The times are unprecedented. A global pandemic triggering an economic earthquake adds 1918’s Spanish Flu to 1929’s stock market crash. Layer on a near-instant ability for every person and pundit to have a global voice, regardless of the veracity of what they are saying, and we have the single most challenging time every executive and marketer has ever faced. Especially in crisis messaging.
It’s early days. Your leadership team is scrambling to understand the impact on your operations—your people, your customers, your product and its supply chain—while marketing is negotiating a minefield where poor messaging can quickly cause lasting damage to a brand.
Every corporate communication that you put out today has to be scrutinized through current and future lenses. What’s top of mind for your employees and customers today may be very different from what it will be in the future. Your employees and customers may be struggling with finding childcare, adjusting to working from home, fearing being laid off, watching their retirement dreams get pushed back. They are looking for answers. They want to mitigate uncertainty as the tangible and immediate fears about economic wellbeing overshadow the abstract fears about personal health.
The future view, however, will not only be shaped by the economic reality of the time, but also the medical reality. Fears about loss of income will fast be eclipsed if employees, customers and their families fall ill or lose their life to the pandemic. When they look back at your crisis messaging today, it will be through that different lens.
This is about lives first, economics second. More importantly, this is about people first, people second, people third.
Economics has to be looked at from a personal perspective, particularly this early in the crisis, and what you say internally and externally has to reflect that. Profits may be on company leadership’s mind, but ultimately it’s because staying afloat impacts your ability to be good to your people.
It’s critical to address the economic uncertainty that your employees, customers and all business partners face, but it must be from a human-centric perspective. Share how you are taking care of your team’s health and wellbeing before you talk about how you will help them tide the short-term financial uncertainty. And make sure that any gestures you announce internally or externally are meaningful. A leader taking a pay cut to ensure employees can remain on full pay for the coming months is meaningful. A “let’s pull through this by helping each other” message is only meaningful if the ask is commensurate with the ability to help. The twitterverse took WholeFoods to task early in this unfolding crisis when it suggested employees donate their accrued sick leave to help other employees who may fall ill. It, rightly, backfired, with people quickly redirecting focus to Jeff Bezos’ personal fortune and how little his employees earn in comparison.
When it comes to speaking about the future, it’s very tempting to try to impart a positive outlook by talking about the opportunities ahead, but tread very carefully. Any message that walks close to the cliff edge of sounding opportunistic may not only be heard as callous now, but may also do long term damage to your company and your brand. Even the slightest whiff of a company taking advantage at this time will, rightly so, leave it branded as heartless at best, untouchable profiteer at worst.
Future messaging must be vague because none of us know how this will all unfold. Express empathy for today’s uncertainty about the future, hope that we’ll emerge quickly and stronger as an industry (not company), and humanity for the changed world we will face together. It’s too early to talk specifics because simply no one can tell what those will be.
Specifics about the future have to be addressed, however, in scenario planning. Employees and customers deserve to know that you are thinking ahead on their behalf and trying to ensure the impact on them, and their business will be managed or minimized. Investors will expect to see leadership understanding their fiduciary duty.
Speaking of fiduciary duty, now is not the time to maximize shareholder value, or even hint that it is top of your leadership’s mind. Think and speak like a B Corp, balancing people, purpose and profit: the long-term value of your company, your brand, depends on it.
If in doubt, say little, and don’t stand out. Compassion is good, clever is risky. You can get in more trouble with a message that misses the emotional mark or makes a tone-deaf offer than you can with a bland message that sounds like every second email you received this week. Show you care, address immediate uncertainty, and then shut up. Take the time to get the bigger picture and the bigger message right. There will be a time when it’s clear to marketers that it’s OK to widen the scope of what we talk about. In the meantime, speak softly knowing your listeners are in pain.