External Communications and the Coronavirus: Guideposts to Reach Your Key Audiences

COVID-19 is impacting all areas of life — public health and safety, business operations, the economy and our day-to-day interaction with others.

We’re washing our hands a lot, staying home and trying to stay six feet apart. People are scared, vulnerable and uncertain.

This unprecedented time means we’re all standing on shaky ground. Rules are changing for basic external communications, making it difficult for organizations to navigate. A misstep brings a lot of risk, particularly with social media at people’s fingertips to magnify any issue.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot of sincere concerns and questions from our clients about: What is the right thing to say? When should it be shared? Is it too promotional? Does this sound too canned? Is it the right time?

While every communication should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, we offer these recommendations as guideposts for any external communication at this time.

1. Any announcement should be timely, relevant and helpful.

Publicity and public health crisis don’t mix. Now is not the time to hit the marketing budget hard. Instead, be more cautious of any promotion as it can easily be interpreted as opportunistic by others.
Think about it this way: discounts for public events look like a public safety hazard; sales on jeans look frivolous when consumers can’t find toilet paper. Look no further than the flurry of anxious tweets from consumers and reporters complaining about tone-deaf pitches and promo emails that appear callous or insensitive given the circumstances.
Instead, ensure your communications are informative and have a direct and helpful impact on your audiences.
External Communications and the Coronavirus

2. Be authentic. Lead with your organization’s values, purpose, priorities or intent.

Kindness and empathy go a long way right now. Your audiences likely won’t “hear” you until they know your care. Whether you are addressing students, employees or customers, consider extending a message of compassion. And don’t worry too much about overstating that you care. Oftentimes, just when you get tired of saying something, people are hearing you for the first time.

3. Show that you care.

With any external communications, be clear about your intent for outreach. It’s your anchor and reminds your audiences why you’re engaging and why it’s relevant. For example, how are you helping amid COVID-19 right now? Are you offering a needed service for free? Advice? Expertise? Make sure what you offer aligns with your mission as a company or organization.

4. Use direct language; no euphemisms or sarcasm.

We’re all stressed and on edge, so this likely means your audiences are too. Everyone’s thresholds are much lower for dealing with annoyances, and we have less patience than usual. Use a sensitive, empathetic tone in all communication. This demonstrates you respectfully understand that COVID-19 is on the forefront of everyone’s mind.

5. Expectations are dynamic and in flux; be prepared to recalibrate.

Companies moving to a work-from-home policy; organizations postponing major events; school closures: all these moves set a precedent in our society. But things are changing daily, even hourly. Closely monitor developments and be prepared to pivot. When in doubt, your defining question should be: What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?

There is no one-size-fits-all roadmap for how to communicate through this chaotic time,

but these suggestions can help steer the conversation. Ultimately, the same rules apply pre- and post-COVID-19 — be authentic, be empathic and read the room.

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Robert Hoopes


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