Nothing is scarier for a communications professional than pushing out a message that falls flat – or worse – appears insensitive or out-of-touch during a crisis. Countless organizations are paralyzed by the fear of making this mistake amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Sitting atop paused marketing and PR plans, these professionals are facing the realization that it is time to risk this fear and move past the question of whether to adapt their messaging and into the realm of how.

Fortunately, whereas there are no crystal balls, there is a lot to be learned from our friend Google and looking at the patterns of news coverage corresponding with outbreaks of COVID-19 in countries who are ahead of us in the emergence of the disease. To help communicators anticipate the environment we’re likely to see as the pandemic impact continues, I’ve outlined “phases” of the pandemic crisis below, highlighting the likely news coverage landscape, implications for communications strategy and messaging, and areas of needed crisis communication preparedness.

Phase 1: Crisis Emergence – Strategy: Status Updates

The first phase, Crisis Emergence, has already passed, as COVID-19 began emerging in local communities. First social distancing was a voluntary suggestion, plaguing larger conferences, air travel and tourist destinations, and then mandated on a widespread scale by regional governments. Marketing priorities included evaluating current marketing and “pulling” anything that could appear counter to social distancing or, worse, out of touch with the threat of the coming pandemic. Communications moved at lightning speed and focused on more immediate audiences – internal and customer, and, only if time, stakeholder and external. Announcements were courteous to the current situation, but overall fairly brief and fact-filled. I refer to these communications as “Status Updates” which sought to boost safety, alter or close physical locales, and address immediate economic impact. As much as marketers wanted to keep an eye on the future, 16-hour-days to make minute-by-minute decisions and communicate them quickly, kept the focus on the present.

Phase 2: Crisis Growth – Strategy: Solidarity and Support

As many organizations enter multiple weeks of slowed spending by their customers, impact on business has already been felt, and companies are trimming where they can. This begs the question – at a time when so many people are struggling, is it worth marketing at all, or could we appear insensitive? The short answer is, yes, it is important to keep communicating. History has shown that organizations who continue to market during a difficult period have the best chance of emerging with resilience on the other side.

The hesitation to market is an understandable one, similar to the psychological quandary that kind-hearted, well-meaning individuals face when a friend experiences a tragedy, such as a family member passing or someone becoming ill. The individual may wonder, perhaps it’s better if I don’t say anything, and rationalizes, they probably don’t want to talk about it anyway. In reality, it is typically far more harmful to stay silent (and therefore appear cold or out-of-touch) than to express your concern.

The truth is the same when thinking about the audience of your brand in a time of crisis. It is always better to acknowledge a tough situation and to show you care. Your brand is the encapsulation of the personality of your organization, and represents the “relationship” you’ve earned and the promise you’ve made with your customers. You wouldn’t leave your friend hanging in a time of need, so don’t be tempted to do the same with your audiences or customers. They want to hear from you, to understand the actions you are taking, but also want to know how you feel, how you are reacting and how you are evolving. The tangible message points are important here, but so are the less tangible – tone, frequency, context, etc.

During the Crisis Growth phase of the COVID-19 crisis, organizations should focus their communications on “Solidarity and Support,” expressing their acknowledgement and gratitude for those on the frontlines and sharing their own efforts to support. This will be critical for proper positioning amidst headlines that will turn to an increasingly negative narrative. We’ll see reporting on increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, updates on how businesses and individuals are using stimulus money, and quick news flashes reporting every marginally well-known individual who contracts the disease.

Consumers of the news will look to gain temporary reprieve with spotlights on the brands that are stepping up, providing some much-needed good news, as we are seeing today. Thank you, Miller Lite, for replacing your ill-received “friends meet up” commercial with a Virtual Tip Jar to drive aid to a very relevant audience hurt by the COVID-19 crisis. And props to Ford for partnering with 3M and GE Healthcare to create more medical equipment and supplies for health care workers, first responders and patients. We’ll continue hearing how companies are stepping up to stand behind their employees as CEOs and executives announce voluntary reductions in their salaries. Special shout out to Gatesman’s client National Vision, as CEO Reade Fahs announces that he and several other executives will reduce their salaries to $1 through the end of the year.

Expectations of brands for how they are contributing in the face of COVID-19, even at incredible financial losses to business, have never been higher. According to a recent Edelman Trust Barometer special report, 90% of respondents want brands to work with government and relief agencies and 50% say helping out is a must for earning or keeping their trust. If your organization has the opportunity to make a real difference through donations or operational challenges, acting quickly will be key, so you are ahead of customer expectations. For those organizations not in a position to share these kinds of resources or gifts, communications that demonstrate respect for health care workers, delivery and grocery industries will be welcome, but these messages should be pure of intent. Never connect these types of communications with a call to action related to your business, such as linking to a place to purchase a product or learn more about your offerings. Including your logo and brand colors or simply sharing the content from your social pages is “credit” enough.

Phase 3: Crisis Peak – Strategy: Mourning, Respect and Contribution

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation currently projects that COVID-19 cases in the U.S. will peak on April 15, 2020. News coverage for the following four to six weeks will be tough to take in this country, as reports of the struggling healthcare system and supply shortages will be speckled with news of deaths – death count totals; spotlights on individual, tragic stories; announcements of “first” deaths – first politician, first celebrity, first local doctor. Other negative news spurred by fear will make headlines, such as threats (and potentially realities) of riots and gangs, polarization in diversity, and other unpleasant topics will be a reality. Marketers will need to think hard about this landscape as it will be more important than ever not to appear tone deaf.

Communicators can mitigate risk while staying visible by focusing efforts in the areas of “Mourning, Respect and Contribution.” Appropriate communications will include commemorations of those who have sacrificed, fought, and inspired during our darkest times. There will remain an expectation for organizations to step up to help, and there will be even more scrutiny about remaining tasteful when communicating these efforts, so the best practices from the section above still apply.

By no means am I suggesting brands go completely “dark” during this time. It is important to maintain communications – just with the utmost respect. It is also a time to be preparing for the next phase.

The reality is that the after-effects of COVID-19 will be felt for months, and for those who have experienced personal losses – of loved ones, of jobs, of security – this will continue well beyond. The world we emerge in will have completely different behavior paradigms. With the scary reality that COVID-19 could re-emerge, organizations cannot just announce that they are back to business as usual, they will have to announce how they have adapted to be more resilient should COVID-19 or another threat return. Organizations who are ahead of the game may preview these plans in the media, a hint of what is to come in the longest phase yet…

Phase 4: Crisis Adjustment – Strategy: Commitment, Vision and Change

The positive side of me wants to name this phase Crisis Rebound or Crisis Resilience; the pessimist side toyed with Crisis Aftershock; but the realist in me has gone with Crisis Adjustment.

This period will be a long one, as the impact of the crisis will have lasting negative effects, and at this point, organizations will need to have a clear focus on “Commitment, Vision and Change.”
Negative news will continue to be the norm. While lifts of stay-at-home orders, non-essential business closures and travel bans will help stimulate aspects of the economy, realistically, many businesses will not survive. News of bankruptcies for many organizations will continue to make headlines, and unemployment will remain a serious concern.

Negativity will also be fueled by the pending election, which will increase polarization and add fuel to the blame-game fire. Frustrated and grieving loved ones of COVID-19 victims will ban together in lawsuits, and the unemployed will become an important voting block as fear of recession or worse looms.

To say there will be a hunger for good news is a bit of an understatement.

Fortunately, communicators in this phase will finally be able to focus on a future-looking message. In fact, organizations will be expected to share a clear perspectives on how COVID-19 has led them to adjust their go-forward strategy. This will include the softer side, such as reinforcing the importance of the organization’s mission, and also the “harder” side, such as how operations will change to help organizations operate with less risk in a forever-changed world. For example, consider the health care providers who will shift more significantly to remote medicine, enabling greater fluidity between in-person and virtual interactions to more easily adapt to social distancing needs for at risk individuals. Think about the grocery industry’s likely move to home delivery; and don’t expect plexiglass partitions to go away any time soon. It will be a foreign concept to see a cashier face-to-face versus through glass in far more settings than the grocery check-outs.

So many changes may be beyond what we can imagine at this point, and will result in dramatically altered business models and areas of focus. Who would have imagined Open Table would smartly pivot to let people leverage its technology to reserve grocery appointments versus tables? Resourceful organizations will find a way to adapt, and communicators must be prepared to share their organizations’ unique stories or risk falling behind the curve.

Phase 5: Crisis Resilience – Strategy: New World, New Reality

And, finally, the phase we are all waiting for – Crisis Resilience, when brands can return to the “new normal.” In this new world, the election passing will help markets, and portions of the economy will see gains. New policy and legislative changes will be announced. New pandemic insurance offerings will become a staple, and organizations will have pandemic policies in place. Health will become not just a national focus, but will be considered a civic responsibility.

So many marketers have asked, “Will I be able to return to my current marketing when this is all over?” I think the question depends on whether the organization and the values it holds dear are still the same after emerging into this new world. If they are – and I highly suspect this will be the minority situation – then sure. But organizations and their marketing and communications teams should dig deep and be brave enough to outline how their vision and values have shifted, what their new brand proposition is for their audiences, and reinvent their marketing to match this new world.

While thinking through these futures states and the challenges ahead can be daunting, it’s important to take a deep breath and remember that adapting to the changing landscape has always been critical for successful businesses and their marketers. In this future world, the “winners” will be those who champion authentic problem-solving for their customers, whose actions speak louder than words, and who are willing and able to pivot their messaging to be relevant to their audiences. Those who successfully emerge as leaders post-pandemic will have learned and embraced these lessons, which are best practices that will continue to support success well beyond this period of crisis.