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COVID-19 Messaging: Dos and Don’ts

Meredith Klee

Director of Communications @ AdRoll

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Over the last week, inboxes across the world suddenly exploded with COVID-19 messaging, replacing the typical barrage of targeted promotions. A relatable sentiment I’ve seen that hits the nail on the head is, “I didn’t realize how many emails I needed to unsubscribe from until now, and now I have time to. Thanks, Corona.” It seems like every company under the sun has been putting out a coronavirus statement. 

This deluge of statements raises a couple of questions for companies:

  1. Do I need a coronavirus statement?
  2. What should it say?
  3. Should I share it publicly? And if so, how do I communicate it to my customers without sounding insensitive, insincere, or like I’m taking advantage of the situation?

As with any emerging crisis, there isn’t a template or hard set of rules that every business needs to follow to communicate with customers. However, there are some dos and some don’ts around talking to your customers about the novel coronavirus and how it’ll affect your business.

Coronavirus Statement Dos and Don’ts

DO put out a statement if your business or your customers are going to be impacted by the novel coronavirus directly, or as a result of preventative measures being put in place by local and national governments. 

It’s hard to think of companies that won’t be impacted by the pandemic, but just in case it’s important for brands to answer the question: “Will this statement help my customers understand how my products or services will be changing in response to the pandemic, or will it help explain how these changes might impact them?”

DON’T send a statement just for the sake of sending a statement. Even aside from the general recommendation for not filling customer inboxes and newsfeeds with clutter, it’s especially important to avoid this behavior during a crisis.

Brands need to remember that this is a time when many people will be anxiously waiting for important information, or trying to get in touch with friends and family. Anything that clutters their lives without adding value is very likely to give them a negative impression of the sender — one that may be difficult to overcome later.

DO give clear and to-the-point information that the customer needs to carry out transactions with the sender.

For restaurants and groceries, this may be an update on cleaning protocols and food safety. For service companies, this could be an update on remote work availability and any delays or cancellations in service. For retailers, it may be updates on the availability of products and shipping updates. In any case, it’s important to be as specific and clear as possible with what steps you’re taking in response to the outbreak and what this means for customers.  

DON’T offer vague reassurances or be unclear about the processes or precautions being put into place.

Brands that don’t have a clear or well-defined set of procedures for reacting to COVID-19 should concentrate on figuring those out before sending out a message to customers. Don’t rush into it, take your time, and think about the different edge cases. Companies should also fight the urge to offer vague platitudes or reassurances. During a crisis, customers don’t want to hear these messages — they’re looking for concrete, actionable steps that companies they buy from are taking.

DO remember that this is a global health crisis that’ll affect hundreds of thousands to millions of people, some of them much more severely than others. There have already been thousands of deaths, and it’s likely to increase. 

Any COVID-19 messaging that's put out needs to be compassionate and understanding that this pandemic isn’t simply an inconvenience or a disruption to meeting goals. The novel coronavirus outbreak is a serious, global crisis that’ll have a major impact on the lives of millions, and on the very way the world does business and operates. Your COVID-19 messaging should give a nod to the seriousness of the situation, not brush over it or avoid it.

DON’T use this as a marketing opportunity or try to otherwise profit off of the novel coronavirus. 

Remember that COVID-19 isn’t a trending hashtag that brands can attach themselves to. This isn’t a chance to pitch a new campaign. This isn’t the time for “going viral” puns. This is a serious crisis affecting very many people. Don’t use the novel coronavirus as a marketing opportunity.

If you want to create a positive campaign or show solidarity around a positive trend happening, that’s fine, but consider your audience and ensure it’s what represents their goals and ideals as well — you don’t want to create polarizing events by bandwagoning. 

DO tailor your brand's COVID-19 messaging to who will be reading it and remember that tone and content needs to reflect the audience and the purpose of the message.

Not all messaging is customer-facing. Especially during large-scale crises like this one, there’s a need to inform employees, board members, shareholders, vendors, contractors, and partners about what’s going on. These messages all have slightly different purposes, and need to be approached from different directions. But also remember that many people might fall into multiple groups, or that a message sent to shareholders might get out and get in the hands of customers. Compose statements bearing in mind that it’s difficult to control who the final reader ends up being.

DON’T broadcast the same message to everyone, regardless of their relationship with the brand.

Customers don’t need to know how the novel coronavirus might negatively impact Q2 earnings, just like shareholders don’t necessarily need to know that a brand is changing their cleaning procedure to minimize risk of spreading disease. Sending out a one-size-fits-all message runs the risk of giving too much information, or not enough. It can make companies sound too uncaring if it’s overly down to business, or too unserious if it’s overly sentimental without enough hard numbers. Audience matters and all messaging needs to be tied to the right audience.

DO send out updates as often as is needed to convey important information. If something has changed, and audiences need to be aware of it, it’s time for an update.

There isn’t a right or wrong amount of communication for handling a rapidly-changing situation like the novel coronavirus epidemic. Things can happen overnight that might dramatically change a brand’s ability to serve customers — offices might close, whole cities might be placed under quarantine, products might run out or be restocked. If a change is major enough that it might seriously impact customers, it may be time for a new update. If multiple updates can be bundled together without hurting customers, that might be an even better option. 

Soul Cycle did a great job at this by creating a landing page where they gave daily updates on the precautions they were taking in each of their 99 studios — from limiting certain items in the bathrooms to cutting class sizes in half, and more. Not all updates have to be mighty — even a small note as things change or progress in real-time is the best way to make your customers feel like they have the most updated information, and that you have their back. 

DON’T send updates just for the sake of sending updates.

If the message that’s going out is fundamentally unchanged from the message that went out yesterday, it may be better to not send it. Quantity should never take the place of quality — not only can it frustrate and annoy recipients, it runs the risk of getting communications spammed or ignored, making it much less likely that customers will see any truly important updates that go out later.

DO communicate tips, best practices, health advice, and critical information only if you’re qualified to do so, or if you’re getting the information from a reliable source. 

It’s impossible to stress how important hand washing and social distancing are, no matter how many companies repeat those points. Including these tips or news from the WHO or CDC or other trusted health organizations in company messages is always helpful. However, it’s also important to note that if all the message is doing is rehashing information found elsewhere, it might not be important enough to send out.

DON’T spread rumors, include unproven information, or repeat unsourced and unverified claims.

Misinformation in the face of a global crisis like this is incredibly dangerous, and can result in people making poor decisions that lead to injury or even death. Please don’t spread any information that isn’t verified.

Before Hitting Send

Ultimately, the most important advice around COVID-19 messaging is that it’s more important than ever to edit communications. Brands need to seriously weigh the impact of any statement made, and decide on a case-by-case basis whether that statement needs to go out or not. 

This is a very personal decision, and the answer will depend on the brand, the message, the audience, and the news being communicated. If you find yourself writing something because you feel pressured or because you’re hoping to get a reaction, take a step back and think about what you want to achieve. Your communication should be thoughtful and clear — not perfect — but well thought out and true to you and your brand. Following this list of dos and don’ts isn’t a guarantee of getting a great reception, but it’ll certainly decrease the risk of getting a poor one. Now that you know how to craft your COVID-19 messaging, take a look at the tips and tricks of acquiring and retaining customers during uncertain times.

For additional reading around how your business can prepare for a new normal, download your copy of Tips for Acquiring and Retaining Customers Through Economic Change.

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