By Linda Martin, APR, partner at Westbound Communications
While we heard and read about the coronavirus for weeks before the spread hit the United States, the most surprising part of the onset of the crisis was how fast it accelerated. That speed took so many companies by surprise. The pandemic went from water-cooler talk to stay-at-home orders practically overnight. Adjustments and accommodations had to be put in place in hours not days or weeks.
Problem-solving is the hallmark of our business. Clients came to us as the situation was still shifting, and we were already implementing technologies to connect via video conference and enhancing their VPN networks for remote working. I think in many ways, by virtue of being smaller, we’re ahead of clients in being agile enough to make those moves quickly. And every communicator I’ve talked to shifted into crisis mode immediately. We’re still helping our organizations work through the crisis.
For many, the pandemic caused fear, anxiety, uncertainty, perhaps a little bit of clumsiness in transitioning to new ways of doing business, homeschooling, and connecting. Companies started to realize they could play a role in assuring a scared consumer base in flux. But it also led to what felt like cookie-cutter messaging over time because almost everyone had the same verbiage:
“We’re here for you.”
“We’ll be here for you.”
“We’re all in this together.”
I like to think that all the messages are sincere — although they are vastly similar. Clichés arise because you need a short-hand way to express a universal sentiment, right? But when they start to feel like everyone is using the same script, it’s up to us to figure out how to break through the sameness.
We developed a new television spot for the County of San Bernardino. The old spot was the same message heard every day at the noon briefings: “The County has resources. We are here for you. Go to the website.” The new spot focuses on ‘We all need to do our part.” It is shifting the conversation to a partnership – where each person can help each other and can help keep the doors of San Bernardino County open. More empowering language, we think.
To be genuine, you have to communicate using your own values as your foundation. Granted, many organizations have similar values, and that’s why it’s hard to stand out. But if you marry those values to your company’s cause or purpose, then you’re able to differentiate your messages. What I see as a pitfall is when brands try to use a “We’re here for you” message to try to sell products or services. Car company commercials feel like that to me. A global health, economic and social crisis is not the time to market or sell. It comes off tone-deaf and callous.
Postmates has a fresh take on food delivery messaging with their #orderlocal campaign. Celebrities talk about their favorite local places to eat, and the tag line is “Take care of your local community.” They never mention the food delivery service.
In the midst of managing through the pandemic, we are also helping our clients during the Black Lives Matter movement. My counsel remains the same: connect to the values of your organization’s cause or purpose.
If you saw Tom Hanks’ commencement speech to the class of 2020, he said something that really rings true. From now on, we’ll all refer to our lives in terms of “before the great pandemic” or “after the COVID-19 crisis.” Clearly, “normal” will be a relative term, and today we are all still guessing when that will happen and what it will look like. I see the continuation of messaging that puts employees and customers at the center through a lens of how an organization is making contributions to its community. More than ever, I believe consumers will want to know that companies care more about them and the planet, which drives us toward a more purpose-focused economy.
Keep in mind that we are writing our own playbooks for how to respond to and recover from this crisis.
Our clients and our organizations need our leadership and communications skills more than ever.