Measuring the impact of flexible digital communications during COVID

by | Jun 4, 2020 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

It’s safe to say that most college marketing degrees don’t offer a class in “Effective Messaging During a Pandemic.”

The global outbreak of COVID-19 is a once in a century occurrence, and the toll it has taken on national economies is undeniably unprecedented. The obvious conclusion is that marketing and media messaging in the world of PRrequire a pivotas a result of the pandemic. The things that used to work won’t work now, at least not in the short term.

The question is, what should the new communication style pivot towards—and how can you evaluate its effectiveness?

These are critical considerations in a world where it is easier than ever to blunder into messaging quicksand and not even know how or why it happened. Let’s take a look at how to create flexible and effective messaging strategies, and then prepare for what might come next.

Consider a “stay the course” approach

There is the contrarian view to the idea that everything must change because of the pandemic. Don’t forget that maybe the best thing would be to stay the course and keep doing exactly what you’ve always done, with a few caveats that we’ll get to in a moment.

The coronavirus uproar has affected most of the earth’s population to some extent, but there are a few that haven’t been touched by the level of fear or chaos that most others have felt. And what do people crave during times of fear and chaos? They look to hang onto what they already know or are familiar with.

If you’ve spent considerable time and effort creating real relationships through established marketing strategies, pivoting to a new messaging strategy at the moment your readers are desperate to cling to comfortable normalcy might be the worst idea you could have. The last thing customers and clients need to see is the organizations and brands they’ve grown to trust suddenly become an unknown quantity.

Don’t think about doing anything too different. Just stay in touch, while minding these suggestions:

  • Keep your messaging schedule consistent. If you’ve always sent out weekly communication, stick with it. No more and no less.
  • In general, this is not the time for humor. This isn’t to say you can never crack a joke, but it is to say you need to be careful that it can’t be interpreted as making light of a disease that has killed over 300,000 worldwide to date. It probably won’t end well.
  • It’s also not the time to be a Salesy Salesperson either. Ditch the compulsion to throw a coronavirus sale or give away toilet paper or relentlessly push the paranoia button in the single-minded pursuit of setting the cash register ringing. Try to be sincere, compassionate, interesting, and uplifting. This will help you to build trust with your customers.

If “business as usual” isn’t appropriate

There are lots of organizations that probably shouldn’t continue a business as usual approach even given the constraints we just discussed. Maybe their typical communication style is hip, flip, or simplytoo edgy to pass muster in these times. What do you do then?

  • Transparency: There’s no sense in pretending it’s business as usual when everyone knows it isn’t. Acknowledge that we’re living in an “interesting” and challenging time of history. Let your messages communicate the reality of how Covid-19 has impacted your business and the steps you’re taking to deal with the challenges so that your business survives. Also, don’t try to be a pandemic expert unless you are one. There are plenty of world-class healthcare organizations out there. Let them do their job without you muddying the water.
  • Targeted feel good storiesAs we’ve mentioned, hard times make people want to read uplifting stories of humans triumphing over adverse conditions. Life in the age of Covid-19 is no different, but keep these stories focused on virus related feel good content. That poignant story of the fireman saving the cat from a tree won’t have nearly as much impact as the same fireman delivering the cat to the homebound individual who hasn’t been outside in a month for fear of contracting the disease. That’s what good targeting does. It’s the same story, just with a more precise angle.

When to return to normal communications

At what point is it okay to release that long held breath and return to something resembling normal message content and processes? Okay, that’s sort of a trick question. The concept of normal is always changing, even when there is no pandemic in sight.

We can look to the cybersecurity industry to see that the normal level of hacker activity five years ago differed from what was normal the day before the pandemic and the normal we’re living in right now is just that – normal but new. In other words, it’s the new normal. Why focus on hackers? The ugly reality is that they take advantage of any opportunity afforded them to crank up attacks, using peoples’ fear against them.

In an internet long gone, we could simply send out an email and expect that it would be received in good form at the other end. But today, we can’t be surprised if a hacker manages to intercept, redirect, or impersonate our messages. Common email encryption methods such as S/MIME or PGP are no longer as effective against cybercriminals as they once were.

Truth be told, there likely will never come a single day or moment in time when you can heave a huge sigh of relief that the pandemic has ended and roll the clock back to some previous period in time. Clocks don’t work that way and neither does much of anything else.

Treat today as normal for today. Tomorrow it might be something different. There likely will come a time when you can begin to ramp up communications to a higher level but that will be in the context of a society that has changed permanently.

For those who lived through the aftermath of Pearl Harbor or 9-11, you know what we’re talking about.

Final thoughts

If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic has probably brought to light for many businesses the reality that they did not spend enough time planning for crisis communications both internally and externally. If your organization falls into this category, now you have something new to think about.

While it’s almost certain that you can’t foresee every bump (or mountain) in the road ahead, it’s good practice to throw hypotheticals out to the team and see how they respond. Devise a scenario and, wargame style, make it as realistic as you can.

Create an official crisis communication strategy document and add to it as you go. What kind of content plays best to a particular crowd? Pandemic planning should probably get a chapter of its own now but you can bet there is something else unexpected lying in wait just around the bend.

You might not be ready in particular for it but you can shoot for a higher general state of readiness.

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Dan Fries
Dan Fries is Founding Partner at Lakeview Capital in Hong Kong.

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