionless, but in the modern age of highly shareable communications, a poorly thought out email can have dire ramifications.