Resource

Communicate during the pandemic

March 23, 2020

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WHAT TO COMMUNICATE

  • Identify who the key constituents/ segments are that you need to communicate with – these could be suppliers, partners, retailers, customers, members, subscribers, employees and shareholders
  • Focus and tailor the message based on what matters to them. Address what’s on the top of people’s minds.
  • Be as specific as you can – especially if measures are being taken to tackle the challenge (e.g. cleaning and sanitary measures that are being undertaken, etc.). Outline what the company is doing about the problem, set clear expectations about response times, etc.
  • Provide key insights into why some of the decisions were made – for e.g. store closures were necessitated by safety considerations or for regulatory requirements
  • Ensure all regulatory / compliance aspects are being met and nothing in the messages is violating rules
  • The tone of the messages and communication should be:
    • Reassuring – avoid alarmist language. 
    • Transparent and honest – if you don’t have all the information, it is okay to say so. Do not attempt to share answers where you do not have them. Your credibility with your stakeholders is dependent on how/ what you say to them in a crisis.
    • Simple and succinct – At this point, they are going to be overwhelmed by messages from all quarters
    • Personal and authentic – bring the human element into your communications to remind your partners/customers that you and your team are also dealing with this crisis as individuals
  •  Define clear responsibilities
    • Who is responsible for creating/ sending the messages, responding to them? Ensure they are aligned/ aware of their role and how to fulfill it (prepare a script/ responses for key questions that you anticipate)  
    • Establish a clear point of contact that the stakeholders can reach out to – to address questions, issues and concerns, and provide reassurance that your business is not forsaking them.

HOW TO COMMUNICATE

  • Communicate early and often with the key stakeholders throughout a crisis. Do not go silent.
  • Speak to your constituents where they are most likely to be/ see the messages – email, phone messages, IM, webcasts and/or social media. These might be different for different audiences.
  • However, adapt the message to the medium – e.g. Twitter might be better suited for quick alerts as the situation evolves, but consider Facebook or your website for providing more details. For social media channels, include hashtags to amplify the reach of your message and help folks search for the information easily
  • Establish direct communication – it is better they hear it from you so you can control the narrative
  • Make it easy for people to find the most up-to-date and relevant information they are looking for – e.g. as a pop-up on the website
  • Be consistent in what is being communicated across mediums – do not send conflicting/mixed messages – coordinating efforts across platforms is important
  • Develop tools for notifications and ways of monitoring input and feedback from stakeholders – these can be simple (such as Google alerts). 
  • First focus on the channels already used for customer and stakeholder communication (email, social media, etc.)
  • Update your company’s website
  • If appropriate, consider establishing a dedicated communication hotline or use short texts and emails to communicate about location closures or changes to business hours

HANDLING REFUNDS AND CANCELLATIONS

  • Provide relief and flexibility when/ where possible. JetBlue became the first airline to waive change and cancel fees for coronavirus-related concerns and that earned them ample goodwill
  • Communicate how you will manage ongoing payments. 
    • Will you pause?  Apply for the future? 
    • Can you provide an “extra” for members who continue to pay during this time? For example, an extra week, month or service.
    • Extend memberships/ subscriptions for the period of time stores/ business/ facilities are closed.
  • If customers reach out to cancel memberships, understand that they may be trying to work through their own financial situation.  Suggest “pausing” options to those customers, in order to retain them for the future
  • Clear, early, proactive communication is critical
  • Empathy is key – both in wording and in the action/choice of policy
  • What you do at this stage will matter for the future customer acquisition, retention, and the overall brand value
  • Options: full refund (automatic or by request), membership freeze, a voucher for future services, change fee waivers
  • If offering vouchers/credits, make sure the terms of use are not too restrictive (this is especially important because there is no certainty about when the epidemic will end)

 

COMMUNICATE NOW TO BUILD LONG-TERM CUSTOMER LOYALTY

  • Make it a two-way communication. Listen to what your customers/ stakeholders are saying in order to understand what is important to them. Is there something they need that you can provide? Give them a way to contact you, so that you can deepen your relationship with them
  • Be clear on how important your customers are to your business.  It’s okay to share a little vulnerability. “As a small business, we rely on our customers and we look forward to serving you again very soon.  If you would like to continue to support us during this time, please consider [action – see options below]”
  • Suggest opportunities for your customers to continue to support you now to bring them back in the future. 
    • For example: A batting cage business suggests that customers buy a lesson package now to be used in the future.
    • Can you offer an “extra” if a customer makes a gift card purchase for a specific service or product? For example: “Buy a standard manicure and receive an upgrade to a premium manicure for free”
    • Offer an e-gift card option.  Suggest that customers pre-book their next appointment or reservation in the future
    • Think about what value you can offer your customers in the future in exchange for them supporting you now.
  • Continue to provide value now. 
    • Can you live stream classes, how-to videos or entertainment?  For example: an exercise studio offers multiple daily classes via Facebook Live for only $25/week. Clients are encouraged to share this option with friends, which may, in turn, bring the studio new customers in the future
    • Are you able to offer your products for “curb-side” if customers order online or call to make a purchase over the phone?
    • How can you inject humor and hope in an on-brand way to help your customers and partners?
    • Can you provide links to other good options, even if you cannot provide yourself? For example, a Pilates instructor who does not have her own equipment and is not video recording savvy provided a link to classes that are good on YouTube in the interim.
  • Maintain ongoing and regular communications.  Consider a weekly cadence with value-added information, such as articles relevant to your business.
  • Focus on empathy and building a relationship with your customers and the community at large. Over-deliver on customer service.
  • Develop targeted communication to your best customers. Look for opportunities to help these customers get back to business as normal. 
  • Seek to understand how your customers’ needs are changing and look for creative ways to address them now – and to reposition your products or services for the future
  • Be tactful in pursuing immediate selling opportunities, even if you are in an industry where the demand is surging (safety, health, sanitation, virtual work) 
  • Keep in mind that your actions will have a lasting impact on your customers. For example, one gym let go of all of its employees without any notice because the gym was shut down. They did this presumably so their staff members could get unemployment. Certainly, customers heard of this employee experience and canceled or plan to cancel memberships. Owning the narrative is important before a decision becomes a PR nightmare.

PUBLIC RELATIONS DURING THE PANDEMIC

  • Public relations can be a very effective tool in maintaining consumer and client relations, especially if you are in a service-oriented business. You want them all to know that you are still working hard and serving your customers and clients, despite the difficult environment.
  • Get behind the saying: “People first.” Take clear and well-lit photos and videos of you and your staff working in front of and behind the scenes. If you’re a business where customers are still allowed to come by (like take-out from a restaurant, for example), shoot photos of that as well to show you are actively serving. Shoot a 30-second video of you speaking directly at the camera, explaining what you’re doing to keep things going for your clients and consumers. 
  • Post these photos and videos on all your social media channels daily: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and yes, your home web page. Let your followers, fans, and customers see who you are as people so they can have an emotional stake in you and your business, and ideally, support your efforts. Try to include at least several hashtags with each Instagram post.
  • Secondarily, if you provide products to consumers (like food, for example), post your best photos of them on social media as well. Create special easy-to-buy packages and items and post them on social media too. This is to emphasize your services are as great as they were before the virus hit.
  • National and local TV, radio and online publications are searching every day for good human interest stories about companies who are making the best of a tough situation AND finding time to do something good for other people who are not as fortunate, down on their luck or senior citizens who are barred from visitors. This is an important community gesture for you as well. You need to give the media a good reason to cover you in this context. So…
  • Think of something good you can do for one of those groups, whether it be financial or donations, or some kind of deliveries or good deeds. You can join forces with other companies and/or colleagues, as well as local organizations, and create something genuinely meaningful and generous to do. Again, the key is to make it all about people. Imagine something you’d hear about on TV or radio that would make you smile and say “we should do something like that.”
  • Call the assignment desks of your local TV and radio news stations and let them know in three sentences A) who you are, B) how the virus has adversely affected your business, and C) that despite the setbacks, you are doing this great thing to help others who are not as fortunate. Neighborhood papers all have the editorial staff email addresses and phone numbers on their web sites. If you are doing these good things with colleagues or other organizations, mention them too, and ask them to call the media as well.
  • Reading the local newspapers, listening to the radio, and watching TV will give you ideas of what to do and what works since the media is broadcasting these kinds of stories daily.

PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

  • We will eventually be out of this current situation and while no one knows when and what that will look like, thinking about how you will bring your business back to full capacity is both smart to be ready and refreshing to think positively for the future.
  • Your best customers are the ones you want to retain… figure out who they are (if you don’t already know), reach out to them individually, try and provide some connection and community (free) and value (may cost you a bit).  Tell them they are important to you. Ask them what they need from you at this time, start a conversion. If you can’t get them to spend, at least you can get to understand them better, and these consumer insights will help you when this storm passes.
  • If you are low-resourced at this time, consider partnering with groups of “friendly” competitors or people in your ecosystem to provide value to common customers.  This way you can share resources
  • If you have downtime, consider creating prospective customer lists (if B2B) or partnership proposals to build your brand when “the new normal” settles in
  • Conduct informal consumer insights studies – talk to your best customers/partners to understand their connection to your business and how you can serve their needs even better in the future.  At this time, consumers will want to reminisce about their favorite BC (Before Corona) moments, and its great to understand what needs and emotions your brand evokes
  • Generate content – is there a blog or book that you’ve been meaning to write?  A podcast you’ve always wanted to launch? Use this time to develop content for your business to enrich the brand story and the connection you have with existing customers

 

RESOURCES

Communicating Through the Coronavirus – Harvard Business Review

Crisis Communication Tips for Customer Service Teams – Help Scout

 

Please send suggestions to improve this playbook to pandemic@umbrex.com

 

Contributors:

Valentina Fomenko

Surbhee Grover

Julie Gupta

Drew Kerr

Lilly Liu Minkove

Celine Teoh

Angela Thompson

David Weinberger