by Carmen Hawker, Digital Communication Strategist 

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A guide to getting your team on message and values aligned in uncertain times

There will be many of us communications professionals looking at the strategies, key messaging guides and content calendars that we spent the first part of the year drawing up, and effectively throwing them out the window right now. We get it. It’s hard to launch a new fundraising campaign or announce a new program, let alone communicate any more bad news about human rights abuses or funding cuts while a pandemic grips the globe. 

With your best laid plans taking on a new shape and meaning as coronavirus spreads and we are all in lock-down (or worse, losing our jobs), how do we adapt to the daily changes and upheavals in our environment, whilst keeping our communities informed and reassured? It’s a tall order, but we can do it.

Drawing on plenty of experience in communicating through times of volatility, uncertainty and disaster, here is a step-by-step guide to rebooting your communications plan and getting your team on message and living its values throughout this pandemic.

What’s important in communications during this crisis?

As communicators we are used to synthesising large amounts of information and translating it into bite-sized key messages for our audiences. For most of us working in nonprofits or for progressive causes, we are also used to distilling global trends and events into accessible, valuable and galvanising content. However, what we are required to communicate during the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented.

While it seems impossible to go five minutes without hearing the words ‘coronavirus’ and ‘unprecedented’ in the same sentence right now, it’s true that we are wading into somewhat unchartered waters. Regardless of the fact that we are more acutely aware of our inter-connectedness, interdependence and fragility than we’ve ever been, there are communications principles that hold true – crisis or not. 

To ensure that our communications are responsible, consistent and coherent during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to bear the following principles in mind:

  • Be clear and concise about the situation and its impact. There is no need to sensationalise or overstate it, nor to hide it. People are being bombarded with information right now and will appreciate your information being laid out as clearly and succinctly as possible.
  • Be honest and transparent about what actions you are taking and your decision-making process. Have you decided to stop offering a certain product or service? Be upfront and honest, and use this as an opportunity to be transparent about how decisions get made in your organisation.
  • Stay true to your voice and style – don’t be another thing that’s changing. If you are normally a company with a light and friendly tone, your community doesn’t all of a sudden want to see you become formal and corporate. We understand that this isn’t necessarily the time for making light, but finding a way to communicate authentically to your audience in your already-established style is key.
  • Know your audience and speak directly to their needs – it pays to think through exactly what your community might expect of you or need from you during this time. For example, no one necessarily cares that their accountant is washing their hands, or that their IT service provider is working from home, but they might care that they can still call you or that you’re not offering x, y, z service at this time. They wouldn’t expect a communications company to be suddenly biting their tongue, or their dentist to suddenly send out an email a day. So, know your audience and speak to them.
  • Be open and responsive – provide opportunities for two-way engagement + be responsive when people reach out. By now, most of us are physically distancing and so it’s crucial for us to retain some sense of community and connectedness. It’s time to put the ‘social’ in social media. However, if you are sending out communications, make sure that you are also allocating resources to monitoring, responding and managing enquiries or engagement.
  • Provide certainty (where you can) about what you’re doing for your community. This is less about the internal arrangements that you are making and more about actions that will impact on others, e.g. – how can people contact you, can they still buy from you, or donate to you, or come to your workshops).
  • Be proactive – many of us are grappling with our autonomy, independence and freedoms being limited, or are having triggers or vulnerabilities thrust in our faces, so we need proactive and decisive leadership. While we don’t want to overdo it and make people regret ever giving us their email address or contact information, in times of crisis it can be better to over communicate and have people self-select or opt out rather than you make that decision for them. Perhaps create a COVID-19 specific segment in your mailing list and people can unsubscribe, or set up a separate website page with COVID-19 information and leave the rest of your website as normal.
  • Go deep on your areas of expertise – this can be an opportunity of sorts to provide expert guidance and leadership in your area and offer strong value to your community. You can offer value and guidance without being opportunistic or exploitative if you stay grounded in your values and style.
  • Provide a roadmap and inspiration on how we want to recreate our future (once it’s appropriate to do so). We are not talking about positive spins or ‘silver lining’ here, but when you sense your community is ready (and you know them better than anyone), it might be time to share your inspiration and ideas about how to imagine a better future and get your community’s input on what that looks like.
  • Keep showing up – people remember who was there for them in times of crisis. It’s as simple as that. Find a way to show up for your community, while taking care of yourselves too. Remember that being vulnerable and courageous enough to show up can sometimes give us the energy to keep going. 

The ten-point crisis communications plan 

Now that you know what principles underpin effective communication in times of crisis, it’s time to break down what needs to go into your COVID-19 comms plan so that your team is singing from the same song sheet and your community isn’t tuning out. 

1. Define your role

Describe what your organisation’s particular role is at this time and therefore what you want to achieve with your communications. For example: do you want to provide solidarity and support; offer reassurance and leadership; provide discounted services; give people a moment of respite or a distraction? Get your team’s input on who you are during this pandemic. 

2. Outline your current resources and capacity

What is your current capacity for communications, marketing and digital efforts as compared to normal? Are you at half your regular capacity, or double, or maybe the same? Detail the resources, both human and material, that you have available to you right now. 

3. Think through the options available to you

In times of uncertainty, it can help to know that you do have choices and are not being backed into a corner. Taking the time to outline the range of options available to your organisation in terms of what, how and when you can communicate, helps to give you the reassurance that you have made an informed and strategic decision. Your options might include: 

  • Pause all regular communications until further notice
  • Continue to communicate on a regular basis via established channels but create a COVID-19-specific list or platform
  • Continue with ‘business as usual’ communications after one COVID-specific piece of content
  • Double communications efforts and start text messaging clients instead of email
4. Determine what you need to communicate and to whom

It’s very unlikely that if you’re reading this that your organisation is still operating ‘business as usual’. What changes, disruptions or cancellations of products and services have happened in your organisation, and which of those do you need to communicate and to whom? For example: we are not charging new clients a sign up fee, or our scheduled program will be online not face-to-face, or we are amending our payment T & Cs or implementing a hardship program. Whatever it is, figure out what your community absolutely needs to know. Before you dive in, it’s helpful to be reminded of your key audiences. Remember those brand personas you created years ago? Time to dust them off and flex your empathy muscles to create an overview of what each audience’s needs are, what they might be thinking + feeling, what you can offer them, what you want them to do, and how you’re going to frame your message to them. For example:

     Key Audience #1 → 

  • Needs: i.e. reassurance
    • Likely Thinking: i.e. ‘I don’t know if this conference is still going ahead’
    • Likely Feeling: i.e. uncertain and stressed
    • Practical support we can offer: i.e. new website landing page, dedicated hotline
    • Want them to do: i.e. call us / not cancel their subscription
    • Information they want: i.e. rate changes, refund information
    • Language/framing: i.e. warm and reassuring

(Also think about what other stakeholders you need to communicate with at this time? Perhaps a supplier, ally, donor? You can do the same persona mapping for them!)

5. Identify what channels you have available and which is fit for purpose

Make a list of the channels that you have available for communicating with your community and then rank them in order of how suitable they are for communicating the information you have identified. Channels might include:

  • Website + blog + resources page
  • Social media: Instagram + IGTV + Live; Facebook + Live; LinkedIn; YouTube
  • EDM
  • Direct email inbox
  • Media / PR / ads 
  • Brochures / fliers / mail outs
  • App / team management tool i.e. Slack, Trello, Monday.com
6. Decide your best course of action

Based on your key audiences, your capacity and the changes to your services at this time, it’s time to decide on the most strategic and effective course of action. That might be stopping all regular donor communications via email for a period of six weeks and increasing the number of social media posts. It might be adding more staff resources to your customer service team to call your community members, and only communicating via phone or email. Or it might be creating a dedicated COVID-19 page on your website, directing your community there once and then continuing your content as normal on social media. Try and capture this succinctly so that your team all understands what the course of action is, even if they haven’t been privy to the reasons why.

7. Identify which regular messages to reinforce

Most communications teams will have a set of key messages or common phrases that they sprinkle across their content. Even in times of uncertainty and crisis, some of those will continue to hold true. Identify what they are and whether to pivot them slightly. For example, you might regularly promote the solidarity message: ‘We are in this together’, in which case that is still a relevant and comforting message for your community. Perhaps one of your organisation’s key messages is that: ‘Women experience disproportionate impacts during disaster’, which holds true and can be updated to include ‘during disasters like the coronavirus pandemic’. Create a list of your 3-5 key messages that hold true even in crisis, and communicate them accordingly to your team and your community. 

8. Add any COVID-19 specific messages

In line with the values and frames identified by progressive communicators during this time, the messages that we must disrupt are rooted in xenophobia, racism, scarcity and individualism. We need to avoid anything that further triggers fight/flight/freeze and promote community connectedness, solidarity, care, understanding, kindness – without judgment for those who can’t access these emotions at this time. This might mean adding a COVID-19 specific message to your list of key messages. For example: ‘Our highest priority is to protect the health and wellbeing of our staff as well as the community. Therefore we have made the difficult decision to suspend the following services at this time….’. For a more detailed guide to positive and progressive messaging during the pandemic read this article on messaging that helps, not harms. 

9. Review your communication tone and style

When your organisation speaks to its community, does it do so in a friendly and approachable way, or are you more professional and matter of fact? Are you formal or informal? Quirky and light-hearted or dry and clinical? Reacquaint yourselves with the tone and style of your communications and make any necessary adjustments if you think that it’s inappropriate or not what your community needs at this time. Try and capture your tone and style in a few words, or even create a couple of options for saying the same thing. For example: ‘omg, what a scary time!’ (informal, youthful) versus ‘you are no doubt experiencing uncertainty and fear at this time’ (formal, professional) versus ‘We’re here to help with whatever you need’ (friendly, approachable). 

10. Draw up your plan

Now that you have decided on your course of action and key messages, it’s time to decide and plan exactly what communications you will be providing during this time, how and where you will be providing them, who is responsible for them and your timeframe for doing so. It doesn’t have to be super in-depth or comprehensive, but it must have enough that your team and the people responsible can go away and do their jobs. A basic plan template might include:

 

What How / where (channel) When Who Framing / key information to include
Email to all customers EDM (MailChimp) 25 March Comms Mgr with sign off from Executive Director We’re in this together; Include updates to services + new resources page.
Notice or announcement Website Home Page ASAP Webmaster or IT support, with copy from Marketing Contact information for clients/customers – link to refund or hardship application.

 

There you have it! These are our top tips for what to remember in your communications during times of crisis and a ten step guide to making it happen. 

The time that you take to design a strategic approach to your communications now is crucial to keep your community connected and supported through the challenges we all face.

 

Further reading:

For a guide on how to frame positive messages during the pandemic, visit: https://commsforchange.com.au/progressive-messaging-covid-19/ 

 

And if you would like support to run this process with your team, that’s what we’re here for. Please get in touch with us at Comms for Change → hello@commsforchange.com.au 

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