Marketing And Communications During The Pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak has certainly tested the resolve of many business owners, whether that’s the owner of a corner convenience store grappling with the implications of “social distancing,” the CEO of a bank wondering if the right choice is to temporarily close branches, or the Administrator at a walk-in health facility.

No business or organization is immune to the potential side effects of a sweeping epidemic that has seen state after state declare “state of emergency.” I can’t think of a time during my lifetime when I’ve seen restaurants ordered not to serve patrons except for take-out.

Yet, it’s important to maintain enough perspective to remember that it’s not just what we say that people remember, it’s how we say it too.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty and dread, the business owner needs to communicate clearly and carefully with his/her employees, vendors, customers and the public in general. The communications can take a number of different forms: internal communications to employees, external messages to clients and customers, and the more far-reaching messages through the news media when it may be appropriate to issue a press release.

A few tips to keep in mind when communicating with any audience:

  1. Be factual. If you feel it is necessary to close your business temporarily out of an abundance of caution or because of a directive from a municipality, inform both your employees and your customers what that exactly will mean for them. Will there be layoffs? Will your customers still be able to receive their orders on time? Tell it, and don’t “spin it.”
  2. Choose your words carefully. Avoid emotion-charged phrases. Don’t describe the coronavirus outbreak as “apocalyptic,” for example, even if after a long and trying day you honestly wonder if it is.
  3. Be reassuring. Especially with employees. People take their cues from others. We all hear enough negativity. You can’t turn on a cable news channel without wondering if the world is going to end in the next 15 days. In talking with employees, or customers, you have a chance to “make lemonade from lemons” by being a voice of calm reason. It doesn’t hurt to throw in a little hope in a message, saying something like “we’ll get through this together.”
  4. Pick someone from your business to be the person in charge of your external communications, whether that is in the form of emails to customers, the company newsletter, an external press release, or a media interview. All communications should be approved by the person who is in charge of communications. That way the message is consistent, and it avoids potential missteps. You don’t want the night watchman for example, talking to a reporter about why your orders are ten days behind schedule.

When facing uncertainty, it’s helpful to remember, and to believe, that better days are ahead. And as we forge toward that eventuality, it’s worth noting that, in times of crisis, it’s the cooler heads that prevail. Same goes for messaging.  With communication, it should be the voices of reason that win the day. When you communicate, be factual. Be straightforward. Be clear. And if you can, be a little optimistic.

Jim Farrell is president of PRfirst. For more information, call 617-429-7990,  

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