National Capital Chapter

Communications Strategies for Surviving COVID-19

By Marjorie Weisskohl, APR

It’s May 2020; businesses are anxious to reopen their doors and return to pre-COVID19 activity levels. However, medical experts recognize that things won’t be the same. Does COVID-19 change how communicators think about audiences, messages, messengers, and desired outcomes? If so, how?

Adaptability and long-term thinking will be key to sustainability. State health policies vary, but many will require or recommend a phased-in approach through the summer or beyond. Federal guidelines, including use of masks; gloves; social distancing; continued testing; contact tracing; tracking cases and deaths; and more, provide a roadmap. Researchers are working feverishly to develop a safe and effective vaccine. Longer-term, doctors recommend creating a national health forecasting and defense center.

It will be a challenge and take time to surmount the virus’ impacts. How long? We really don’t know, but common sense says to be vigilant.

What does this environment mean for marketing/communications at businesses, non-profits, and other places of employment for the next year?

In recent webinars I held with Brian Williams of StratIQ Consulting, we focused on fundamentals for business and communications during this crisis. Business and comms strategies need to be in sync; comms activities should support the business goals and objectives. We shared some basic truths for moving forward:

Vision and Goals: Organizations’ leaders should reassess or reconfirm their vision and goals: How does the company get through this crisis (managing human, financial and supply chain resources, modifying business operations, and/or partnerships); what does life look like in light of COVID-19; and what is the strategy, the how, for achieving resilience?

Objectives: Focus on outcome objectives (which audience, the behavior you’re trying to influence, by how much, over what time frame?). Objectives should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bounded. Perhaps the business has declined, suppliers have gone out of business, employees are not returning, or your business needs to improve its online marketplace. Assess where your company was on January 1, and establish new realistic and achievable targets for the next three, six, or 12 months. For example, customers increase online purchases from 25% to 75% in two months.

Key Concepts: Communications should empathetic, transparent, timely, and continuing. Stay in touch with all your stakeholders. Share information widely, internally and externally, through a variety of channels; remember non-English speakers. Two Edelman surveys show that people rely heavily on mainstream media, despite assumptions about social media, for accurate information. Scientists and medical professionals are the most relied-upon sources.

Leadership Messaging: Forbes’ March article highlighted nine key tips for leaders:

  • Be clear, unambiguous, and focus on facts
  • Be relevant and redundant
  • Be understanding and empathetic
  • Be human (admit mistakes, follow up on promises)
  • Be a uniter (think community), “we” rather than “I”
  • Provide the big picture
  • Be pragmatic, don’t over-promise
  • Be inspirational, look to the future
  • Be selective in word choice (people interpret words differently)

How you communicate: Words supported by deeds

  1. Trust is key. A March Edelman “Trust Barometer” survey of 1,000 people in 10 countries found that employees depended on their employees for truthful info and to protect their welfare.
  2. However, the May update showed that worldwide, people still expected more from the government and were disappointed in the private sector’s performance in protecting people. Some excerpts:
    • “…amid Covid-19…, government trust surged 11 points to an all-time high of 65 percent, making it the most trusted institution for the first time in our 20 years of study.
    • “…marked disappointment in how the private sector has performed during the crisis…. a moment of reckoning for business, which must now deliver on the promise of stakeholder capitalism….
    • “…public wants … vibrant partnership between government and business in getting people back to work and revitalizing the economy. Health and safety is (sic) paramount.…67 percent want saving lives prioritized over saving jobs; 75 percent say CEOs should be cautious in getting their companies back to normal even if it means waiting longer to reopen workplaces.
    • “Urgent need for credible and unbiased journalism. Still concerns about fake news … 67 percent of respondents worried about false and inaccurate information being spread about the virus.
    • “Strong public demand for expert voices… most trusted sources of information on the pandemic: doctors (80 percent), scientists (79 percent) and national health officials (71 percent).”
  3. Establish a communications team:
    Include senior officials, comms personnel, some people from down the line and union reps for input and as a sounding board. Consistent, reliable info is important. Provide everyone with the same info; practice answering hard questions.
  4. Smart advertising:
    Be empathetic, not jocular.
  5. Encourage your organization to support the community,i.e., a food drive, distribution, fundraising for medical supplies, child-care, or tutoring.

Lives, business sustainability, and reputations are on the line. Let’s adapt, take responsible actions, and keep going.

About the Author

Marjorie Weisskohl, APR
Herndon, VA