As COVID-19 spread across the country, so too did a rash of corporate communication. Within days and sometimes weeks, we saw public service announcements, CEO’s on TV, full-page print ads and more, all intended to reassure us we were “all in this together.” Truth is, we are not. Companies are rightfully concerned about maintaining market share, keeping operations going and revenue coming in, but unfortunately, these messages missed the mark by failing to take into account a buyer’s psychology when driven by fear. 

Here are a few things small business and big corporations screwed up communicating about COVID-19.

Not considering customer journey – When the world is having a shared experience, as a business it’s important to stop and think what is important for consumers to hear vs what the business wants to say. A “We are all in this together message was not only redundant, as in every other company used the same line, it was also not true. While there was a segment of the workforce dramatically affected by the crisis, there was also a segment of the workforce who were not. Having a CEO take the lead on this message was a missed opportunity to address its consumers right where they were, to offer something meaningful and to tell the real story.

When fear is the virus and consumers feel like the world is closing in on them, the message is not a “we” story but a “you” story. Consumers are looking for any sense of normalcy at a time when everything has changed. 

Many people found themselves as now teachers, social workers, guidance counselors and therapists all at the kitchen table. Plates were full of responsibility. 

The real story was none of us knew what the heck we were doing. Decisions were made on the fly. Overwhelm and panic was setting in and yet, corporate messaging seemed shortsighted.

After telling the consumer about the handwashing and sanitation policy, what was the next step you wanted them to take? If there wasn’t one, this was just noise more about the business rather than the consumer. 

Not segmenting communication – Sending mass email to anyone in the company contact list is never a great strategy. It’s especially bad if the last message from the company was sent over a year ago prior.

Consumers were inundated with messaging in their inboxes almost every business they’d done business with (seemingly over a lifetime) wanted to reassure them that things were under control.

Consider this. If a consumer had not heard from you in over a year, why would your policy matter to them? Two things made this problematic. 1) every other company did the same thing and 2) without a nurtured relationship with the company, this email probably had no relevance and went unopened.

Communication is a two-way course of action. Segment your communication with recent buyers (give a timeframe) and non-buyers and have messaging that suits them. It’s not one size fits all. 

Not having a crisis plan – While you can’t plan for all crises and certainly not a pandemic, having preplanned communications ensures more thoughtful messaging, which doesn’t include the same language every other company uses. 

It was clear from the similar messaging who had a crisis plan and who didn’t. A crisis plan eliminates coming up with messaging on the fly. This plan thinks through not only what needs to be communicated, but also what you want consumers to do with the information. 

A crisis plan takes into account the potential loses and creates messaging to circumvent that. A crisis plan is in place because no matter the crisis, companies are concerned with the big three: maintaining market share, keeping operations going and revenue coming in. It’s better to be ahead of a crisis than behind it.

As communications professionals, COVID-19 taught us to be prepared as much as we can. Communications departments need to think a few steps ahead by considering the end-user, their buyer cycle and their state of mind, we can come up with more targeted and thoughtful messaging. Tell the real story. It’s much better than inviting consumers into a narrative where the company only seeks to benefit. 

The good news is the messaging doesn’t need to be epic, it just needed to be thoughtful, even if the thought is to say nothing at all. Sometimes that’s all the reassurance a consumer needs.

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