Tough crowd: knowing your audience the key to communicating during COVID-19

Tough crowd: knowing your audience the key to communicating during COVID-19

How brands and businesses should be responding – and what’s next – according to Herd MSL’s Group Managing Director, Skye Lambley.

It is astounding to think about how much has changed in such a short period of time.

The challenges brands and companies faced two months ago compared with now are worlds apart.

We don’t yet know what the post-COVID-19 world will look like – some are referring to it as the ‘next normal’. Others say there is no normal anymore.

A month after the World Health Organisation officially declared it a global pandemic, there are a number of interesting learnings to take from the way some leaders and companies have communicated to their audiences.

Some key recommendations emerge; the first of which shows the importance of listening to your audiences.

Remain audience-first

It’s critical for businesses to understand what their audiences are concerned about, what they need, and how to help or reassure them now and into the future. Consider four main groups: employees, customers, the wider community and the board or shareholders.

Understand that employees may be worried about losing their jobs and what that would mean for their families. In a study of crisis communication after 9/11, many employees described how important it was to hear the voice of their leader in the aftermath. Employees want to know that you are in this with them. Times of crisis can highlight holes within an organisation, but they can also foster employee appreciation and loyalty, if handled well.

Customers are likely thinking about impacts on service, availability, accessibly or cost. They are wondering how the company is handling refunds, if they’re providing relief – for example, if they’re a health fund, utility business, or day-care centre – and what they can expect in the weeks to come.

The sheer scale of this crisis means no one is untouched by this pandemic, making the community a key stakeholder for communications. At the very least, organisations should work hard to ensure their actions do not negatively affect members of the community. However, it’s also a time to enhance relationships with the local communities in which you operate. Providing resources such as cleaning supplies or food for vulnerable communities and those in quarantine can enhance the organisation’s credibility.

As for shareholders and the board, the epidemic has created intense volatility in the financial markets in the last months. With earnings season just around the corner, publicly-listed companies have a special responsibility to communicate the impact of the virus on their operations. Companies need to ensure transparency around short-term challenges, and communicate what they’re doing about the problem now – and future possibilities for when it evolves. They should also consider using the crisis as an opportunity to reinforce the corporation’s long-term fundamentals.

Respond with empathy, and do it quickly

Once you’ve adopted these-audience specific lenses and ascertained what each group needs it is then vital to adopt an empathetic approach to your communications with each. How you communicate and when you reach out matters as much as what you’re saying.

According to a 2019 State of the Workplace Empathy Report, nine out of 10 employees, HR directors and CEOs in the US, believe that it’s important for an organisation to demonstrate empathy. In times of crisis, the need for empathy is further heightened.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has become a symbol for leading with empathy, and her communications during the COVID-19 crisis have also been among the strongest. She has been clear, articulate, used simple visuals and taken decisive action.

Ardern has displayed her human, empathetic side; after putting her toddler to bed, she hosted a Facebook Live Q&A focused on coronavirus from her couch, inviting the audience into her home. She held a press conference just for children with Dr Siouxsie Wiles and scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, who specialise in science communication for kids, to help translate the messages to a different audience. She’s also created a ‘Conversations on COVID-19’ series, and recently interviewed psychologist, Nigel Latta, on tips and tricks to help New Zealanders in this difficult period.

Businesses should take note of Ardern’s approach – operate with empathy, communicate simply and swiftly to each audience, and be proactive, transparent and visible.

Words are necessary, but not enough: time for action

Employees, customers, communities and shareholders will decide if brands have acted meaningfully but companies ultimately need to possess a willingness to act, an ability to execute, and authenticity in delivery.

There is room for creativity but they should stay true to their brand and tone-of-voice. Revisiting the company purpose and developing a list of initiatives that make sense for the business is a great place to start.

Automotive companies like General Motors, Ford and Tesla have switched to manufacturing much-needed ventilators; alcohol and perfume makers are similarly now producing hand sanitiser.

Other organisations have forged partnerships to make a difference – Virgin Australia teaming up with OzHarvest to redistribute the leftover food from its out-of-use aircraft and empty lounges to hungry Australians.

There’s even been partnerships within the same industry between those who would ordinarily be business rivals, such as between the banks, telcos and even the Australian parliament.

Be a positive beacon in choppy seas

We don’t know how long this will last, or how much change is yet in store.

When the urgency subsides, companies need to investigate what COVID-19 changes for them, and what they can learn from it. They may need to re-think and re-design strategies, branding, workforce, supply chains, operations, finance and liquidity.

But for now, firm and clear leadership will stand organisations in good stead for when we do emerge in our post-COVID-19 world. After all, people remember how you made them feel in their dark days – and are quick to make long-lasting judgements about the competence and ethics of the CEO or chair during times of crisis.

 

About Skye Lambley

Skye Lambley is the Group Managing Director at Herd MSL. She is a results-driven, commercially astute, communications professional, with extensive experience driving programs that impact business. With 20 years of corporate communications experience representing brands in Australia and across Asia Pacific, Skye joined Herd business, N2N Communications in November 2018.

Working in many diverse sectors, Skye’s passion is in solving complex business problems by delivering creative ideas that are skilfully executed through integrated communications campaigns.

Previous to Herd, Skye was a senior leader at OPR where she lead Corporate, B2B and Technology team and spent years leading the Microsoft, Telstra and Intel Asia Pacific agency teams. Skye also led the Social, Digital and Content team at OPR, helping clients take advantage of new and emerging technologies and platforms to engage stakeholders (employees, customers, partners, investors, etc.). Her other client experience includes Audi, Salesforce, Nearmap and SAP to name a few.

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