The COVID crisis is rewriting the cultural rules of communications

by | May 28, 2020 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

Two months ago, any Millennial would have told you that nothing more anxiety provoking than an a real-time phone call. Of course, that was in the pre-COVID world.

But today, in the solitude of quarantine, a craving for intimacy and stronger personal connections means consumers, once notoriously adverse to spontaneous, face-to-face communications, now want to hear each other’s voices and see each other’s faces. While the COVID crisis has totally rewritten our cultural rules of communication, the frantic ways we’re corresponding will shift how we connect long beyond the lockdown.

Shift 1: Democratization of digital communities

Celebrities are live-streaming to anyone who asks to join; anonymous Zoom dance parties take place every night. When ordered to stay home, it only took a matter of days for everyone to start broadcasting themselves, mostly to seemingly chaotic and confusing ends. While it seems haphazard, each interaction is an expansion of community that chips away at our cultural fear of IRL intimacy and democratizes digital communities.

As more white collar workers wonder not when they’re going to return to the office but whether they would ever return at all, big cities will face at an exodus of knowledge workers, and their cultural capital. This migration gives brand communicators a mandate to expand their offerings to more diverse groups of consumers as they build new digital communities across the country.

Take The Wing, a women’s coworking space based in chic urban hubs: When forced to close, they quickly pivoted from meeting rooms to Zooms, making the interconnectedness of their community accessible online.

Shift 2: Exasperation with aspiration

The filtered, everything-is-perfect image that is the hallmark of influencer and celebrity marketing has never been less appropriate than now. In a global crisis, consumers are rejecting content that screams aspiration, and are instead looking for ways to share in and mitigate our collective exasperation.

From live baking tutorials to yoga flows in cluttered bedrooms to organized Zoom support sessions, we’re all content creators now, and each other’s influencers, more than ever. “Coming to you live” from the physical and emotional messiness of quarantine is recalibrating our relationship with reality, causing us to forgo unreasonable expectations and embrace “doing the best we can do” as the new form of “living our best life.”

Shift 3: Optimism as self-care

Against a backdrop of ubiquitous doomsday news, we’re clamoring for some optimism. The snark, sarcasm and troll-like tone that was once a hallmark of the internet is being replaced by uplifting content. For a moment this week, “Duck Pool Party,” a stream of ducks playing in a pool, was the most viewed Reddit livestream.

Even notoriously snarky brands like Wendy’s are shifting Twitter strategies, at least temporarily, to encourage camaraderie through games, activities and shared stories. Wholesome, positive content has become a balm for our anxiety, a form of self-care that fills a void and provides a sense of calm that facemasks and baking cannot.

Shift 4: A fascination with facts

Life in the time of Coronavirus is marked by an insatiable consumption of facts. In a short period of time, consumers, especially younger ones who have been criticized for being coddled their whole lives, have become amazingly good at distilling information from inane drivel.

Unlikely figures of cultural affection like Dr. Fauci and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have emerged as leading men of the Pandemic thanks to their straightforward delivery of facts. Now, to be worthy of consumers’ time, communicators need to be giving it to their audiences straight.

Perhaps the most trustworthy brand voice comes from a most unlikely player—Steak Umms, which has emerged as a “voice of truth” due to their straight-forward, non-nonsense tweets that seem at times quite radical. Their willingness to tweet bold opinions instead of mild platitudes, has earned them double their pre-COVID audience, and the admiration of the internet.

Post-crisis, when we emerge still shell-shocked and knowing that catastrophe can hit again at any moment, people will seek straightforward talk from brands. In this ‘new normal’ era, professional communicators will face new challenges to confront the facts and new opportunities to help clients align their actions and messaging with the needs of all Americans.

Megan Routh
Megan Routh is a cultural anthropologist and consulting strategist with Open Mind Strategy, whose expertise lies in translating cultural insights and trends into actionable strategies for Fortune 100 companies.