Communication Lessons From COVID-19 That Will Last Long Beyond the Pandemic
by Linda Pophal
It’s fair to say that few, if any, companies—or their communication staffs—were prepared to respond quickly and appropriately to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. As millions of employees suddenly found themselves working remotely from their homes and millions of customers found themselves suddenly shut off from the companies and brands they typically engaged with, communication professionals began grappling with important questions, including the following:
- How do we continue to communicate with a suddenly dispersed audience?
- How do we find the right balance between standard key messages and the need to address the ravages of the virus for employees, customers, and the community at large?
- How do we strike the right tone—not too flippant, but also not too alarmist?
There have been some important communication lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked content marketers to share their key takeaways—what has worked well for them, what hasn’t, and how the experience will shape their communications for months (or maybe years) to come.
Brian Chandler, president of Commonwealth Public Relations & Marketing, says the firm started a daily vlog on YouTube when it first learned that COVID-19 was becoming an issue. It focused on providing PR and communication tips that other businesses could use. Then it began offering to book free consultations with viewers on how their companies could be communicating during the crisis. In addition, it also started interviewing other professionals via Zoom and sharing its insights on the vlog. “The response via emails and phone calls has been encouraging,” says Chandler. “This is keeping us relevant as experts during this time when business is slowing for some, with the goal of having a flood of new business when COVID turns around.”
As always, content marketers need to focus clearly on conveying information that is of value to their audience. Patricia Walterick, founder and CEO of Open Space Digital, Inc., offers an example. “A company we work with does basement waterproofing and renovation,” she says. “Our most recent content has shifted to preparing your basement for food storage or sheltering in place—also, how to create an amazing family room or man cave in your basement.” These are things people can do at home and are relevant right now. Another client, Walterick says, has adapted his media and corporate training to selling phone consultancy services for brands in crisis. “The main thing that is important is finding something people need or want now, to solve the problems they have now, and writing about that,” she says.
In this environment, marketing requires understanding, consideration, and caution to a large degree. There are a few missteps that content marketers should always avoid, but they’re more egregious right now.
WHAT DOESN’T work
Failing to communicate tops the list of don’ts for content marketers of all kinds, regardless of whether they are currently open for business. “When a global crisis hits, marketing is rarely top-of-mind for corporate leaders,” says Norman Guadagno, CMO of Acoustic, an independent marketing cloud platform. He thinks that’s a big mistake. “Effective marketing and communications are perhaps even more critical to a business’ bottom line in times of unrest than during normal operations because they have the potential to make or break a business’ reputation, shaping stakeholder loyalty for years to come,” Guadagno says. “Recognizing the emotional impact a certain situation has on all stakeholders and responding in a personalized way is an important part of marketing effectively during a crisis.”
Another misstep is being too blatantly—and often inappropriately—self-promotional. It’s true of content marketing in general, but the imperative to avoid blatant self-promotion is even more important when dealing with a community crisis. “Brand and organizational reputations can take years to build but can be destroyed in minutes,” says Julie O’Donnell, executive VP, global head of digital for Evoke KYNE. Especially now, she says, “companies need to revert to content fundamentals and avoid being seen as opportunistic or promoting content that isn’t of public health value at this time.” She has seen backlash for organizations that are donating needed goods, such as face masks and other equipment, “because they’ve promoted the tweet announcing that fact.”
Stay in touch, yes. But stay focused on audience needs and meeting them in ways that align with your brand. Minimize, or downplay entirely, blatant promotional messaging.
BEST PRACTICES FOR FUTURE COMMUNICATIONS
Here are some additional best practices that apply now and in the future:
- Create better connections through communication tools—While Evoke KYNE had already embraced various forms of virtual collaboration tools (including Zoom, Slack, and Box), O’Donnell says she has seen that clients are more eager to use them. “The increase in adoption of video conferencing right now is a game changer for the agency-client dynamic,” she says. “As each day passes, clients are becoming more comfortable doing more virtually, which can help to increase turnaround time and foster agility in lieu of cycles of in-person meetings.”
- Leverage cloud applications—Companies that already had their content readily available through a cloud application have been able to operate relatively seamlessly and with their broader team, even as they work from home. Companies that didn’t are now adding that capability to their wish list for the future.
- Harness video content—Especially in an environment in which many are eager for in-person interactions, video can provide a personal touch that audiences appreciate. Short, easily digestible video segments can be a great way to stay in front of an audience to provide news, updates, and useful tips and suggestions that help to strengthen the brand and boost engagement.
- Shorten timelines—Another welcome shift that O’Donnell has seen in the communication process since the arrival of COVID-19 is more of a focus on speed and faster timelines for content production. Working in the highly regulated arena of healthcare and pharma, she says, means that lengthy project times and slower adoption for new technology are common. But, O’Donnell says, “What we’re seeing at the moment is a willingness to embrace new approaches and a can-do attitude to deliver support to those most in need at such a challenging time. Teams and organizations are mobilizing quickly across the healthcare sector and beyond—collaborating entirely virtually with aggressive timelines.”
No one can say how content marketing (let alone the world) will look after the pandemic subsides. What we can say, though, is that the communication lessons learned during this crisis are likely to serve content marketers well, now and in the future. In fact, the situation is really providing a strong affirmation of what exceptional content marketers already knew: Delivering value through content consistently is what serves to build and strengthen a brand, in bad times and good.