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How to avoid communication missteps in the time of COVID-19

Your first instinct might be to close this article. Doesn’t it feel like every business has something to tell you about the coronavirus these days? My inbox is flooded with emails from every coffee shop, hair salon and restaurant I’ve ever visited. I even got a COVID-19 update from the online retailer who makes my glasses.

The world is dealing with a lot right now, and digital communication is one of the only remaining ways businesses can communicate. It’s also the only way a lot of small businesses can ask for help right now. The problem? Digital communication is hard (even when there isn’t a global pandemic going on).

The issues that COVID-19 brings up aren’t new; the stakes are just higher. At Brave New Word, we’ve been thinking about how brands can tell stories empathetically and authentically for a long time. Those strategies have never been more important, so we wanted to share a few tips to help your business avoid some of the pitfalls of crisis communication.

Remember, your customers are struggling, too.

It’s easy to be passionate about your business, but when your customers are also feeling scared and disrupted, that passion can easily sound demanding. Instead of focusing on what you need from others, focus on what you can provide that will make their lives easier.

For example, if you’re a local preschool, don’t respond to your families’ questions about tuition reimbursement with a panicked email about how you need their tuition to stay afloat. While that may be true, it ignores the fact that your customers are struggling, too and puts your needs ahead of theirs. Instead, respond by letting them know you understand how hard this must be for them. Commit to providing at-home lesson plans and videos for their children. Let them know you’d be grateful for their financial support in return and that you are analyzing your own financial situation to see how you can help with discounts, etc. It may seem like a subtle difference, but a little empathy can go a long way.

Show the people behind your business.

If it’s hard for you to conceptualize your business’ story, start with your people. What impact is your business having? How are you people getting involved? Who are you using your resources to help?

I recently came across a perfect example of this in a post from my local YMCA on social media. The organization explained that keeping your YMCA membership during COVID-19 helps them provide childcare for first responders. Knowing my money is helping people makes me a lot more inclined to help than if I was left to assume it was just padding a bank account. People don’t relate to big organizations; they relate to their community.

Be tangible and start small.

Now, more than ever, the words you choose matter. Your audience is processing massive amounts of information. When every small business is asking for help, it’s easy for the people to get overwhelmed and shut down (especially when your customers are already putting most of their energy into another problem — you know, the big, scary, virus-y one).

This is not the time to be vague. If your business has a specific need, be specific. If you can’t pay your employees, create an online fund where donations go directly toward your staff — and let people know that’s the case. Start with a small, manageable need, and go from there.

At Brave New Word, we’ve always believed that the stories businesses tell matter. That’s because stories help people see themselves as a part of something bigger. And in this time of isolation and anxiety, compassionate and well-communicated stories might just be what gets us through to the other side.


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