4 messaging keys for communicators navigating the coronavirus

Reaching out to internal and external audiences amid any crisis can be fraught with potential hazards—and especially now, with the stakes sky high. Prioritize these elements for success.

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The spread of the novel coronavirus has thrust us into unprecedented times.

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Many communicators are cautious, and rightly so. In this environment, we must make sound choices to drive impact and minimize risk. The key is to pay careful attention to four elements of communication: relevancy, context, tone and timing:

1. Relevance. Some content, when juxtaposed with the backdrop of COVID-19, is irrelevant. For example, one client produced an amazing piece regarding go-to-market strategy. Right now, however, companies are trying to protect their businesses during a crisis, versus considering new thinking on going to market. We therefore advised the client to delay launch until a time when the target audience will be more receptive.

2. Context. Even though coronavirus is consuming the airwaves, other issues warrant attention. For example, we are entering flood and hurricane season, which will come regardless of COVID-19, and businesses and consumers must be prepared. Communication in this context would be appropriate to add to the conversation. Though coronavirus is the main topic of the day, there is room for other news—as long as it has context.

3. Tone. The coronavirus is not a laughing matter, and companies should refrain from making light of it. The time will come when levity will be sorely needed. For now, don’t be the one to deliver misplaced witticism. Communication seen as flippant will damage a brand. Stick to educational and useful content, delivered in a factual and respectful tone.

4. Timing. Companies can get panned for being insensitive and opportunistic in a crisis. Just ask the folks at food-ordering app Ritual who sent a communication on March 12 titled, “Make the smarter choice by ordering with Ritual.” The company was slammed on social media for trying to exploit people’s fear about catching the virus. Be careful about timing. That communication from Ritual might have been OK to send a month ago, but a salesy communication when panic and fear are leading the conversation is ill-advised.

In today’s unprecedented time, communicators must challenge every word of every exchange to make sure it is effective and appropriate. We must stay abreast of news and in tune with social conversations in real time. We must also consider the relevancy, context, tone and timing of communication in order to deliver powerful results and avoid costly mistakes.

Amy Littleton is executive vice president at KemperLesnik.

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