In the swirl of the now-common daily coronavirus (COVID-19) press briefings and round-the-clock cable TV analysis, a general tension is gripping us right now. You can feel it. It is experienced in a surreal, almost palpable way for many people. This is to be expected, and shouldn’t surprise us, given the global pandemic we’re dealing with. But, it does reveal a psychological dynamic that we would do well to consider as communicators; and, maybe just as people.
As humans, if there is one thing we’re not wired to do well — and that nearly always produces struggle and difficulty — it is dealing with uncertainty. It’s just plain hard for us to do. In fact, this has been the subject of study by researchers. It is now a well-documented phenomenon that the certainty of negative consequences is generally preferred to uncertainty. Put another way, we’d rather know that something will turn out poorly than be in a state of not knowing.
Why would this be true? Because uncertainty is stressful. It represents the accumulation of questions without sufficient answers. It’s like a song that ends off-key, never resolving. So, we struggle to process and manage the dissonance created. In these situations, the fog of uncertainty makes it harder to think clearly, see through to the future, and make decisions — in both our personal and professional lives.
This is the uncertain footing that many people find themselves on today, as they grapple with the implications of COVID-19. They are dealing with health concerns for themselves or loved ones, business disruption, and the threat of systemic economic aftershocks. And nobody seems to know how long it will persist or what the long-term effects might be.
At Two Rivers Marketing, we have been aligning our team around some core ideas as we support our clients in their communication/content initiatives, because providing audiences with relevant and helpful content today means something different than it did a short while ago.
Talk to people, not consumers
Regardless of your business, B2B or B2C, you are business-to-human. People want to feel like they are treated as people, not consumers — especially now. Speaking to them as “consumers” is to frame the interaction in terms of what they can do for you. Avoid language and tactics that will feel tone-deaf or that don’t relate to how their world has been reshaped.
Speak with compassion
Much has been made of emotional intelligence in contemporary business circles. Now more than ever, it’s important for your brand to have heart. Customers don’t just make decisions with logic and reason, but with emotion and feeling. When our audiences are unsure about the future and stressed, we need to climb down in the trenches with them and speak with empathy. If you find one of your tactics reading much the same way it always does, it’s time to revise it.
Focus on meeting needs, not selling
If your customers are thinking about how they will keep the lights on, it’s hard to think about anything else. Focus on meeting needs not just selling products and services. Curate helpful resources that address their key concerns. For example, many of your North American customers will qualify for aid through the recent CARES Act passed by Congress, and there are a lot of great repositories for information like the COVID-19 resources available from AEM or America’s Small Business Development Centers.
Your values matter
Don’t assume that your customers don’t care how you’re handling COVID-19 with other audiences. Your values matter. Values in action matter even more. Customers want to associate themselves with brands and companies that do right by everyone they work with. Tell your customers how you're handling the pandemic with your employees, dealers/distributors, vendors, suppliers, et al. It’s okay to see what other companies are doing. But, be guided by what you believe in first. Ask yourself, “What does my brand stand for?” Then, make decisions (and content) based on that.
We need communication leadership. You can build trust and project confidence without giving false promises or creating expectations that can’t be delivered on. Your audiences are already getting a heavy dosage of hand wringing from other voices. Be a voice of calm in the storm.
Consider a strategic shift
Now is not the time for corporate social responsibility (CSR) to disappear or be on autopilot. Many CSR plans were put in place before COVID-19 burst onto the scene. But, now they need to adapt. While there are many other worthy areas of focus in CSR, COVID-19 relief is the dominant need of the moment worldwide. CSR is ultimately about how companies are living out the values they hold as a company. Connect those same values to the way you’re handling the COVID-19 crisis in your communications and content. You may need to evaluate other ways of adapting, too. Consider other industries for inspiration, like Ford’s more flexible payment terms, the Hyundai Job Loss Protection program, or enhanced delivery options and online sales in the restaurant industry.
It’s well said that crises don’t always unearth new principles in communication. They often put the exclamation point on things we should be doing all along. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of them in times of uncertainty.
Do you have thoughts you’d like to share on the topic? Let us know.